Editor's note: The following letter was first published Tuesday, April 16, as an opinion piece for the "Daily Gamecock," a student newspaper at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
To the Editor:
Everybody knows where the verbs “like,” “share,” “friend” and “favorite” belong today: Facebook and Twitter. With a click of a button, pictures that appeal to you are immediately shared to your followers. A couple shares later, that tweet or post becomes viral. And if it’s something false or defamatory, you’re now responsible for spreading an awful rumor.
Monday evening, April 15, after hearing the horrible news of the Boston blasts, I noticed a tweet from the handle @HopeforBoston, which showed a picture of a young girl running on what looked like a residential road surrounded by grass. The tweet read, “R.I.P. to the 8 year-old girl who died in Boston’s explosions, while running for the Sandy Hook kids. #prayforboston.”
I glanced again at the photo of the young girl and thought she looked familiar. I looked closely at the bib on her shirt and noticed the words “Joe Cassella 5k,” which is an annual event held in my small hometown of Great Falls, Va. I thought this was suspicious, so I called my parents and friends who still live in the area to see if they knew anything about this. Before I knew it, this photo was all over Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram and had been retweeted more than 80,000 times. Little did users on social media know, the little girl was safely asleep in her home, not knowing her face had circulated the Internet hundreds of thousands of times in just a few hours.
The photo, which was originally taken by a staff writer on my local high school’s student newspaper, had mysteriously gone viral due to one false tweet by a suspicious source. In a few short hours the photo, along with @HopeforBoston, reached national news and was then suspended from Twitter. It’s scary to think a picture from a small town’s high school newspaper’s website could receive national attention like this, and this incident illustrates the power of social media that many people choose to deny. It also brings into light another important point: We cannot believe everything we see on the Internet.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of this photo was just the start of conspiracies on the web about the Boston blasts. A photo of a man who lost his leg and was being wheeled away Monday afternoon after the bombing was compared to a photo of a man who lost his legs in Afghanistan two years ago. While this photo also went viral on Facebook in minutes, it makes me wonder how many other fake photos are floating around the Internet.
With more than a billion users on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, it is inevitable that social media is an interactive and commonly used method of communication among people. That said, individuals must think before they tweet and remain extremely cautious about what they share on their social media pages.
The writer is a student at the University of South Carolina.