Just after political hero Nelson Mandela's death was announced, socialite Paris Hilton confused him with Martin Luther King, tweeting: "RIP Nelson Mandela. Your 'I Have A Dream' speech was so inspiring. Amazing man."
Only, she didn't at all. Someone used a fake tweet generator, or photoshop, to make an image that looked like she had, and that image was seen and shared by thousands of people the world over within minutes, outrage and all. Hilton did take to Twitter to both pay respect to Mandela and call out the people circulating the fake tweet.
Around the same time, another fake story circulated. In this one - which did begin as satire - Kanye West was asked what he thought about Mandela's death, and was quoted as saying "I liberate minds with my music. That's more important than liberating a few people from apartheid or whatever."
Just like Hilton, West had to take to Twitter and fight back against people insulting him for something he never said.
How many of you believed that Hilton tweet? I sure did, the first time I saw it - although a cursory check of her Twitter timeline and a quick Google (in case she had just deleted it) proved it wrong. It's easy to believe these kind of tweets because they are always just outrageous enough, playing into our culture's beliefs about the vapidity of Hilton and the narcissism of West. These two instances are relatively harmless, even funny, but this kind of mischief can get a lot worse.
Back during the Trayvon Marton controversy, when Right- wing commentators were calling the youngster a "thug" for daring to be black at night, the internet was attempting to prove their claims with fake photos and Facebook posts.
The problem stems from two conveniences. Social media posts are ludicrously easy to fake, and social media posts can spread ludicrously fast. Twenty years ago a fake photo probably wouldn't make it past a skeptical newspaper editor, but now every one of us is a media outlet, and we aren't quite as discerning.
Even traditional outlets are falling for false reporting, often to keep up with the pace of social media. American public radio station NPR reported that shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died at the scene two years back, when she in fact survived. That didn't go down well.
Obviously, we've gained more than we've lost with social media. But all this speed and power comes with some sense of responsibility. Check something before you share it. All it usually takes is a quick Google, then you can stop being the link in a chain of fiction.
- © Fairfax NZ News