Demonstrating just how poorly designed its algorithms intended to filter out 'conspiratorial' content can be, particularly when reacting in real time to a breaking news event, YouTube has apologized after its recently launched conspiracy-filtering feature accidentally tagged a livestream of the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral as a '9/11 conspiracy' video.
As Bloomberg pointed out, shortly after the fire broke out, several news organizations launched live streams of the horrific blaze on YouTube.
Below a stream from France24 and several other channels, a box of text appeared bearing a snippet from Encyclopedia Britannica about the 9/11 attacks, indicating that the footage had been mistakenly labeled a 9/11 conspiracy video.
YouTube introduced the text boxes last year, but in recent months has taken steps to suppress content it deems 'conspiratorial', filtering them out of search results for related topics to prevent the content from corrupting the minds of unsuspecting users.
A YouTube spokesman apologized for the error and said these labels are assigned by algorithms that occasionally make mistakes.
"We are deeply saddened by the ongoing fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral," said a YouTube spokesman. "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."
The mistake was widely mocked on Twitter.
I'm so glad we let tech platforms eat the journalism industry.— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) April 15, 2019
Now, I can sit and watch a live stream of Notre Dame burning while YouTube's fake news widget tells me about 9/11 for some reason. pic.twitter.com/FhAtE4DqtB
Why in the world is @YouTube putting information about 9/11 underneath the Notre Dame livestream from @FRANCE24?— Joshua Benton (@jbenton) April 15, 2019
(Especially since it seems like, at least right now, ongoing renovations are the most likely cause, no indication of terror) https://t.co/A3HP36epxx pic.twitter.com/ZheCMC5pcG
This is so crazy! When I looked up videos of the Notre Dame fire in Paris, YouTube put links to an encyclopedia entry on the September 11 attacks.— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 15, 2019
This was on multiple channels: France 24, CBS, and ABC.
We have no evidence this is an attack. But YouTube linked it to 9/11. Why?! pic.twitter.com/UIxpPCQAqx
And as one reporter astutely reported, YouTube's new tool meant to filter out false information is doing the exact opposite.
youtube's new tool for combatting conspiracy theories actually now risks fuelling misinformation by drawing false comparisons between the Notre Dame fire and 9/11 https://t.co/EbttTL6wdR— Rob Price (@robaeprice) April 15, 2019
But sure - let's continue to allow tech firms to decide what information is fit for public consumption. Because clearly they're doing such a great job.