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Taking a Cat Photo Approach to History

In the midst of chaos and tragedy of the 2014 Ferguson riots, a white cop embraced a black youth. It was a moment of harmony within a storm of racial conflict. It was a beautiful photograph. No wonder we made it the defining image of the riots by sharing it 400,000 times on Facebook.

But wait—the photo wasn’t quite the spontaneous moment of race-reconciliation it purported to be. Twelve-year-old Devonte Hart had been holding a sign offering “free hugs” in Portland, Oregon; police sergeant Bret Barnum got talking to him and asked for one. As did many other people that day. The image tells us nothing about the riots half a country away, let alone the tensions and conflicts motivating them. So why did that particular photo become “iconic”?

To answer that, we have to acknowledge that something unprecedented is happening to the news process. A third of adults in the U.S. get their news from Facebook, which is fast becoming the most powerful delivery platform on the planet (not to mention, soon, a host for news content itself). This transforms not only the distribution of information but its redistribution—not simply the way the news is shaped in partisan interests, but how we re-shape to suit our own agendas (or to appease our consciences). A photo that offers a feel-good view of race is exactly what America wants to click on. It’s not a record of events. It’s a record of how we want to remember events.

Welcome to the “storified” world of social news, where simple, emotive narratives win out over complex analysis. Buzzfeed’s post “29 heartbreaking images” of last year’s Venezuelan protests, a collection of photos of students protesting the embattled socialist government, was dutifully shared by activists worldwide. But dig into that inspirational listicle and you’ll find that the Venezuelan “opposition” is linked to the country’s elite, and the student protesters are far from disenfranchised underdogs (one received a $500,000 Milton Friedman prize from the Cato Institute in 2008). As journalist Ellie Hagan points out, the photos fed a sexy narrative of brave, young, and of course photogenic protestors rising up against a repressive regime. It looked good. It shared well. Who really cares what actually happened?

The news has always been driven by agendas—and the manipulation of imagery was one of the 20th century’s chief propaganda tools. But social news doesn’t need to retouch photos or restage scenes; it simply recontextualises them with similarly distorting effects. During the 2014 Gaza occupation, the #Gazaunderattack Twitter thread buzzed with horrifying images of dead Palestinian babies, enough to influence anyone’s opinion. But many of the corpse images shared under that hashtag weren’t from that conflict at all; they were actually recycled from past occupations of Palestine. Others still were blithely lifted from the Syrian conflict.

Or take the memes of British parliamentary sessions that showed an empty chamber for bills concerning social welfare and the vulnerable. Emotive stuff, right? Actually, no; Britain’s politicians may be lackluster in their concern for social justice, but these photos don’t prove it—they were actually snatched from completely different sessions.

This is the reality of “media via meme.” Someone cooks up some out-of-context photos, thousands of people share them, and before long, that’s the popular version of history. What went wrong? Social tools were supposed to pave the way toward a more democratic information ecology, where “citizen journalists” would replace professional reporters, and the collective public watchdog could hold the failing media to account. For instance, #Gazaunderattack came about as a grassroots response to a perceived Israeli bias in western reporting of the conflict. But misattributed, manipulative photos aren’t a triumph for impartial reporting. Like other social-media casualties, they simply crowdsource a lie.

But who’s the liar here, who can we blame? No media mogul or propagandist government forced the sharing of that iconic Ferguson hug. That was a lie we told ourselves. Perhaps we need to recognize that viral news isn’t really “news” at all, but more like collective therapy—it’s a show of feeling and fellowship, rather than an attempt to describe reality. Those who shared the Ferguson hug weren’t so very different from millions of “hashtactivists” tweeting their support for #BringBackOurGirls, insisting on hope in the face of awful events.

These gestures are more meaningful than we think. Just as Google “filter-bubbles” our search results to cushion us with results that match our pre-existing beliefs, we too create a bubble around us with our likes and shares—a cushion of confirmation bias that reinforces the opinions we already hold. It’s comforting to reduce complex events to “inspirational” photos. It’s a cat photo approach to history.

Choosing what to remember means also choosing what to forget. Collective amnesia can be a dangerous thing. And it takes more than a hug to cure that.