Exposing Twitter's Tragedy Trolls

Twitter trolls were out in force within hours of the shooting at YouTube headquarters. Malicious pranksters misidentified 25 different suspects as the shooter. Some tweeted pictures of possible victims. One even hacked a survivor’s account. And in the process, they underscored one of the social media platform’s biggest issues.

Twitter is central to journalism. Its ideal for following live events as they unfold. But it’s also perfect for spreading misinformation.

BuzzFeed News reporter Jane Lytvynenko knows that all too well.

“It makes me wonder how this became the new normal,” she says. “How did this become a part of the narrative we currently exist in?”

During mass shootings or terrorist attacks, trolls and spammers quickly spread rumors and misinformation about false suspects, motives and conspiracies. Lytvynenko’s job includes compiling lists of Twitter hoaxes to help people determine what’s fake.

After the YouTube shooting she co-authored a piece outlining Twitter’s trouble with misinformation. While she created a list of the ongoing hoaxes, soon enough Lytvynenko herself became a target.

“They claimed that I was the suspect at one point,” Lytvynenko says with a chuckle. “So that was new.”

The hoaxes and lies are part of an misinformation chain that goes beyond Twitter. Misidentification schemes and other nefarious plans are discussed on sites like 4chan before being spread on social media. If everything goes according to plan, a fringe news publication will pick up the misinformation and run with it.

“That pipeline is very real,” Lytvynenko says. “It’s an ecosystem. Twitter is a big part of that ecosystem, but it’s not the only part.”

Figuring out how to shut down the pipeline is the million dollar question. Both Twitter and Facebook have announced intended crackdowns on misinformation, but actual plans are a mystery. Social media literacy is the next best thing, and it’s what hoax-listing reporters like Lytvynenko promote. She believes a better understanding of the people behind this troubling behavior is also vital. With every tragedy, trolls and their hoaxes are bound to become more complex and sinister.

“They’re doing it with such joy that it seems like a game,” she says. “And that’s what worries me.”