A Video Tweeted by Pompeo Was Authentic. His Description of It Was Wrong.
The video lasted only 22 seconds but its message seemed clear, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted the world to know so he posted it to his Twitter account for his 1.1 million followers.
“Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more,” Mr. Pompeo wrote.
The video was authentic, but the problem was that Mr. Pompeo’s description of it was exaggerated.
Witnesses in Iraq who watched the event said that only a handful of men carrying Iraqi flags had run — not danced — along a road while the voice of one man was heard praising the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran in a targeted United States airstrike on Friday at Baghdad International Airport. The group of men were chanting that General Suleimani’s death had avenged the deaths of Iraqis protesting Iran’s presence in their country.
But the witnesses said that the group of men was very small, that no one joined in and that the minor demonstration was over in less than two minutes.
Mr. Pompeo’s tweet, widely shared, is another example of how misinformation spreads in the age of social media when people are quick to accept and promote information that validates their own world views. The acceptance of online images like the video Mr. Pompeo posted also helps to explain how facts themselves have become subjects for debate and the political polarization epidemic.
The State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, declined to comment on the video.
The original video and the earliest version that appeared online was on a Facebook page at 8:41 p.m. Thursday Eastern Standard Time. That Facebook user uploaded the same video six times over 10 hours. One of the six was then picked up by Storyful, which verifies and publishes material from social media. Storyful contacted the uploader via Facebook Messenger to confirm that the individual had filmed the video in Tahrir Square and had posted it.
The goal with a tweet like that is to create a narrative and editorialize, said Joan Donovan, a lecturer at Harvard who specializes in protest communication. This typically occurs in the first few days of an event — when those with a vested interest hope to score the dominant narrative to shape how the story of a historical moment is shared, Ms. Donovan said.
“Twitter has become a premier forum for international and foreign relations, where world leaders are subtweeting about impending war,” she added.
As soon as the news of the airstrike was confirmed, foreign leaders took to Twitter to post their reactions. Mr. Pompeo’s tweet — sent six hours after the killing — appears to have been a great success.
Almost 24 hours after his tweet was first posted, it has been retweeted more than 53,000 times, re-shared by hundreds of accounts in multiple languages, including The United States’ State Department’s Farsi Twitter account. The video in the tweet has been viewed almost five million times.
In all, the tweet has been liked and shared more than 30,000 times across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, according to Crowdtangle, a social analytics tool owned by Facebook. On YouTube, the video was shared by individuals and organizations, including RT, Russia’s state-sponsored news outlet.
“When we think about government communication, it’s public diplomacy in peacetime, propaganda in wartime,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who studies propaganda and is a state media expert. “Official sources can propagate a narrative they seek without context.”
That is occurring, they said, because of the breakdown of gatekeeping, a role that the news media had typically played. That breakdown is something President Trump and his supporters have fostered in regularly dismissing fair and factual reporting. Now, governments, the platforms and ordinary citizens all participate in public diplomacy and propaganda.
This puts the onus on individuals to be more discerning about the source of the information they consume, a need that is often overlooked in highly emotional, partisan times, experts said.
“It becomes incumbent on social media users to essentially do their own investigative reporting in that they have to crosscheck and fact-check because of the nature of the algorithm,” said Lisa Kaplan, who runs a start-up called Alethea Group that helps fight disinformation.
There are basic things users can do, Ms. Kaplan said. They must look at the source, the author and the date of anything on social media, and be aware that algorithms show what they are already engaging with and can predict what they want to see.
But that, the experts added, presumes users want to know a factual, truthful account of events as opposed to something posing as the truth that makes them feel good.
Ben Decker contributed reporting.
Millie Tran is the deputy off-platform editor. @millie
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