When a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Wrong Words

“Sharing is Caring” by Flickr user Niklas Wikström (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

WARNING: This article and the pages it links to contain graphic images depicting violence.

Fact-checking in the moment to quash a rumor or fabrication is important, but what about years after something first appeared? Social media content, whether true or false, has a way of hanging around.

Take this photo from a horrific accident in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seven years ago. Since it was first published, it has been misleadingly used all over the world to illustrate tragedies that actually took place in Nigeria and Myanmar.

These incorrect pairings of image and event — “false descriptions” or “false contexts” (in Global Voices or First Draft News terminology) — don't negate the fact that there has been plenty of accurate reporting of the events in DRC, Myanmar and Nigeria. However, it does raise questions about our appetite for images with news.

What happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In 2010, a fuel tanker traveling through Sange, a town in Eastern DRC, overturned and exploded, killing over 230 people. Years of neglect following civil war had ravaged Africa's second largest country and turned roads in the area into dangerous paths filled with difficult-to-navigate potholes. Tragically, the tanker fell victim to them.

Officials described a fireball that engulfed dozens of homes and a cinema nearby that was packed with people watching World Cup football. Houses were scorched to a crisp and charred bodies littered the streets, with many people were burnt beyond recognition.

This picture was taken in Sange, DRC, showing victims of a tanker explosion on July 3, 2010. This particular version was originally captioned as: “This is Nigeria.” [sic] by Imgur user Mystical Monkey, January 12, 2015.

Several photos of the incident depicted the horrifying scenes from the day. Above is one example. It shows rows of charred bodies lined up on the ground as people look on.

But the story doesn't end there. Over the years, this same photo has been trotted out multiple times on social media, blogs, and other platforms and wrongly attributed to real but unrelated tragedies, most notably incidents in Nigeria and Myanmar.

What did and did not happen in Nigeria and Myanmar

On 3 January 2015, Boko Haram militants attacked the remote Nigerian towns of Baga and Doro Gowon. Eyewitnesses graphically described atrocities that they were forced to flee from. Houses and shops were burnt and corpses lay in the streets and in bushes.

There were reports that anywhere from 150 to 2,000 people were massacred, but the numbers couldn’t be confirmed. “No one stayed back to count bodies,” one resident told Human Rights Watch. Many were hacked, shot, and burnt to death. Only satellite images were available to illustrate the aftermath. The reason for the attack was also unclear, but Baga's army base has been a continual point of conflict between Nigeria's military and Boko Haram's effort to gain territory (examples from 2013 and in 2015).

And this is where the DRC image appeared again, when it was falsely presented as evidence of the fact and possible scale of the assault:

In fact, this misuse of the DRC image was only one in a series of misattributions; Africa Check has documented associations with Nigeria since 2014. In all these cases, the image was presented as proof of mass killings. Going further, personal commentary like this example incorrectly linked the DRC image to mainstream news sources to make the case.

The Sange image also made an appearance in association to the deadly persecution of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar. According to one flash report published by the United Nations (UN), those fleeing described beatings, rape, and a number of deaths, some by burning. As others reported violence against the Rohingya people, posts that paired descriptions with photos from DRC like the following appeared:

This image comes from a Saudi Arabian news site that falsely alleged in 2012 that Myanmar President Thein Sein said monks and politicians were involved in the killing of Rohingya Muslims, and in addition used the DRC image to illustrate the information. The original post accessed 26 April 2017 is available here. Other news organizations, citing AFP as their source, also incorrectly attributed to Thein Sein the claim, but without falsely associating the DRC image.

The global reach of false descriptions

Traces of these mistaken pairings go as far back as 2011 and 2012 and, indeed, are from all around the world. Using a “reverse image search,” you begin to see how extensively information can cross borders. A reverse image search engine on TinEye across 18.8 billion images (as of May 3, 2017) found 344 very similar photos to the DRC photo in question on a mix of personal pages, social media platforms, and community and national publications. They are in many languages: English, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, German, Greek, Portuguese. Some forwarded the false reports, while others occasionally attempted to debunk the fabrications.

We isolated examples of misuse and associated them to specific countries based upon what site they were published on in order to show the reach more clearly than that of language alone.

More than one example of misuse may exist from the countries listed below (which are also sometimes linked to one another). Here are some of the cases that are still possible to fully track down (orange on the map):

Map: NewsFrames. Country examples of false pairings of the DRC image with Nigeria or Myanmar. The orange countries indicate sites and servers where examples of fabricated or false news are still available. The countries in grey are examples that, according to the metadata and information available in TinEye, are likely to also exemplify false examples. As a reminder, the source of this image is the Democratic Republic of Congo (in blue).

  • Algeria, 2012. “What's happening in Burma – Myanmar?” A link to the DRC picture was shared in an online discussion forum (aimed at Algerians and interested Arabs) as part of a thread on the “war of Buddhists against Muslims.”
  • Brazil, 2011. “Cena Chocante! Cristãos queimados vivos! Verdadeiro ou falso?” (Shocking scene! Christians burned alive! True or false?). A rumor-busting site challenged the notion that the photo in question depicted Christians killed by Muslims.
  • Canada, 2015. In this post, a blogger from Quebec City not only called out the hoax, but reflected on the misuse of the DRC image in association with Nigeria and larger questions about people’s intentions and the tragedies involved (in DRC and beyond).
  • Ecuador, 2013. “En Nigeria están quemando a los cristianos” (In Nigeria they are burning Christians). The newspaper La República published this article on explosions in northern Kano, Nigeria, identifying the part of the city as a Christian section of town. La República cites the Spanish news agency EFE as its source (though it is unknown if the original wire report contained the image).
  • France, 2015. Twitter posts like this one in the aftermath of the Boko Haram massacre, which used the DRC image to illustrate the “horrors of Islam,” clearly did not see the debunking sites like Hoaxbuster. Hoaxbuster cited the erroneous use of this image in connection with Nigeria since 2011, promoted by a post from US anti-Islam commentator Pamela Geller.
  • Germany, 2017. “Genozid gegen Muslime geht weiter in Myanmar, Friedensnobelpreisträger schweigt” (Genocide against Muslims continues in Mynamar, peace prize recipient stays quiet). This article called attention to the continued plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar but cited the work of an Indian Express article with the DRC image; the Indian Express article did not contain the image at the time of our post's publication.
  • Greece, 2012.“ΠΡΟΣΟΧΗ ! Η πιο σοκαριστική φωτογραφία που έχετε δει!” (CAUTION! The most shocking photo you've seen!). This site used the image as proof of Muslims killing Nigerian Christians. This contention was also debunked by a Greek fact-checking site in 2013, and again in 2016.
  • Iran, 2012. An Association of Student Seminarians (Mullahs) in Islamic Countries published an open letter of support for Rohingya Muslims via Nasim News Agency and used the DRC image as illustration.
  • Italy, 2015. A resident of the old Piedicastello quarter of the city of Trento posted this message to his local site to express solidarity with the 2015 Nigeria massacre.
  • Nigeria, 2012. Even within Nigeria, the DRC photo got shared on a public discussion forum as evidence of a Boko Haram bombing in Kano.
  • Malaysia, 2015. Malaysia presented two extremes of the DRC image’s misuse with a tweet sympathetic to the Nigerian massacre on the one hand, and an blogger's attempt to delegitimize claims of Rohingyan persecution given the existence of misused photos on the other.
  • Myanmar, 2017. The government of Myanmar has published corrections to what they consider “intentionally fabricated news and photos sent to international media, international human rights organisations and governments in an attempt to cause misunderstandings about Myanmar.” This English-language-only correction also included references to fabricated pictures of hate speech rumor mills used by extremist groups to show Muslims killing Buddhists and vice versa (often spread by Burmese nationalists).
  • Russia, 2012. “FХристианофобия или политическая провокация?” (Christianophobia or political provocation?). This post directed at members of the Russian Orthodox community clarifies that the DRC image is NOT one of Muslims killing Christians.
  • Saudi Arabia, 2012/2014. This news site falsely alleged that Myanmar President Thein Sein had admitted in 2012 that monks and politicians had been involved in the killing of Rohingya Muslims and paired the story with the image from Sange. The article was updated again in 2014, and at the time of publication the image remained.
  • Spain, 2015/2016. This 2014 article about students slain by Boko Haram, published by the now defunct, Catholic-minded news site Análisis Digital, explicitly stated that the image was not of the killings, though it claimed that it was of a “similar jihad attack.” When the image was later circulated in the context of the 2015 massacre by Boko Haram, El Pais newspaper attempted to debunk its connection to Nigeria.
  • Turkey, 2015. “##NijeryaYanıyorDünyaUyuy” (Nigeria Is Burning, World Is Sleeping). The DRC picture appeared tagged with this Twitter hashtag marking a discussion started by Muslims after the 2015 Boko Haram massacre and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. They wanted their communities to pay greater awareness to these events presumably taking place in the name of Islam.
  • United States, 2015. The image was tweeted (and retweeted over 9,300 times) as evidence of the 2015 Boko Haram massacre, but the messages it was attached to did not engage in any religious framing. Instead, the aim was to draw attention to the relative number of deaths and media coverage in comparing Nigeria and the Charlie Hebdo attack.
  • Vietnam(ese), 2014. After a message ostensibly written by a “Father Juan Carlos Martos” about a Nigerian massacre began to circulate, discussion boards in Vietnamese like this one translated it and proclaimed it a hoax. The message, which included the DRC image, has been disavowed by the Claretian Missionaries organization and Father Juan Carlos Martos.

There are other confirmed examples of falsely using the image in Sweden, Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, and Argentina.

Other accounts, aggregators, and sites from the following country locations (in grey on the map) are also suggested by TinEye, though no longer fully traceable: Czech Republic, Australia, India, Peru, Netherlands, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Japan, and possibly China. (Records exist on the crawler engine with URLs and time-date stamps and occasionally possess image filenames related to Nigeria or Rohingya Muslims.) In all these cases, which occur much later than the original 2010 disaster, the image may ultimately bear a correct description, but the original post is not available or accessible.

Frames and pictures

There are two strong themes or frames that run through these posts, and the first focuses on religion. The photo has been used in terms of larger discussions about silence related to the killing of Christians by Muslims or, in defense of Muslims, the killing of Rohingyas by Buddhists. A second framing uses the image to discuss the undervaluing of African lives compared to European or French lives.

Making sense of religion and the value of human life is important, which is why the use of images in association with these efforts is worth examining. But a deeper question is what happens when readers can no longer trust these images. With social media, there are scores of people who may be inadvertently partaking in muddying the waters around a tragedy. Does the atmosphere of misinformation and disinformation suggest true atrocities are false and take away from the actual horror of what has, in fact, happened in DRC, in Nigeria, and in Myanmar?

The dissemination of violent images has long been debated (as in this example). One argument is that withholding images is a refusal to acknowledge the tragedy, and these images are at times requested by victims themselves. Yet there has also long been a concern that violent images desensitize readers and viewers, making them lose their ability to empathize (such as this study which examined the effects of violent media on helping others).

While there's much to be debated about violent images in the news media, the fact is they're critical to news coverage today. As technologists experiment with algorithms to aid the fight against “fake news,” they will need to think carefully about situations where a picture suggests one thing, when in fact it may be used out of context or altogether in a false way. Any analysis of false descriptions should also consider how truly international it can be.

Many thanks to Afef Abrougui, Anna Schetnikova, Belen Febres-Cordero, Esther Dodo, Gustavo Xavier, Iria Puyosa, L. Finch, Lena Nitsche, Marisa Petricca, Mohamed ElGohary, Mong Palatino, Oiwan Lam, Ortaç Oruç, Veroniki Krikoni, Rami AlHames, Suzanne Lehn, Thant Sin, and Tori Egherman for their help in confirming details and context.

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