The Notre Dame cathedral on fire on Monday. Photo: Philippe Wang/Getty Images

As YouTube viewers Monday followed the latest news updates from the fire at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, some saw a gray box at the bottom of their screens that had excerpts and links to encyclopedia articles on the 9/11 attacks.

The big picture: These "information panels" pop up automatically as part of a YouTube program aimed at combatting conspiracy-theory-style misinformation — but in this case they arguably promoted such theories instead.

Details: It's unclear why the information panel feature kicked in.

  • Perhaps YouTube's pattern-matching algorithm found similarities in flaming-building visuals.
  • Maybe YouTube detected markers of conspiracy thinking in the comments on these news streams.
  • Some parts of Twitter were already abuzz with hate-filled, evidence-free musings about Muslims being responsible for the fire. Authorities are saying that a renovation project at the historic site was likely to blame.
  • YouTube turned off the information panels quickly.

Our thought bubble: The way conspiracy thinking works, the very fact that YouTube briefly linked the two events and then deleted the information might just "prove" to some observers that something fishy was going on.

  • We don't know how many news streams of the Notre Dame fire triggered the 9/11 link, and YouTube didn't answer the question, but observers on Twitter posted screenshots from CBS, NBC and France24 with the same gray boxes.
  • Any visitor to those pages — we also don't know how many there were — would at least have wondered what YouTube thought the Notre Dame fire had to do with 9/11. Or, worse, come away believing that the content providers themselves believed the two events were connected.

What they're saying:

"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 like Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia 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."
— YouTube spokesperson

Background: YouTube announced the information panel plan a year ago.

  • “When there are videos that are focused around something that’s a conspiracy — and we’re using a list of well-known internet conspiracies from Wikipedia — then we will show a companion unit of information from Wikipedia showing that here is information about the event,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said at the South by Southwest 2018 interactive festival, per The Verge.

Between the lines: This incident underscores the fiendish difficulties big platforms still face when handling breaking news events, even after years of focus on combating misinformation.

  • Human monitors can't keep up with the scale, and algorithms fail at the most basic tasks.

The bottom line: Tech companies approach software as a game of incremental improvement. YouTube's information panels will doubtless work better at handling this particular problem tomorrow — but by then, there will be new problems.

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