That viral story about Trump dumping fish food will lead to the downfall of American democracy (sorta)

Image: Vicky Leta/Mashable

If you’re the sort of person who gets news from media, it is very possible you saw a story that is viral about Trump dumping a bunch of fish food. The president met with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and they took a minute to feed a bunch of carp.  

This is painfully banal stuff that wouldn’t justify a headline in days that are greater.

But this is 2017, and the “narrative,” if you would call it that, was quickly taken out of context as well as misrepresented in a hurry to get viral traffic. Outlets reported that Trump unloaded his box of food since spoonfuls dropped. The president was painted by this as an oaf lacking the necessary patience to get ceremony that was polite.  

Trump does not need help coming off like an ogre, but in this case, the reports were misleading. Abe had actually dumped his fish food first, as many outlets have now reported.

It is really a perfect illustration of easy events — wrung through the content machine — may be perverted, politicized, and amplified to effect, as innocuous as the news seems. This is.

While the occurrence of bogus stories is not a new one, the prism through is. Only last week, we learned just how Russian trolls leveraged viral stories to form our political talks on social websites around election period. The bets suddenly seem quite a bit greater than ever before: Even a news consumer who dismisses political stories could unwittingly play into a political agenda simply by sharing viral crap online, extending the effect of a bad actor who chased the “news” to begin with.  

Of course, the koi are political.  

How it happened

Reports surfaced that a faux pas that was fishy had been committed by Trump during his trip to Japan. As is often the case with these stories, the moment was first captured on by journalists on Twitter. An editor in CBS tweeted photos from the incident, as did Yashar Ali and many others.  

ABC News seemed to possess one of the videos — an cropped demonstration that showed Trump, but not Abe, dumping the food.

But perhaps most instructive of all: The Guardian, a UK newspaper with almost 200 years of history, printed an erroneous accounts soon after 1 a.m. EST, the Internet Archive shows.

“Trump ditch: president throws entire box of fish food to precious koi carp pond,” the headline read. A subhead continued: “While his bunch, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, spoons small quantities of feed, the US leader gives the fish a large feast.”

The story centered on Trump’s “misstep,” with an eye-popping intro:

It was perhaps only a matter of time before Donald Trump & rsquo; s brasher instincts hammered through decorum’s ring that had held onto his gaffe-free first day in Japan.

The victims: the colourful, and much adored, koi carp of Akasaka palace in Tokyo.

The story was shared on media, and it performed well. Data from CrowdTangle, a service that tracks social sharing, shows that more than 41 million “followers” were possibly exposed to the narrative. (Since this number is derived from the number of users who follow the social accounts that shared the news, the true number of individual beings who saw it’s likely smaller.)

Once things became a little more clear, The Guardian thoroughly updated its own post, which raises an entirely different set of topics. The new variant has a fresh headline — “Fishy company: Trump and Abe ditch fish food to precious koi pond” — and the text that follows has been totally transformed. Take the newest subhead, for instance: “US president and Japanese host give fish a large feast on second day of former’s five-nation tour of Asia.”

Along with the very first traces no longer have anything to do with Trump’s “brasher instincts”:

Donald Trump and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, have obtained a approach to fish on the day of the US president’s tour of Asia.

Standing beside a pond brimming with koi at the Akasaka palace both men began draining their wooden containers and spooning fish out food.

You can almost hear the peg squeaking through the round hole. The revised post is a retrofit that likely wouldn’t have been written because it isn’t news, in case it hadn’t been needed by a correction. The Guardian set a short correction in the base (“This article has been amended on 6 November 2017 to make clear that Shinzo Abe also emptied the contents of his tank to the pond”), but it does not explain to readers the way it scrubbed wrong information from its pages. The newspaper didn’t immediately respond to Mashable‘s petition to learn more.  

Notably, the socket hasn’t deleted social media articles showing the first headline, which could allow the falsehood to spread if people share without clicking to the narrative, though the correspondent behind the bit tweeted a “mea culpa.”

A larger pond

To be crystal clear, The Guardian is only one outlet that bungled this narrative. And there is a very long line of publications that have run with reports for the sake of visitors. (Last year, I stepped into this snare, or very close to it, in Mashable.)

But if there is ever a time to reexamine the incentives and systems that pressure outlets and authors to produce these stories without proper vetting or doubt, it is now. To say the obvious, there is an climbing divide between Republicans and Democrats, based on recent surveys from the Pew Research Center; false reports that appear designed to rip Trump a fresh one likely aren’t helping.    

Less clear, but not as pressing, is that the discord we’ve faced because of viral news stories that are designed to make people lose faith in institutions — including the press that is free. This is a bigger issue than Trump’s presidency. It.

Contemplate historian Timothy Snyder’s words in his recent book On Tyranny

It’s your ability to discern and our confidence in knowledge that is shared that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is the taxpayer who assembles. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a tyrant.

The “koi” are harmless, except taken en masse, when they make everything look like it could be a lie. It’s comforting that their mistakes were immediately recognized by the outlets here and adjusted, but all these are damaging.  

Even though there are many bad actors — comprised one of them platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that reward “participation” and also the spread of any info with emotion-tickling “likes” and “retweets” — individuals, and especially professionals, should become vigilant about distributing info online prior to passing it together, before our bases crumble under us.

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