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Slings and Arrows - Commentary

Don't be Fake News

A fake tornado photo made the rounds on social media last week during large storms in Parker County.
A fake tornado photo made the rounds on social media last week during large storms in Parker County.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

- Jonathan Swift

In the midst of heavy storms last week a photo was distributed on social media purporting to show a tornado on the west side of downtown Weatherford.

The photo made its way not only around Parker County, but made it to other states as well because it was pretty dramatic and seemed plausible in the midst of the heavy winds and damages we were experiencing.

The photo was shared by local office holders, people in the media, and who knows how many individual users of social media.

That tornado picture turned out not to be real.

It was, as the parlance goes, “photoshopped” or, more generically, digitally manipulated.

The idea that false information gets spread on social media is not only not shocking, it is disturbingly commonplace.

From the time personal computers began to be be widely used in the 1980s until the present, technology has had the potential to put a great deal of power that had been the exclusive domain of professionals into the hands of people who, up until that time,  didn’t have it.

Early computer programs allowed people to create custom greeting cards, thereby making them in a sense “designers,” but the programs didn’t provide for the knowledge and practice of good design.

I remember Lotus 1-2-3, the first widely-used spreadsheet program (and which, incidentally, can still be run on Linux). It provided powerful tools for financial and numerical analysis, but it didn’t supply its users the knowledge to be effective financial planners or analysts.

And I’m old enough to have used Wordstar, the great-grandfather of modern word processors. At the time it seemed revolutionary, at least compared to a typewriter, but I’m glad I no longer have to use “^B” for bold and “^Y” for italic on a Kaypro portable (“portable” only in the sense that it was self-contained and could be lugged from place to place) computer. Still, Wordstar, Word Perfect, and Microsoft Word did not instill a talent or skill for good writing.

All of these technological tools were just that — tools. While anyone with the funds could buy them and then become “designers,” “analysts,” and “writers” on a large scale, it was only in the sense that anyone who purchased a hammer, saw, and lumber became a carpenter.

Then came social media.

The early promise of social media was that it could be a platform for good, but by putting so much power in so many hands, it is also extremely dangerous.

Design, analysis, and writing (good or bad) could only go so far in terms of distribution before social media came along.

But now information can be disseminated to hundreds, thousands, or sometimes even millions almost instantaneously.

As we have seen, bad actors have used, and still use that power to manipulate and incite.

The problem here is that power or freedom does not exist without responsibility. Any time you post something on social media you have in essence become a publisher. But like the designers, analysts, and writers mentioned above, that power does not necessarily grant wisdom or best practices in publishing.

If you are going to be a publisher, it would be wise to be a good one.

So please allow me to explain the responsibilities of a publisher as I see them.

First, accuracy and truth should be paramount. Here at this newspaper we have lost some “scoops” to competition because our watchword is “we’d rather get it right than get it first.” That does not mean infallibility on our part — we make more than our share of mistakes — but we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to do our due diligence before sharing information.

The problem with the tornado is that the fake photo was shared by elected officials who in common practice are seen as credible sources (please do not insert any snarky comments here). In that regard, this episode will damage their credibility as sources in the future.

The same is true for the credibility of news organizations, some of whom, as of this writing on Tuesday, March. 7, still have the photo posted as news, one under the headline “Weatherford officials confirm tornado; Damage from high winds reported.”

Second, when you make a mistake, admit it and publish your correction at least as prominently as the original error.

Unfortunately, social media provides the opportunity simply to “delete the post” once the falsehood has already flown. That doesn’t in any way heal the situation.

There has to be a correction, either by editing the original post so that the correction is the first thing someone sees, or but putting up a new post.

Third, and this is the hard work of publishing and reporting, is verify your source. In the case of the tornado photo, that means tracing it back to its originator to determine if it is authentic before publishing. If it is shared with you, before passing it on, ask “where did you get that?” Then trace that back until you reach the origin.

To be fair, the person who created the photo did so as a joke and readily admitted it — something that wouldn’t have been that hard to find out if anyone had bothered to check at the time.

These days photos and even videos are suspect. We can lo longer take what we see at face value without checking.

Fourth, don’t take anything for granted. Label clearly. I learned a hard lesson both for me and the writer of an opinion column several years ago. The column was satirical, but I thought people would “get it,” so I didn’t label it as such.

They didn’t get it, and it wasn’t pretty.

If you are posting something satirical, flippant, or sarcastic, it does no damage to the effect of the post to label it as such, even if sharing from The Onion or the Babylon Bee. Posts from these satirical websites can seem real to people not aware that they are satire. The same goes for opinions.

We live in a strange world. Many people consider media outlets that exhaustively check facts and confirm sources as “fake news,” while swallowing whole false information on social media.

If you shared that tornado picture, the “fake news” was you.


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