YouTube and Facebook promoted a right-wing conspiracy about a Florida shooting survivor

  • YouTube promoted a video featuring a conspiracy theory claiming that one of the survivors of the school shooting last week in Parkland, Florida, is a paid actor.
  • Facebook also promoted the conspiracy in its trending news section. The company says it will remove hoax content related to the survivors.
  • The YouTube video was first in the site’s list of trending videos Wednesday morning. It was later removed.
  • YouTube and Facebook continue to struggle with people gaming their sites to spread false news.

YouTube on Wednesday promoted a video claiming to show evidence that one of the survivors of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, is a paid actor. The video appeared in the top position in the site’s trending section on Wednesday morning before being removed from the section later in the morning after several news stories and tweets about it started to spread.

The conspiracy video was at the top of YouTube's trending chart on Wednesday.

The conspiracy video was at the top of YouTube’s trending chart on Wednesday.

The video shows a local news clip featuring David Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who has made several news appearances over the past few days calling for gun control. The segment comes from a CBS Los Angeles newscast from last summer that shows Hogg telling a reporter how he got into an argument with a lifeguard. Conspiracy theorists say the clip is proof that Hogg shows up in media appearances as a paid actor.

Searching for Hogg’s name on YouTube also brought up a large number of conspiracy videos as the top results.

david hogg youtube search results conspiracy theories


A YouTube representative told Business Insider in a written statement that the conspiracy video made it to the top of the site’s trending section by mistake, slipping through the site’s safeguards because it contained a clip from an “authoritative news source.”

Here’s YouTube’s statement:

“This video should never have appeared in Trending. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.”

As for the conspiracy videos that were showing up in YouTube search results, a company spokeswoman sent a followup statement that said changes to the site’s search algorithm designed to promote news from authoritative sources doesn’t always work.

Here’s that second statement from YouTube:

“In 2017, we started rolling out changes to better surface authoritative news sources in search results, particularly around breaking news events. We’ve seen improvements, but in some circumstances these changes are not working quickly enough. In addition, last year we updated the application of our harassment policy to include hoax videos that target the victims of these tragedies. Any video flagged to us that violates this policy is reviewed and then removed. We’re committed to making more improvements throughout 2018 to make these tools faster, better and more useful to users.”

Many of the videos were removed from YouTube search results by Wednesday afternoon.

Hogg has become a central figure in the far right’s effort to discredit the survivors of last week’s shooting as they call for tighter gun-control laws.

Facebook encountered similar problems with conspiracy videos Wednesday. Hogg was one of the top topics in Facebook’s Trending module. Clicking his name brought up several videos and articles promoting the conspiracy that he’s a paid actor.

david hogg trending on facebook conspiracy videos


A written statement from Mary deBree, Facebook’s head of content policy, which was sent to Business Insider through a spokeswoman, said the company will take down the hoax content. However, some of the content promoting the conspiracy theories about Hogg and his fellow students were still in the trending section as of Wednesday afternoon. Hogg’s name disappeared from the Trending section on Facebook late in the afternoon.

“Images that attack the victims of last week’s tragedy in Florida are abhorrent. We are removing this content from Facebook,” deBree said in a statement.

Over the past several months, YouTube in the wake of major news events has repeatedly failed to weed out intentionally misleading news and conspiracy theories from its trending sections, search results, and other corners of the site that use algorithms. Such events include the mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall as well as the Amtrak crash involving Republican members of Congress.

YouTube has said it changed its search algorithms in hopes of promoting news videos from only “trusted” sources. The company has also said it plans to hire thousands of human content moderators to make sure videos comply with its policies. So far, those efforts haven’t solved the problem.

Facebook has made similar promises to weed out hoaxes and fake news. The company also said it plans hire thousands of human content moderators and will start promoting content from “trusted” news sources in the News Feed. Facebook said it will ask users which news outlets they trust through surveys, but hasn’t said how it’ll keep users from gaming the system.

The trending YouTube video had more than 200,000 views Wednesday morning before it was removed.