The long time thesis of this blog is that social media is a frictionless platform for the spread of propaganda. In the “good old days”, propaganda required owning a printing press or broadcast license. Today, anyone can become a propagandist by posting an appropriate meme on social media and watch it shared thousands or millions of times.
Journalists frequently use their personal accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (but especially Twitter) to share items of interest to themselves. Due to the immediacy of tweeting and sharing, and the lack of fact checking, professional journalists routinely share items that are shown not to be true.
In the past few days, numerous journalists posted photos related to immigration into the United States and the detention of children – in most cases, implying or stating a conclusion about immigrant children. The photos included 2 children lying on the floor inside a cage, and another said to be “a prison bus just for babies”. They allege that these are contemporary photos of situations created by the current U.S. Administration.
The photos, however, were from a 2014 AZCentral.com news story, and from 2016, taken during the tenure of the prior Administration.
Here are two of the example tweets shared recently.
Antonio Arellano is a journalist with KTRK, ABC 13 television in Houston TX. He posted this Tweet, which was not true; the Tweet appears to have since been deleted.
This is a school bus for children built in early 2016 – the photo used in the tweet is from the contractor’s own page describing the bus:
The expansion created new demands to an already unique transportation mission by requiring larger capacity vehicles to provide offsite field trips. These field trips are part of the contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Field trips are provided to all children, ages four through seventeen enrolled in educational programs provided by the John H. Wood Charter School, located at KCRC. Field trips consist of going to a variety of places, such as the San Antonio Zoo, seeing a movie at the local theater, going to the park, etc.
The above bus photo and another of children lying on a floor behind a chain link fence were widely shared by journalists, even editors of publications, politicians, Hollywood connected stars and producers and many others.
In an interesting twist, we turn to Russia Today to learn details of these photos and the famous people, including the editor of NYT Magazine, who were all sharing these photos:
Journalists, Obama’s former speechwriter and other public figures all quietly deleted their misplaced horror at images of caged migrant children in the US when they found out the picture was taken under President Obama.
UPDATE: June 15, 2018
There’s yet another photo of a “caged boy” going around on social media; it is also false and the professional journalist acknowledges that he got the photo from a friend’s Facebook post. The photo was, in fact, taken at a protest when the child and his brother got on the opposite side of a fence, from their mother, and the youngest one broke out in tears:
The tweet showcasing the photo was posted by Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and filmmaker, and it doesn’t say where the photo was taken–whether at a protest or inside a facility. Vargas’s tweet otherwise says: “This is what happens when a government believes people are ‘illegal.’ Kids in cages.”
Vargas further said, in a tweet responding to his photo tweet, that he’d pulled the image from a friend’s Facebook page and hadn’t determined its precise origin.
At the end of these stories all we have learned is that journalists lose objectivity when not corralled by editorial staff and management. They tweet and share what they presumably want to be true, rather than that which is actually true. Their actions destroy the credibility of journalism and journalists.
Was this propaganda campaign by journalists successful? Even though the error has since been pointed out, and many have deleted their original posts, in propaganda messaging, the first message that is received – even if subsequently show to be false – is the one that sticks with the target.
DISCLAIMER – comments here are about the use of social media for propaganda campaigns and neither support nor oppose any particular immigration measures or specific politicians.