It was six days after Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation was struggling to come to grips with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field whose target remains uncertain.
The Journal Gazette staff was recording how local residents were affected by the immediate deaths of almost 3,000 and the first-day injury of 6,000 others when JG photographer Samuel Hoffman, acting on a tip, drove by a home in South Milford. There, a man was helping his neighbor paint a 60-by-100 foot flag on the lawn in front of her house. The resident, Lori Davis, had a son serving in the Marines. He was returning home on leave.
John Morris, the neighbor, took a break from rolling the final red stripe to wave to a passerby as Hoffman hit the shutter. The memorable photo led our newspaper on Tuesday, Sept. 18, under the caption “O'er the land of the free.” We then shared that copyrighted photo with the Associated Press for use by other news organizations, something we do thousands of times a year.
The Journal Gazette had a website in September 2001, but it's fair to say the potential of the internet as a news and social media platform was still in its infancy. Some would argue it still is.
It does not surprise us to find a Journal Gazette copyrighted story or photo on another non-newspaper website. We usually contact the host and ask them to either remove it, credit it appropriately and/or link to our site. But every once in awhile, a use is so egregious that we demand it come down.
On July 3, we became aware that our “O'er the land of the free” photo was being shared by many on Facebook in such a manner. Minus an accurate cutline, credit or context, the photo was featured in a post claiming the man in the picture was painting his lawn to look like an American flag because his homeowner's association wouldn't let him fly one.
We soon found versions of this meme on other sites going back to at least 2014 with captions like, “This is awesome. The homeowners association told him he couldn't fly his American Flag because it 'offended' others in his neighborhood and was against community ordinance, so he did this.”
Addressing a deliberate misuse like this is like playing the largest-ever game of Whac-A-Mole. Every source of this inaccurate photo led us to another source. At this time, we still haven't located the first source – the one who knowingly took a photo of a mom welcoming her Marine son home within days of 9/11 and deliberately used it to whip up furor and anger over a fake, oppressive homeowners association and those supposedly offended by a man flying an American flag.
Reddit and Facebook were quick to act once we presented them with proof of copyright. Others were not so cooperative.
Most of these false posts generated dozens of comments – including some who knew the homeowners association claim was incorrect and even explained where the photo was taken and why. You might think that would slow other commenters down, but you would be wrong.
Even if the homeowners association accusation wasn't true in this case, it happens all of the time so it was still OK, some commenters said. Some said the allegation had to be true because they had seen it in other places.
Still others said that even if it wasn't true, it was just posted for entertainment so they didn't understand the problem.
And that is the problem. In a world where the share button is hit millions of times a day – almost always without verifying the information being shared – fake news travels faster than real news can keep up. And when that “news” is used to play on people's emotions, to anger and rile them to a fake cause, it does damage to our shared experiences and our civil discourse.
And in this case, it demeans the record of a mother's attempt to do something patriotic to welcome home her soldier son.
Just the facts
Last summer, the Washington Post reported on a study by researchers at Columbia University and the French National Institute that showed 59 percent of the links shared on social media had not been clicked by those retweeting or sharing the news. And those tweets and reshares are shaping our cultural and political agendas.
So here are some tips for verifying news before sharing it:
1. Read the entire article before you hit share and be especially wary of photos without articles attached or those with limited information.
2. Check the original source (not who shared it). Is it a credible one that you know?
3. Can you find this post on other credible sites?
4. Browse the comments and look for confirmation or challenges to the information.
5. Consult websites like Snopes.com, which investigate posts to determine whether the information is legitimate, urban legend or a deliberate fabrication.