“YOU furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” This quote is attributed to William Randolph Hearst, an American newspaper publisher, media magnate and doyen of what has come to be called ‘yellow journalism’.
The story goes like this: when the Spanish controlled Cuba, Hearst sent his staff artist Frederic to Havana with a brief to provide images detailing the injustices that the Spanish were meting out to the locals. When Remington cabled Hearst to tell him that all was calm, Hearst is said to have responded with the above-mentioned quote.
While it is true that Hearst was among the pioneers of sensationalist — and jingoistic — reporting, and that he was a great supporter of the subsequent Spanish-American war, it is unclear whether this exchange actually took place.
That doesn’t, however, make the object lesson here any less relevant. And that lesson is that images are powerful, perhaps too powerful.
Yes, it’s a cliché to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Quite the contrary. In fact, clichés only become clichéd because they are repeated so often, and they are repeated so often because, more often than not, they are true.
But, just because an image is powerful, or may fit well with your established worldview, doesn’t mean that it is in fact real.
Take a case in point: right after the Rawalpindi riots, with the media playing an uncharacteristically responsible role by not fanning the flames, many turned to social media for news and images. Perhaps they were disappointed that the carnage they so expected to see was not, in a break from past practice, being broadcast live on their screens, background music and all. Social media, however, did not disappoint. There were many graphic pictures to slake our appetite and whet our outrage. Here were the images of people with their throats slit. Here were the slaughtered children, here was proof positive, at long last, that the media was hiding the reality of what had happened in Rawalpindi.
Only, of course, it was all a lie. The images were of Syria and other conflict zones. The atrocities were real, oh yes, but they were from another country, and sometimes another time.
They were liked, shared and widely disseminated. Some did try and debunk them, but the damage was done.
Of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened. During the anti-Rohingya riots, images were widely circulated of Buddhist monks standing next to what seem like victims of a mass pogrom.
You can almost see the glee in their faces as they pose victoriously next to the bodies of the men, women and children they had slaughtered. Of course, this too wasn’t exactly true. The pictures were real, no doubt, but they dated to the 2004 tsunami which devastated the coastal areas of Asia.
And then of course there is Laiba, a little girl who lost her leg in a drone attack. She exists, and yes she did lose her leg, but as a result of the FC firing on her car, not as a result of a drone attack.
Then there are the pictures of children who died in the 2008 Ziarat earthquake, also being presented as drone victims. The list goes on and on and on. In India, a picture of a Jamaatud Dawa rally, with participants burning an Indian flag was posted by a Bharatiya Janata Party member to purport that these were Bangladeshis in Assam. When challenged the picture was quietly deleted.
In many cases, the posting of these images is more due to mistakes than malice, but, there are those who deliberately spread falsehood in order to justify their (often hate-filled) narratives, and it is because of this that we must be wary.
What’s worse is, that in the case of drone attacks, these very falsehoods in fact can be used against those who have legitimate reasons to oppose drones. Spreading these pictures then in fact plays against the very cause they are meant to support.
Most recently, several people on Twitter posted a particularly powerful image. It was a child’s shoe, charred and bloodied, a victim of the Hangu drone strike — a powerful symbol of the atrocities of the drone war, a call to arms.
Once again, the picture was real, and so was the child. But it wasn’t from Hangu. Finding it suspicious, I decided to look it up. Soon, it emerged that this picture was in fact from Gaza in 2008.
Proud of this discovery, and full of self-righteous zeal, I decided to correct the propagandists. “This is a child’s shoe from an Israeli attack on Gaza,” I wrote, and then sat back for the expected torrent of praise. I had done what journalists are supposed to do, after all. I had spoken the truth. Except that I was wrong as well. The picture, it was pointed out by a more diligent tweeter, was in fact of an Israeli child’s shoe, and the attackers were in fact Palestinian.
It’s another lesson that a partial and lazy confirmation is only slightly better than no confirmation at all. The mistake I made here was one that many make, that of assuming the truth without ascertaining the facts.
It is a dangerous trap, one that mainstream media falls prey to as easily as any random person does. BBC has used a picture from Iraq to show what it claimed was a massacre in Syria. Many local publications have done the same, showing victims of various natural disasters or bomb blasts as drone victims.
So how do we figure out the actual origin of an image? It’s as simple as doing a ‘search by image’ search on Google, uploading the image in question and clicking. In seconds, the reality is on your page. The tools are all out there, and it is our responsibility to check and verify.
The images we post have power. Someone, somewhere may take them as truth and take possibly dangerous action based on them. So if you do come across such material, do check it and challenge it. Listen before you like, ponder before you post and please, reflect before you retweet.
The writer is a member of staff.