The following post has been created by author Robin Cracknell.
A recent post, ‘Photographs of animals and fake news‘, made me sigh. Why do we buy into this relentless stream of memes-masquerading-as-truth? When did we become so gullible? And why do we use these photographs as badges to advertise ourselves as somehow more virtuous, more ‘woke’? The internet has a long history of visual manipulation, of course, but why do we still succumb to it so willingly? There is a theory that as bad things become rarer, the human brain makes the definition of “bad” more encompassing and we find more to enrage us. We need to be enraged. ‘I’m offended, therefore I am’.
Political propaganda is nothing new but, purely for context, recall how eager we were to tweet / share / implode over the Jussie Smollett story. We saw his face, some mild swelling, a small mark on a dark cheek and the word MAGA in the headline. Picture + buzzword = truth. The facts were iffy but … no matter … we’re fuming. And how we revelled in the Covington boys story; a few seconds of video showing a kid, again, a MAGA story, looking baffled while an elderly stranger banged a drum in his face. A young white (i.e., entitled/privileged/toxic) face in profile with an elderly non-white face. There’s your story right there. No facts, context, or headline needed. Eventually a longer video appeared changing the narrative but by then we were raging at some other injustice.
Then the photos of ‘kids in cages’, the ‘crying child with a pizza’… More proof of Trump’s villainy cascading before us. There was a debate later as to the dates of the pictures and context but by then they were memes imprinted on our psyche. Such was their moral fuzziness though that, as often happens, both sides claimed them as vindicating their ‘rightness’. Why this recklessness of belief, pictures over stories, slogans over nuance? Without context, pictures tell us nothing. Worse, they perpetuate misinformation. Worse still, they divide us. We say we love diversity but diversity of opinion? Context? Facts? Erm … you’re defriended, asshole.
Forgive the tiresome political angle. It’s just context for the far more interesting, previously discussed, psychological phenomenon of viral hoaxes about animals. As with politics, we seem desperate to champion something, anything, that tells the world how right we are, how good we are, how much we care. (To all the guys who foamed over the Gillette campaign telling us how toxic we are comes to mind. By posting how awful other men are, of course, proved how self-aware, how woke, how good you are!) The animal memes and tropes are the same; ‘See how empathic I am!’ If animals can show compassion … why can’t we?’ (By ‘we’, I mean ‘you,’ of course. I’m already virtuous, can’t you see?)
The problem with these animal hoaxes is the same as the political ones: hypocrisy and inconsistency. Compassion is complicated. Photographs are complicated. Blinkered vision is no vision. Nihilsentimentalgia has already spoken eloquently of the picture of a ‘wild’ jaguar embracing his human rescuer. Many have shared that photograph as an illustration for how compassionate we all should be. Like Antifa, they’ll be quite happy to split your head open if you question their compassionate agenda, but … no matter. These things are complicated.
Remember the picture of the woman who killed the rare black giraffe? Well … 18 year old bull giraffes get dark. He wasn’t ‘rare’. He was a typical elder bull who had already killed three young bulls. Each one of these young bulls could have fathered countless others. There was a far more complicated narrative than the massively shared photograph of this person (who, like the Covington kid, was mercilessly bullied, body-shamed, death threats to her and her family, the usual stuff … all by compassionate folks like us.) Context, however, matters, but the online hate narrative has no time for that. A great deal of money and 2,000 pounds of meat was shared amongst villagers yet we, munching our hamburgers, are offended? We hate, we amplify the hate by sharing our disgust, we pat our collective selves on the back with ‘likes’ and then scroll on to the next target.
Then there is the innocuous picture of the monkey saving a dog in the midst of a tsunami, various floods, fires, explosions … different narrative every time – all false. The photographer Dani Weiss says: ‘This image was taken in a village in the Hilltribe county in Thailand. The monkey was tied up around the waist. He basically was carrying around the puppy and playing with him. Not much more. It looks bizarre but nothing awful seemed to be happening. Never understood why the monkey was tied up ..’ We don’t want to notice that the monkey was tied up for our amusement. We needed to believe he was free and acting saintly. The mere unverified, unsourced assertion that this was something special turned a touristy snapshot into a viral phenomenon. What is wrong with us?
The viral picture of Álvaro Múnera, the Colombian torero, overwhelmed by his own brutality, weeping tears of guilt and shame in the gaze of the very animal he was meant to butcher. Well … no. Múnera didn’t undergo his epiphany against bullfighting in the middle of a bullfight; he retired only when forced out for good after a goring permanently paralyzed him. The idea of torturing animals for entertainment disgusts me so when I saw this I thought ‘At last, this guy feels what I’ve felt all along!’. For that moment, I felt morally superior. That’s why these pictures work. Never mind that I know nothing about this man or that I still, shamefully, sometimes eat animals. Who am I to use Álvaro Múnera to advertise my own righteousness? The picture claiming to be him weeping is, in fact, another torero not weeping at all so there are even deeper layers to this lie. But we all cried over it. Well … we posted crying emojis.
And then there’s the wolf-pack. Supposedly led by elders, respectfully chosen to set the pace, carefully positioned so as never to be left behind. Surely a lesson we, as humans, must learn. Put our elderly parents first in our lives, always close, never left behind. Except that … no. The photograph does indeed show a pack of wolves in Wood Buffalo National Park, but the narrative is an anonymously tacked-on lie. The pack is not being led by the three oldest members and there is no “alpha” wolf, as implied by a viral Facebook post, controlling and guiding from the rear. Never mind. It gave us ‘the feels’ and reminded us to maybe call Grandpa at the care home next Christmas. And, no … speaking of Christmas, that picture of an emaciated polar bear has nothing to do with climate change. And bees don’t respect the faces of holy icons or spell out the word ‘Allah’ in beeswax formations.. I suspect they have their own mysteries far holier and intricate than our own. Projecting our own slanted narratives upon them demeans them … and ourselves.