When fast news goes wrong: June
Introducing a new segment on our blog: What happens when the speed of online news dissemination outstrips reality? Here’s our pick of last month’s premature conclusions, social media misfires and hoaxes taken at face value.
Running it up the flagpole
There was plenty of reason to celebrate at last Saturday’s London Pride, which took place only a day after the US Supreme Court had ruled that gay marriage was a constitutional right. But according to a CNN broadcast, there was also cause for concern.
CNN international’s Lucy Pawle had stumbled across the parade on her way out of work. “This man dressed in black and white was waving what appeared a very bad mimicry, but a clear attempt to mimic the Isis flag,” she told a stern-looking anchor over the phone not much later. “If you look at the flag closely, it’s clearly not Arabic. In fact it looks like it could be gobbledegook,” she added. What apparently hadn’t been so obvious to Pawle and her colleagues was that the letters consisted of a series of dildos and butt plugs.
In a comment piece for the Guardian, artist Paul Coombs admitted he had spent the morning stitching the sex-toy appliqués onto the flag. “Previously, I’ve attached dildos onto postcards from each country where homosexuality is still illegal to point out that the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects,” he explained. “The decision to make the flag was a simple one: a sense of outrage at Isis’s brutal advance across North Africa, Libya, Syria and Iraq … If I wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue about the ridiculousness of this ideology, the flag was key.”
Despite the symbolism going amiss on live TV, Coombs feels that his creation still served its purpose. “On a message board someone posted: ‘Whenever I see this flag anywhere, all I can see is dildos!'” he wrote in the Guardian. “Mission accomplished.”
“What may look like an anarchic explosion of hedonistic excess is actually a celebration of a very British kind of civilised liberalism,” Sunday Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick wrote in an article last weekend. “[Y]ou might think the politics of Glastonbury were Left, Lefter and Loony. But according to an on-site poll, a whopping 74 per cent of attendees voted Tory in the last election, and 13 per cent went Ukip.”
Where this year’s Glastonbury attendees actually fell on the political spectrum is difficult to determine. What’s certain is that the numbers McCormick quotes were – alas – 100 per cent fake.
McCormick had taken the stats from what appeared to be a Guardian graphic circulating on social media, which claimed to have polled 1,000 Glastonbury visitors on what they had voted in the 2015 UK general election. In reality, the poll had been crafted and tweeted by a 25-year-old designer from Ireland named Patrick.
“I did it as a bit of an experiment to illustrate the apparent willingness of people to believe whatever they see on social media and how false information can be spread so easily, which is a worrying trend,” he told the Independent. “However, I really just did it for a laugh to be honest.”
McCormick wasn’t the only one fooled by Patrick’s counterfeit data viz, which bore the Guardian’s logo but used a different font. Polly Toynbee and Michael White, both Guardian columnists, cited the numbers too, despite efforts from some staff members on twitter to point out that the graphic was a fake.
Twitter’s potential for spreading untruths like wildfire was demonstrated most poignantly last month when BBC Urdu reporter Ahmen Khawaja wrongly tweeted from her personal account that Queen Elizabeth II had died. She quickly deleted the tweet, which BBC later confirmed was sent while an obituary rehearsal was taking place, but the damage had already been done. CNN’s affiliate service and German tabloid Bild were among those who spread the word to their considerably larger audiences, before quickly issuing a retraction.
The BBC apologised, and Buckingham Palace broke its own protocol to reassure fans of the Windsor clan that the Queen was doing just fine. Unfortunately for Khawaja, the misfire struck a chord and she was quickly named and shamed on a global scale. Her picture appeared on front pages of newspapers including the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard and her twitter handle became the target of a deluge of insult and hate – two more things which are particularly prone to being relayed through social media.
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