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As Paris burns, platforms stumble

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April 15 · Issue #315 · View online
The Interface
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The Notre Dame Cathedral inspires so much awe in visitors that seemingly everyone who steps inside it feels a powerful, and personal, sense of connection to it. I visited it myself for the first time two years ago and, like everyone else I know, was thrilled by its foreboding Gothic architecture. In spite of myself, I snapped a couple dozen pictures. Even knowing that every inch of the building had already been documented by far better photographers than me, I felt overwhelmed by the need to take a piece of Notre Dame home with me.
And so to watch the cathedral burn today — helplessly, on a Periscope stream — was a tragedy. And while nothing will match the horror of seeing the world lose one of its most beautiful structures, the calamity showed once again how unprepared tech platforms are to process news events in real time. Conspiracy-minded goons continue to twist real-time events into nefarious plots in the absence of any facts, and platforms’ viral sharing mechanics help their narratives dominate users’ attention while the truth is still being uncovered.
At BuzzFeed, Jane Lytvynenko shows how one Twitter account misrepresenting itself as CNN falsely stated that the fire was the work of terrorists, and how another misrepresenting itself as Fox News posted a fake quote from a Muslim congresswoman allegedly saying “they reap what they sow.” (She said no such thing.) Both accounts put “parody” in their bios, but their visual branding copied CNN and Fox News exactly, there was nothing evidently parodic about their tweets, and few people likely clicked to check their bios before retweeting them.
On Facebook, a 2016 story about a plot to blow up a car outside the cathedral was linked from a site that regularly spreads Islamophobic misinformation, with no clear sign that it was totally unrelated to the fire. (Facebook’s story designs don’t make it clear when pages re-share older articles.)
And on YouTube, well … this happened. From Chris Welch:
A fire has broken out at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral today, and, as you’d expect, many news networks are offering live coverage of the breaking situation. What’s a little more unusual is that YouTube seemed to temporarily mix up the unfortunate burning of a historic cathedral with the 9/11 New York City terror attacks.
Underneath live streams from CBS and others, viewers saw an explainer for the September 11th, 2001, attacks. These two things are completely unrelated, and there has been no indication that the Notre Dame fire is a result of terrorism or even criminal arson.
The whole reason for the panel’s existence is to fight misinformation. And so the fact that a YouTube algorithm took a look at a video of a cathedral on fire and linked it to a terrorism attack is profoundly unfortunate. “These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call,” a YouTube spokesperson told welch. “We are disabling these panels for live streams related to the fire.”
If ever there were a case for "these panels” to be “triggered” editorially by humans, rather than algorithmically by math, a project designed to fight misinformation and conspiracy theories would surely be it.
Of course, it didn’t help that the president of the United States — while the building was still on fire — made these bizarrely conspiracy-tinged remarks: “"They think it was caused by, at this moment, they don’t know, but they think it was caused by renovation. And I hope that’s the reason. Renovation, you know, what’s that all about?”
I don’t want to overstate the case here: none of this misinformation went truly viral, and I imagine that most people who read about the fire will find an accurate account of what happened.
But it’s easy to imagine how the combination of irresponsible speechifying by an elected official, combined with platform-related mishaps, will empower cathedral fire truthers. And even if you think some level of conspiracy theorizing is inevitable after a catastrophe, it’s possible to wish social media companies didn’t so powerfully enable their spread.
Until then, I’m reading personal accounts of what Notre Dame meant to Paris and the world. Here’s a nice one from Mohamed A. El-Erian in Bloomberg. Here’s a history of royal moments at the cathedral from Ella Kay. And here’s a photo I took of the great church in 2017, when it still seemed as eternal as the Seine.

Democracy
EU countries give final approval to copyright reform aimed at Google and Facebook
Facebook to introduce livestreaming restrictions this month
WhatsApp Users Spread Antivaccine Rumors in India
US White Nationalists Barred by Facebook Find Haven on Russia Site
China Wins Allies for Web Vision in Ideological Battle With U.S.
After WhatsApp and Facebook, TikTok fights fake news in India
Silicon Valley’s self-regulating days "probably should be" over, Nancy Pelosi says
Starz Apologizes for Taking Down Tweets to Torrentfreak Article Following Security Breach
Andrew Yang unveils plans to campaign remotely using a 3D hologram
Elsewhere
Facebook nominates Peggy Alford, first African American woman, to its board of directors
Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were down for more than two hours
Facebook accidentally put hidden messages like 'Big Brother is Watching' and 'The Masons Were Here' in 'tens of thousands' of VR controllers
Facebook spent $20 million last year on Zuckerberg's personal security, up 4 times from 2016
Tinder becomes the top-grossing, non-game app in Q1 2019, ending Netflix’s reign
The first picture of a black hole made Katie Bouman an overnight celebrity. Then internet trolls descended.
Millions Are Obsessed With Vine Compilations on YouTube. Now There's a Battle Brewing Over Who Should Get Paid
Launches
Facebook prototypes a swipeable hybrid carousel of feed posts & Stories
Facebook Messenger could be returning to the main Facebook app
You no longer have to moon someone to get Facebook Messenger’s dark mode
Twitch’s first-ever video game is a free karaoke title built for live streaming
Takes
Facebook Is Stealing Your Family’s Joy
And finally ...
Twitter secretly verified Jack Dorsey's mom and thousands of others despite 'pause'
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your Notre Dame photos: casey@theverge.com.
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