Over a year ago, which in internet-time may as well be a decade, Kim Stafford wrote a Tea Party slogan on a pizza box, and then went to a party. The kegger was Boston Tea Party themed, and since she was invited at the last minute she didn’t have time to procure a tri-corner hat, so a new Tea Party sandwich-board wearing protester was her costume. Little did she know, she’d become a figurehead of hatred before she even got home.
The image, which has probably been seen by hundreds of thousands at this point, was uploaded to Tumblr, without context, and it took off. This kind of thing happens a lot. In the case of Twitter, 140 characters or less are pulled out of the context of your timeline, and on Tumblr, everything can be stripped out leaving you with just an image.
It doesn’t matter that it was a joke, or that it was a bad costume. What matters is that sites like Tumblr, Facebook, Imgur, and dozens of other websites are practically designed to strip out context. Without taking into account the surrounding story, the story is written when a viewer projects onto it. In the case of Kim Stafford, the story was that she was a racist with bad spelling.
Buzzfeed and Upworthy thrive on pushing stories like this to viral fever pitch. When it turns out the story is a lie, they cover that too, and even that story goes viral. It’s a model that pays off — Buzzfeed gained over 20 million Facebook interactions in November of 2013. Apparently, the attitude is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Stafford tried to fix it. “I reblogged the same picture of myself over and over again and told them who I was and that it was all just a joke. I did it as nicely as I could, I did it at least 100 times, maybe.” she told Esquire. Her efforts were futile though as it made its way to Facebook days before the 2012 mid-term elections. Despite her effort to have it removed from the ‘Being Liberal’ Facebook page, they refused.
The insults, death threats and worse, continued unabated as the picture reached its zenith, and then began to fade into the background. Other hot-button topics and images came up, and the story was replaced with a new outrage. The core issue remains, laying in wait for its next victim – the internet likes its story better than the truth.
Whether you try to fight it, ignore it, or you ask for $10,000 which ought to be yours, the problem will persist. Without context, an image isn’t worth a whole lot, let alone 1,000 words.
Image credit: qthrul