A False Photo From a Real Massacre

Citizen-journalists are playing a greater role in showing conflict zones to the world and defining our understanding. What happens when they're wrong?

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Photographer Marco Di Lauro calls out the BBC for mislabeling one of his photos. (Facebook)

We might never know who first entered this photo into the social media currents, which sent it flying through Arabic- and English-language social networks (including my own Twitter account) until it landed on the BBC website's front page. Though it purportedly shows victims of Saturday's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, sourced from the anonymous "activists" who have provided so many similar images throughout the Arab Spring, in fact it is from Iraq and nearly a decade old.

Its actual photographer, Marco Di Lauro, fumed on his Facebook page that "somebody is using my images as propaganda." The photo, he explained, was taken in Iraq in May 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. According to its original caption, it shows bodies being prepared for mass burial in the town of Musayyib, where they'd been killed in the early 1990s by Saddam's forces as punishment for a failed uprising.

It's easy to see why Di Lauro would be upset, but the BBC's error seems like an innocent one, and is in some ways an inevitable result of the changing ways in which international media cover conflict zones. Places such as Houla, where Syrian forces killed dozens of civilians including 32 children under the age of 10, are often too dangerous to cover first-hand. Even when journalists can make their way in, as with New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks' trip to Syria in February, the visit must be brief, and even the journey to and from can be enormously risky; Times reporter Anthony Shadid died on the trip.

So media outlets must necessarily rely on citizen journalists, the activists and normal bystanders who record events on small devices such as phone cameras and then upload them to social networks, alerting the world to whatever they've seen. Since the Arab Spring began, this rise of this technologically connected citizen-journalist class has brought the world unprecedented access. This photo, taken in Cairo on the first day of protests in January 2011 and then uploaded to social media site Reddit, was quickly picked up by the BBC, Al Jazeera, and other outlets, soon becoming one of the most recognizable photos of the Egyptian revolution. In the first days of the Libyan revolution, the protests that became scenes of violent crackdown that became armed uprisings were all documented by sympathetic Libyans, whose photos helped form the world's impressions and thus its response, which was ultimately decisive. The same has been true of Syria, where locals have recorded damning videos of, for example, anti-aircraft tanks firing round after round into suburban homes.

Yet that access, for all its obvious value, takes some control of the world's understanding of events out of the hands of its traditional caretakers -- journalists, NGOs, international observers -- and puts it into the hands of activists and locals who have their own motives. This doesn't just mean that the world sees different representations of events than it otherwise would; because the activist-generated media moves so much faster than do traditional reporters, they can end up dominating the narrative of events.

Late on Saturday, United Nations officials took what was, for them, the unusual step of immediately acknowledging what had happened, declaring it a "brutal crime," and suggesting the Syrian government was responsible. Normally, the UN would wait days, weeks, or even months to conduct its own investigation and review, issued in a formal report that would often come out long after the guns had cooled. Some of this institutional hedging is still there, with the UN calling the circumstances of the slaughter "unclear," though the Syrian government's crackdowns have so far been largely consistent in process and form.

Though the United Nation declaration matters a great deal for diplomatic purposes, it so far has not matched Syria-based social media in driving the narrative of events. By the time the UN observers made their report, the Internet had already been flooded with photos and videos that told a far more detailed story, and in the more damning language of visual evidence. That flood included the 2003 Iraq photo, which someone, maybe by honest mistake or maybe out of a misplaced desire to increase their social media following with a viral photo, mislabeled it and sent it out into the ether.

As the New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson (who has reported from Syria since violence began there, making him unusually qualified to judge and interpret such images) wrote of the citizen-media deluge, "the videos show that some of the civilian victims -- with pieces of their bodies missing -- were probably nonspecific, by which I mean that, as in all wars, they were simply killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the men who pressed the 'fire' buttons on the artillery piece, or on the tank that fired the shells that ripped them apart, meant them no specific harm, per se, as individuals. Others, though, seem to show the telltale traces of up-close murders -- the result of guns pressed against people's heads and fired, and of knives drawn deeply across throats."

These videos and photos, too grisly to post here, have surfaced throughout the conflict, and can often be verified to a degree by independent reporting or NGO investigations. And the images that Anderson describes would be consistent with more traditional reporting so far from Houla. But, should the photos turn out to be wrong -- say, from an earlier massacre in a different city -- by the time we find out, it may be too late to undo the images' impact on outside understanding of what is happening in Houla and in Syria more broadly. First impressions matter, especially when that first impression is delivered so dramatically and convincingly: just ask the third or so of Americans who still believe, despite frequent reports to the contrary, that Saddam Hussein assisted al-Qaeda against the U.S.

The 2003 Iraq photo that got mistaken for Syria today was, in a way, not entirely inaccurate. There are many dead in Houla, who are reportedly being wrapped in white for burial, and some of the shrouded corpses are conspicuously smaller than the others. Perhaps this is part of why the image was able to spread so widely, and is still spreading on Twitter with the erroneous dateline. Anderson's own post on the Houla massacre carries a similar photo of white-wrapped corpses waiting on a tile floor for burial. The photo credit reads: "An amateur photograph taken Saturday, May 26, 2012. Via AP."