Pictures Can and Do Lie, and GIFs Lie Twice as Loudly

by Mathew on July 7, 2017 · 4 comments

If there’s one thing the coverage of Donald Trump has shown time and again, it’s that the mainstream media is more than happy to construct elaborate stories about him, based on nothing more than a tweet or a short GIF — even if the impression they give of events is distorted as a result.

The latest example was a mini-storm of coverage focused on the idea that Trump was ignored by Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the wife of the Polish prime minister, during a recent visit during the G20 summit. A video clip that made the rounds appeared to show Kornhauser-Duda avoiding a handshake with Trump in favor of one with his wife, Melania.

Headlines said things like “Watch Donald Trump Handshake Rejected by Polish First Lady in Hilariously Awkward Exchange” (Newsweek) and “Polish first lady passes over Trump’s handshake” (Washington Post). But is the video clip a fair representation of what actually happened? Not really.

If you look at longer video clips and those shot from a different angle, it’s obvious that the Polish first lady was heading for Melania Trump from the beginning, and didn’t pass over Trump, who was busy saying hello to her husband. And after she shook Melania’s hand, she turned and shook the president’s hand as well. Nothing very awkward at all.

So why did so many outlets — and plenty of Twitter accounts — choose to make so much out of the alleged rejection? Because it was funny, presumably, to think of the president of the United States being embarrassed or humiliated by someone refusing his handshake.

Short GIFS and clickbait headlines about Trump being rejected also likely drove a certain amount of low-quality, high-churn traffic to those news sites, something outlets like Newsweek are increasingly desperate for. But what is the long-term cost of these strategies?

The problem with posting a funny GIF of Trump is that, even though it might seem like a harmless laugh, to the extent that it distorts the reality of what actually happened, it plays right into the allegations of “fake news” coming from conservatives in the U.S. There are plenty of real things worth criticising Trump for — we don’t need to invent them.

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