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How I Accidentally Made a Fake Picture Go Viral

by Mike Rothschild

May 19, 2014

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Donate As if I didn’t already know this, social media has the power to take information, no matter how factual or dubious, and send it rocketing out into the world in no time flat. As a blogger for Skeptoid, I’ve debunked a number of conspiracy theories, false claims, urban legends and fact-free listicles that have grown from seeds first planted on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other sharing sites.

There are many, many other writers who do the same thing, with far more alacrity than I. Some concentrate solely on debunking fake or out of context pictures, photos that get tens of thousands of retweets and shares, despite often depicting something that never happened.

Needless to say, I never dreamed I’d accidentally pump up some of that same nonsense that I work so hard to deflate. And yet, I did, purely as a way to mock a silly political event.

So what happened? How did I send an out-of-context picture flying around Twitter to the point where multiple major news figures were asking me about it? And what can we learn from the experience?

It all started with the Tea Party.

Organized by self-described “patriots,” Operation American Spring was to be a convergence of America-loving Americans marching on Washington DC to oust President Obama and his cronies from their positions of power. It grew as a response to the Cliven Bundy kerfuffle, was pumped up by far-right blogs and news sources, and quickly became a hot topic on social media.

The leader of the “movement,” retired Army Col. Harry Riley, was interviewed by conspiracy-mongering website Before It’s News and nicely summed up the group’s goal:
We are calling for the removal of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, and Eric Holder as a start toward constitutional restoration. […] They have all abandoned the US Constitution, are unworthy to be retained in a position that calls for servant status.
The rally itself was planned for May 16th, and organizers estimated that roughly 10 to 30 million freedom-loving Americans would march on the White House, force the removal of the Obama regime, and enact the first steps to restoring our freedom and liberty.

They were only off by about 10 to 30 million people. For whatever reason (undue optimism, liberal sabotage, etc.) Operation American Spring fizzled. While I don’t have actual numbers of attendees, it’s clear from pictures taken at the event that only a few hundred people loved their country enough to “take it back” and even the rally's organizers deemed it a miserable failure. Mockers of the rally far outnumbered those who went, and as such, they hijacked the Twitter hashtag #OperationAmericanSpring.

And that’s where I came in.

The morning of the 16th, I fired off this quick joke tweet:
The gentleman on the right is waiving a flag with a KKK emblem, the child in the middle is waiving the so-called “Christian flag,” and the man on the left is waiving the old Flag of Georgia Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” It’s NOT from Operation American Spring, but instead is from a Klan rally in Augusta, Georgia in 2010. The picture is real, the context is not. Was this something a good skeptic would do? Probably not. But I meant it as nothing more than an observation about the racist proclivities of certain members of the American far right. And it's not as if I'm making that up. It doesn’t take much effort to find pictures from other Tea Party-affiliated rallies showing incredibly racist signs and banners, along with Confederate flags waiving, so I didn’t think I was too far off the mark with my joke. But nonetheless, it was meant only as a joke, and I assumed few people would see it. So imagine my surprise when I came back to Twitter about an hour later and found hundreds of notifications waiting for me. The picture had been picked up by several prominent Tweeters who assumed it was real, and sent it out to their followers. Between retweets of both my tweet and other retweets, it was shared over 1,000 times. Multiple writers for prominent news websites asked me if I was at the rally and if I could take more pictures. And I had numerous replies, more than I could read, either confirming the racism of the rally or insulting me for sending out something fake. Needless to say, this was never what I intended. I immediately went back onto Twitter and posted the following explanation:

But given that nonsense itself gets shared much more than the debunking of said nonsense, the tweet continued racing around, and I kept getting replies telling me it was fake, as well as numerous replies fearing for the safety of the child in the picture, and others pulling me into political arguments I had no interest in joining.

It was fascinating how different people could interpret the same thing in radically different ways. Some people truly believed the Klan members and the child were real rally attendees. Some people thought they were liberal disinfo agents planted there to discredit the rally. And others thought I was a liberal disinfo agent, tasked with making the rally look bad on Twitter by sending out a fake picture.

The reality is that none of those things were true. It was just a picture I posted as a joke, that some people believed was real because the American far right has a brand that’s been badly damaged by racism and rampant conspiracy theorizing.

After 24 hours, the hubbub had died down, and the Internet had moved on to fighting over the next out-of-context picture. But the picture had been retweeted several thousand times, and fooled a lot of people.

So what did I learn from the experience? And how can I stop it from happening again?

1. Anything can go viral. The vast majority of things don’t, but if it’s out in the public, no matter how innocent or joking, it has the potential to go wider and wider. So whether it’s a cute cat video or a racist tweet, keep in mind that everything could be seen by everyone.

2. Context is impossible to trend. Most of the pictures that have to be debunked are real things that have been given a context that doesn’t apply to them. Think of the “Fukushima radiation map” image " it’s the most innocuous thing you can imagine, but thanks to hundreds of thousands of shares with no context, it’s looked at as a map of death.

3. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. Deleting something that’s accidentally gone viral only makes you look like you’re trying to hide something, and most people will never see the explanation. My tweets explaining what happened got virtually no traction " only the original tweet itself.

4. People share things according to their biases. Many liberals on twitter took the original picture at face value because they believed someone would wave a Klan flag at an anti-Obama rally. However, conservatives shared it because they felt it was an example of liberals trying to make them look bad. Both of these things could be true " and my original intention doesn’t change either one.

So will I be more careful about what I tweet next time? I certainly hope so. Then again, the entire experience was a fascinating accidental social experiment " so I’m not sorry it happened.

There’s one final thing I want to address about the picture, and that’s the picture itself. It’s a child waiving a flag at a KKK rally. I hope we can agree that, no matter our political persuasions, this is an appalling act of child abuse " and one that I hope continues to go viral, in order to shame those who brought this innocent young man to a hate-filled white power rally.

by Mike Rothschild

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