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The New Literalism: How Misinformation on the Internet is Transforming the Mainstream Media

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Someone apologised on Tuesday, although they hadn't done anything wrong.

Unusual you might say, but it's something we're going to see a lot more of.

The reason for that is we have come to a time when misinformation, supposition and the tidal bores of online outrage are treated in the media with the same reverence as fact - provided they have an audience.

In the massively expanded and ever expanding world of online social networking and commentary there is now a sizeable section of the community who take everything they find on the internet at face value and who do not inquire. This amorphous, shape-shifting group regards what they see online, mistakes and all, literally and farms it out as fact to their connections.

Context has been thrown away for many people online and in its place is a new and dangerously ignorant reality.

By the time art collector Dasha Zhukova issued her grovelling apology on Tuesday afternoon for having been photographed sitting on a Bjarne Melgaard chair in the form of a black woman, millions of people around the world had already got a completely wrong opinion of her.

It went something like this: This picture suggests Russia is racist to blacks, the fashion industry is racist to blacks, stupid rich people are racist to blacks, therefore Dasha Zhukova must be racist to blacks.

It was fuelled by the media, who reported the 'outrage' of regular people, which it then stoked and re-reported on. Many publishers seemed to leave out crucial information that would have explained the context of the photo, perhaps to not diminish the suggestion of racism.

Some punters even thought the chair was a real woman, made to pose semi-naked in subjugation.

And as if the existence of the picture, published digitally on the pop culture website Buro 24/7 about Garage magazine (of which Zhukova is editor), might not be enough to stir people up, others proffered that it had been doubly offensive coming on Martin Luther King Day (or MLK Day).

Nevermind that this was a Russian website and MLK Day is only celebrated in the US, and oddly Hiroshima and Toronto, and that elsewhere in the world few people are aware of it.

Online those boundaries are forgotten and made indistinguishable.

The digital community in the US, and quick to follow the media, quickly concluded this was some added racist slight by backward Europeans.

And because of this US-centric addition to the controversy the rest of the world suddenly was given the impression that the entire event had occurred in America rather than in cyberspace somewhere over the Urals.

Few people saw it for what it was - an edgy piece of political art designed to underline Zhukova's serious industry credentials as a collector of modern art.

Not everyone's cup of tea, sure, but not a malicious or even clumsy act of bigotry.

Created by the New York-based Norwegian artist and sculptor Bjarne Melgaard the piece first appeared at a Paris exhibition last year, titled Empire State, New York Art Now.

Because it deliberately and closely referenced the 1960s forniphilia (human furniture) works of British sculptor Allen Jones, who created similar works with white women as subjects, it was not at the time regarded as racist.

At the height of Pop Art Jones, now aged 76, created a series of furniture pieces based on bound white women, that inspired the sexualised female props in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

But in Tuesday's digital furore few knew this or bothered to find it out. Instead this one unexplained picture fuelled a completely unnecessary racism row.

Zhukova, the partner of billionaire Roman Abramovich, and the publishers of Buro 24/7 fell on their swords, aware once the ball was rolling no sensible explanation would be enough to satisfy the online hornets' nest that had been stirred up. While drawing a line under it their apologies, though, only gave those way-off claims of racism the appearance of credibility.

On Wednesday, the story is front page news and the truth even more obscured amidst the blustering, ignorant hubbub.

But this is hardly an isolated incident.

Increasingly misinformation peddled online is being repeated enough to make people believe it. And if enough people believe it the media starts to report it as though it were real.

In the past week a picture reportedly of a Syrian child sleeping between the graves of his parents swept the internet. It seemed to perfectly and dramatically underline the futile loss of lives in the Syrian conflict and further condemn the country's leadership.

The only problem was it wasn't a Syrian child and they weren't graves. The picture set up and taken in Saudi Arabia by an artist had been appropriated because it fit the subject matter the original disseminator wanted to convey.

When photographer Abdul Aziz al Otaibi contacted the person who had first deliberately misrepresented it on Twitter as an example of Syrian atrocities, the response he got was: "Why don't you just let go and claim it is a picture from Syria and gain a reward from God."

The damage, in any case, had already been done with more people viewing the viral image than will ever read the truth about it.

On a less important level this week there was also the 'bikini bridge' hoax, picked up by the mainstream media as fact.

Writing in the Telegraph, Radhika Sangani noted: "Apparently all it takes for the internet to believe something is a trend is a few celebs tweets, blog posts and a hashtag.. behind all of this is something much darker: we all believed it because it sounds plausible."

And commenting on the number of hoax YouTube videos reported as fact in the press last year Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post described 2013 as "the year the media decisively elevated social media phenomenon, real or imagined, to the level of actual news".

She cited the cheapness of sourcing it, the growth of social media and the lust for page views - tactics pioneered by high turnover news sites like Mail Online.

The often valueless sourcing of opinion from Twitter has meant you can find anyone online for comment on a particular angle to a story.

Gone are the days where a journalist would always seek out an expert in a field for their view. Now they take their pick from any number of anonymous postings, no matter how ill-informed, biased or stark-raving mad they are.

Reaction, any reaction, is reportable, no matter how right or wrong it is.

And now that everyone has a voice to express themselves the new literalists even make objections to the use of metaphors. No article can run online today describing a rivalry as a 'war' without several po-faced readers commenting self-righteously that war is nothing like that and the author's an idiot for suggesting it.

The value of harnessing an online audience for news outlets has never been greater. We now measure the success and therefore the value of companies by the membership or readership they command. And it is so large now papers and broadcasters are unable to preclude it from mainstream news.

Unfortunately the upshot is facts, context and the full story have increasingly become a casualty.

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