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What To Do With Those Fake Photos From Venezuela

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, February 24 2014

A photo from a 2011 Al Jazeera story about student protests in Chile was repurposed in Venezuela earlier this month.

As protests in Venezuela approach the two-week marker, news stories are just as much about what we don't know as what we do: “Venezuela Is Divided Even on Its Death Toll”; “These Photos Being Shared From Venezuela Are Fake”; “The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night – and the International Media Is Asleep At the Switch.”

The Venezuelan government has thrown up barricades to local and foreign media outlets alike. Seven reporters from CNN had their press credentials revoked for not following the government line on the protests. A Colombia-based news channel was kicked off Venezuelan television for its coverage of the previously peaceful protests. Venezuelan netizens have reported problems accessing tools and websites online and Twitter has confirmed that the Venezuelan government blocked users' images on the platform. Where mainstream media coverage has been thwarted, social media attempts to pick up the slack. One problem: the conversation is awash in faked photos. What's an observer to do, other than take everything online with a grain of salt?

The fake photos are the latest twist in the virtual opposition v. pro-government conflict.

In an Al Jazeera post about “Venezuela's media wrangle,” that conflict is described as one between traditional and new (social) media:

[President Hugo] Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has de-fanged the ‘bourgeois’ media - to the point that Venezuelans could only see coverage of the current unrest on a private channel broadcasting from Colombia.

And although the government forced that channel off the Venezuelan airwaves, the fight has migrated online. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has more Twitter followers than the president, but activists have been accused of uploading false information and misleading content.

In response to the fake photos, journalists and observers are sharing tips on how to verify information before sharing and how to be a responsible citizen journalist.

Others have responded by warning of the “fertile ground for spreading rumors and hysteria” that is social media.

CNN iReport, a platform for reader-generated stories, has received more than 3,000 citizen reports on Venezuela. As of February 21, they had confirmed more than 120.

One could interpret that number optimistically (more than 120 verified citizen reports!) or pessimistically (less than five percent of citizen reports have been verified?!) but collaborations between netizens and traditional media are absolutely necessary when information is being squeezed and manipulated on both sides.

The one thing that you shouldn't do with those fake photos is to discount citizen media altogether. It is next to impossible to know the intent of those spreading them—was it really to spread violence and encourage a political coup or was it meant to undermine the efforts of opposition actors who have been using social media to spread accurate information from their perspective? After all, it is the opposition's cause that has been most injured in the fake photos scandal (although a pro-government supporter also tweeted an image from four years ago and passed it off with a new description).

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