YouTube's fact-check tool backfires, fuels baseless terrorism link to Notre-Dame blaze

YouTube's algorithms mistakenly displayed details about the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks below videos of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire.
YouTube's algorithms mistakenly displayed details about the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks below videos of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • YouTube's defences against misinformation just backfired in a big way - and ended up contributing to baseless speculation online that the Notre-Dame cathedral fire resulted from a terrorist attack.

As news organisations and others used the service to broadcast the collapse of the spire in Paris, YouTube's algorithms mistakenly displayed details about the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York in "information panels" below the videos.

While these fact-checking tools are designed to counter hoaxes, they likely fed false rumours online. People falsely claimed Muslim terrorists caused the incident, even as Paris officials said the fire was likely due to ongoing renovations and there was no sign of a terrorist attack.

Tech companies are increasingly promising that investments in artificial intelligence and algorithms will be a crucial component of their arsenal of tools to combat violent content, disinformation or other hoaxes.

But Monday's high-profile mistake - on the heels of another recent failure to quickly stop the spread of violent videos of the terrorist attack in New Zealand last month - underscores how this technology is still error-prone and unreliable.

And it is raising questions about the efficacy of leaving such decisions to machines.

YouTube said in a statement: "We are deeply saddened by the ongoing fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral. Last year, we launched information panels with links to third-party sources... for subjects subject to misinformation.

"These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call. We are disabling these panels for live streams related to the fire."

WASHINGTON POST

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2019, with the headline 'YouTube's fact-check tool backfires'. Print Edition | Subscribe