Avi Mayer called it first, when he asked if the photo below was genuine.
He guessed it wasn’t.
Over the last few days, hundreds of increasingly sophisticated rockets have been fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The rockets have been able to reach large cities like Ashdod, Beer Sheva and even Gedera, only 25 miles south of Tel Aviv proper. Most of those have been shot down by the Iron Dome system, an anti-missile defence system that actually works. Some, inevitably, have got through. A rocket hit a school yesterday, but luckily it was empty, all students in south-central Israel told to stay home to keep them safe.
Israel’s response has actually been pretty restrained – hitting the small rocket crews from Islamic Jihad and the PRC and operational leaders. There had been no reports of a girl being killed.
Avi found some websites using the picture in 2009, which was enough to prove that it didn’t happen yesterday.
I put the photo into Google Image Search, which brought up a lot of 2008 sites claiming that the girl was Iraqi, a victim of a white phosphorus attack by the US on Fallujah in 2004. I tweeted this:
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) March 11, 2012
So I kept digging. Playing with the time-window, I could find no record of the photo before 2006, and several in August 2006, which suggested that this might the time it was taken. Eventually I found an left-wing Israeli website called Mahsom. The photo was captioned:
הילדה רג’א אבו שעבאן בת ה-3 נהרגה בידי הצבא ב-9 באוגוסט. צילום: סוכנות ופא
which translates as:
The girl Raja Abu Shaban, aged 3, killed by the [Israeli] army on the 9th of August. Photo: WAFA
This was the only source that named the girl, so it seemed to be genuine. But to double-check, I googled “Raja Abu Shaban” in English to see what came up. One of the first hits was this Little Green Footballs post, from August 2006, which revealed that AP and Reuters had retracted their stories about the poor girl.
AP published the following note:
EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A Relative carries the body of Rajaa Abu Shaban, 5, into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006. On Thursday, doctors said that the 5-year-old Palestinian girl initially believed to have been killed by an Israeli military strike Wednesday apparently died after sustaining head injuries during a fall from a swing in the same area shortly before the strike.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)
I passed on my info to Avi
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) March 11, 2012
He found a similar note from Reuters, including their photo recall note. And then he spread the word to his 4000 followers. He forced Twitter user @ManaraRam, who had spread the photo into admitting it was false. And then the blogs picked up on it – the IDF’s official blog and the Times of Israel. Honest Reporting traced the original tweet to a UN employee.
Some thoughts on the Twitterstorm:
First, perhaps I’m naive, but I try to follow the advice of the sage Yehoshua ben Prachia, who used to say:
“הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות”
“Judge every person favourably”
Or perhaps I’m ultra-cynical, because I also do my best to live by Hanlon’s razor:
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
My point is that I don’t assume the people who used these incorrect photos were deliberately lying. Maybe they made a mistake with their image searches, or didn’t check dates properly. That doesn’t mean I rule out malice absolutely, but I don’t assume it. People are generally quite capable of screwing up.
That said, no doubt there are some anti-Israel campaigners who would say “Well, this might not be an actual photo, but I’m sure it reflects the essential truth about what’s going on”. Or something. In fact, a load of them have answered in just such a predictable way. This article by Lynette Nusbacher wisely notes:
The IDF Spokesman blog says that the photos have been proven false. False is, in context, irrelevant. The picture has spoken its thousand words, and the one word “false” is not an adequate response.
Dr Nusbacher is partly wrong; “false” is not irrelevant, and it’s important to expose distortions when they appear. Bur she’s also right to note that the damage is done, and the wider narrative that the picture re-enforces is already well-established. Despite hundreds of rockets, the international media narrative has been “Israel hits Gaza”.
Knocking down false photos isn’t nearly enough. But it’s a start.