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Online reaction to article about online reactions proves the dangers it highlighted

Independent screenshoot

Online reaction to article about online reactions proves the dangers it highlighted

The internet is not just a huge source of information, but a massive hive of misinformation too. It’s a great place to find facts, but a misinterpretation or plain untruth can spread just as quickly. An incident last week highlighted that not only do people frequently misread and overlook the truth, but that it’s actually possible for social media to set off a cycle of completely missing the point.

Last Monday, prolific political Twitter user James Melville tweeted two images adjacent to one another that appeared to show current U.S. president Barack Obama and his possible successor Donald Trump having very different ideas of umbrella etiquette. Trump is shown hogging a brolly while several of his associates walk uncovered, while Obama is being drenched in the rain as his wife Michelle is protected by an umbrella. As of Friday afternoon, Melville’s tweet had been liked almost 12,000 times and had more than 9,000 retweets, attracting a haul of comments from both Trump’s supporters and his critics.

The following day, The Independent published an article about the tweet questioning whether there was more to these pictures than met the eye. It pointed out that the picture of Trump was one of a set, some of which showed him sharing the umbrella with his co-walker Pam Bondi, the Florida Attorney General. More importantly, it also cited a Washington Times article suggesting that they had shared not just an umbrella, but some dubious dealing too, perhaps making the whole brolly brouhaha somewhat irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the newspaper noted that the Obama image was taken shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing three years ago. It pointed out that it may not have been entirely appropriate for the president to turn up in the Massachusetts city casually holding an umbrella, and that the story behind the picture was ultimately of great significance. The article concluded by branding social media users as “quick to share a simplistic sentiment”.

The article was fed through to The Independent’s Facebook page, where it appeared as below:


The interaction with this dwarfs that of Melville’s original tweet, with the Facebook post (at the time of writing) attracting more than a quarter of a million reactions, 44,000 shares and nearly 5,000 comments. Here are some of those comments:

“Selecting two diametrically opposed photos and writing a story about it is propagandist. Maybe the Independent should just create FB memes? Where has the journalism gone?”

“This is just another example of why I stopped buying newspapers 20 years ago!!… I’m seeing ‘media spin’ in this choice of photographs.”

“This is dumb. It’s not even raining in the Trump pic. Probably photoshopped. If you widen the Obama pic, you’ll probably find secret service holding an umbrella for him too.”

That’s right, most of the people commenting on the post have clearly not read the article. They haven’t noticed the question mark at the end of the title. They’ve either mistakenly slammed The Independent for sharing memes rather than reporting news, or have continued their brolly backchat about the very pictures the article is debunking.

In other words, the article writer, Joe Vesey-Byrne, has succeeded in creating a social spectacle of the very point his article was making. It’s an article about taking matters at face value, and it has attracted the same response itself.

So, here we are writing an article about the misplaced social media reactions to an article about misplaced social media reactions. Of course, we’ll be feeding this through to Facebook and Twitter as usual, so I wonder whether we can keep this vortex of misdirection going.

If you have something to say about this article, please leave us a comment – especially if you haven’t read it!

John Murray

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