Here comes a bit of a mea culpa (and an overdue one at that).
Back in July of last year I wrote a blog post that fed off a couple of stories circling the Internet. One was about a man who claimed to have photographed a rare Tiger in China, which was proven to be false. The other story was about a tribe in Brazil that many media outlets identified as either being lost or just recently discovered, only to report later that they were never lost and the story was a hoax perpetuated by a non-profit organization.
In going back and reading my old blog post, I realize that at the time I was a bit harsh on Survival International. Although I did correctly identify that they never claimed the tribe was lost (see “Uncontacted tribe photographed near Brazil-Peru border”) and used the word “uncontacted”, I stated that they should assume the “most blame for the characterization of the story and also its fall-out.” (see “Social media spurs accountability, transparency and yes, honesty”)
Well, to be fair to Survival International – they did report the story and facts accurately. They certainly never intended to mislead anyone. Ultimately, it was a flock of journalists, starting with Peter Beaumont of the Guardian (UK) who spread the “‘lost’ tribe that wasn’t” story, which Survival International did its utmost to quash and set straight.
The point of all this is – I do owe the folks at Survival International an apology for not more properly identifying the media misrepresentation, which was the real problem. I also owe a special note of thanks to Matthew Linares, a web activist who first contacted me and has patiently awaited this blog post.
At the end of the day I need to be more careful about how I interpret events or statements. What’s more, I have learned I need to be more responsive – or just as quick to correct facts in error as I was to make the error in the first place.
In yet another series of examples from the real world, we’re reminded of the power of social media and people to not only expose fraud, but also demand accountability.
Larissa Fair of Livingston Communications tweeted on an AP story that appear on CNN.com (Faked tiger photo sparks Web furor) recently about the use of a fake tiger in what appeared by the Chinese online community to be another example of the government ignoring common sense and using false images and lies in their never-ending propaganda campaign.
The story is a simple example of fraud. A poor farmer, responding to a contest, used a poster of a tiger and placed it in various angels in the forest. Using a digital camera, the farmer created the appearance that there was, indeed, a tiger in the woods. However, the shininess of the image and the fact that tiger never changed its pose or position, despite being photographed from multiple directions, immediately fueled speculation of a fraud.
The government, however, thought they had a propaganda coup on their hands. Instead of investigating the possibility of a fraud and the growing skepticism online, the local / regional Chinese government used the image’s popularity to promote tourism to an economically depressed area. When the challenges to the image’s authenticity grew, the government did not back down – remaining resolute in its affirmation. Ultimately, the pictures were so wildly recognized as a fraud, that government had no choice but to admit as much.
But the damage had been done.
The result of a poor farmer’s desire to make money from a government-run contest for photographs that showed proof of the rare animal’s existence, and the government’s effort to allegedly boost tourism to an impoverished part of the country with a story of a rare tiger sighting, only furthered the mistrust many of China’s citizens have for their government.
In a country where the disparity in wealth from those who live in rural regions compared to the cities is substantial, citizens were fairly forgiving of the farmer, who the government later punished for fraud. However, they were less forgiving of the government which failed to hear protests or assertions from the online community that the photo was faked, and later refused to accept real responsibility for the spread of the photo – only offering a meek acknowledgment that the photo was not genuine.
When a tribe and ethics are LOST
Another example occurred with the now infamous “lost tribe” photographed a few months ago. The media picked up on the photographs, and reporters identified the tribe as being undiscovered and not having interacted with people outside of their tribe.
(Gleison Miranda, Funai /AP Photo)
After some investigation by The Guardian, the photographer revealed that the tribe was not lost, but indeed had been known for over two decades. His efforts to demonstrate their presence was an attempt to force “Peru to re-examine its logging policy in the border area where the tribe lives.” The pictures were taken, he had said, to help draw attention to them and discourage development that may poach on tribal territory.
Many media outlets were hesitant to identify what many were considering a hoax and issue a retraction. So much publicity had been made of the discovery – some news outlets were fearful of admitting to having been duped.
After the Guardian story came out and more media began to call the discovery a hoax, the organization that employed the photographer, Survival International, protested the Guardian’s characterization of the tribe being “lost”. According to a piece on ABC.com, Survival International’s director Stephen Corry said in response that “The [Guardian] article claims to ‘reveal’ that the tribe photographed was neither ‘lost’ nor ‘unknown.’ The reality is that neither Survival nor the Brazilian government claimed they were.”
So, who is REALLY at fault here?
The mass media is at fault for not fully vetting the story, but at the end of the day, Survival International bares the most blame for the characterization of the story and also its fall-out. Just because Survival International never said the tribe was “lost”, full disclosure in a discovery of that nature is paramount. Making a more detailed disclosure after release of the news created the appearance that the organization, much like the Chinese farmer and the government, had perpetuated a fraud. Parsing a few words and being “technically” correct, however subtly, is not a valid excuse anymore.
What do both examples teach us?
What I found interesting about both stories is that they remind us how fast information can travel on the internet, and how important listening to your audience and taking responsibility can be.
While the Chinese government claims to have learned from the situation, the only real lesson is that command and control does not work when people have access to the internet and social media tools. As much as the government works to suppress communication, it continues to fight a losing battle and in the process, alienates itself from its citizens prompting revolt both virtually and in reality (one wonders why the US does not employ the same strategy with Cuba, but that’s a blog post for another day).
Survival International had a strong opportunity to draw attention to its core mission, but failed by not providing enough information and making sure media outlets received the full story. At the end of the day, a fascinating discovery and the plight of indigenous tribes in the Amazon was overshadowed by weather or not Survival International and its photographer had misled the world.