How Reliable is Social Media?

In my early years at secondary school, one of the first things I remember being taught about in History was the reliability of evidence. We were told of the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how we should analyse the content of such sources before making a judgment on their ramifications on the topic at hand. Unfortunately, scrutiny of information in today’s world only seems to be something that journalists and academics are interested in.

Whenever a major news story breaks out, we are quick to share articles and images related to the subject through social media. Take this image of Lionel Messi holding a t-shirt that says Free Palestine. Whenever a new act of Israeli aggression occurs and people remember the plight of Palestinians, this image spreads like wildfire across Facebook and Twitter. However, this image has clearly been Photoshopped and the original can be seen here. The t-shirt he can be seen holding has the logo for Rosario’s bid to host the 2019 Pan American Games, which is Messi’s hometown. Interestingly, the Argentine Olympic Committee didn’t even end up putting Rosario forward for the bid, opting for La Punta instead, illustrating that having the world’s greatest footballer on your side doesn’t always lead to victory.

Another story that was publicised last year was that Cristiano Ronaldo had donated €1.5 million to Palestinian children in Gaza. It first appeared on Russia Today’s website, citing Real Madrid’s Arabic news website as a source and from there it was published on a number of blogs. It didn’t appear on any credible news outlet, nor did Real Madrid acknowledge the donation, so it is quite likely that this was a hoax too. The Real Madrid Foundation does do work in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Ronaldo did donate money towards Palestinian causes in 2011, albeit a significantly smaller amount, but it’s strange why someone would make up such a story.

Freddie Kanoute is one footballer that has always been outspoken in support of Palestine and even lifted his football shirt after scoring a goal to reveal a t-shirt in support of Interpal. Last November, he published a statement on his website expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza, which was signed by a number of prominent footballers. The statement that appears on there has been edited since it first appeared, with a few of the footballers disappearing, such as Dider Drogba and Yohan Cabaye, after denying that they had signed such a statement. Eden Hazard’s name can still be seen there, despite his agent saying that Hazard never speaks out about political issues.

This problem is not just confined to the topic of Palestine. When Rohingya Muslims were being persecuted in Burma, a number of images appeared on social media sites relating to the issue. However, Faraz Ahmed of The Express Tribune did a little digging to find that many of these images were used completely out of context. Just last month, after the Hazara genocide in Pakistan, this picture was shared on Facebook and Twitter, showing a father in a grave clutching his dead child, however the image was actually from a Turkish television show called Ali Memati.

Even more worrying than the people who share these stories on social media without verifying them is that there are other people out there who started the spread of these stories and images in full knowledge that they are either false or used out of context. Issues relating to Palestine, Burma and Pakistan don’t need celebrity endorsement or powerful imagery to draw people’s attention to them. Within these countries and many others around the world, people are suffering and dying, and this itself should be a strong enough reason for us to take an interest in the issue at hand.

But above all, we should realise that social media is not a replacement for news media, and just because your friend has posted a photo or story relating to a hot topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it comes from a true source. We are all equipped with the intellectual tools to analyse these stories for their credibility, and sometimes all it takes is a bit of Googling to determine whether something is authentic.