1/6 and Popular Culture: Some Reflections

I was eleven on 9/11/2001. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, and my mom put me on the school bus like she did every morning. But it was on that bus, sitting right behind the driver and her radio, that I heard my first inkling something had gone terribly wrong. I can’t remember what made me start paying attention to the driver’s radio, but the distinct phrases I’ll always remember was, “Everyone is running around. People are trying to get out. It’s like a scene from a movie.” …

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Joe Biden is the President-elect of the United States, and people on the Internet ~have feelings~ about pets (specifically, dogs) being back in the White House come January 20. President-elect and incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden have two German Shepherd dogs, Champ and Major, and while Champ has spent time in DC before, Major was adopted by the Bidens from the Delaware Humane Society in 2018, which will make him the first rescued and adopted dog to live in the White House.

The Internet immediately took to Champ and Major, as it is want to do when it comes to adorable pets and animals. The hashtag and label DOTUS (Dogs of the United States) took off, and fan accounts popped up on Instagram and Twitter to document the incoming First Dogs’ shenanigans. …

Last week, Twitter made a temporary change that added an extra step to the retweeting option. Now, when clicking RT, users would be automatically taken to what was the former “Quote Retweet” option, which prompts the user to add their own comments in addition to the retweet. There was a workaround, however, and users could simply click “send” without adding their own commentary, and the post would function like a normal retweet. This decision was presumably made by the social media platform ahead of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, as the site said the change would last through Election Week.

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While getting people to hopefully think twice before they retweet is a good thing, this move is merely a temporary band-aid that does nothing to fix the platform’s systemic issues that contribute to misinformation. …

Recently, India banned 59 smartphone applications created by Chinese developers over security concerns. One of those 59 apps was TikTok, which has over 800 million active users worldwide, with 467 million downloads in India alone — meaning one-third of the video-sharing app’s downloads and users had once come from India. One week later, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. was also considering banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps, noting concerns on compromised user data. How did the app of Old Town Road, e-girls, and viral dances become the latest nexus of cybersecurity and geopolitical conflicts? …

Last week, The Daily Beast reported Pizzagate, something we thought was relatively behind us, was alive and well on the video-sharing social networking platform TikTok. Pizzagate, or the baseless conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and other Democratic party elites were operating a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington D.C. pizza establishment, massively circulated ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The lie had disastrous consequences — in December 2016, a crazed gunman drove from North Carolina to the D.C. pizza establishment in question and opened fired into a closet with an assault rifle.

So why is the conspiracy theory having a resurgence on TikTok now? Post-2016, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube attempted (and mostly succeeded) in removing Pizzagate conspiracy theories and misinformation from their platforms. However, de-platforming extremist ideas and the people that spread them is more like whack-a-mole than outright removal — they just tend to migrate platforms and pop up elsewhere, as was the case with Pizzagate’s resurgence on TikTok. Though, the conspiracy theory’s new iterations on TikTok now no longer focus on Democratic politics and also include Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Chrissy Teigen in the ranks of its tall tales. …

A digital media researcher explains why it’s so tempting to spread fake animal news

A mother and baby elephant walking through a forest.
A mother and baby elephant walking through a forest.
Photo: paweldotio/Unsplash

A lot has changed in the past few months as Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, ravages the globe. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and humans — and their social media habits — have remained pretty much what they were like before phrases like “flatten the curve,” “Zoom meeting,” and, in my line of work as a professor, “continuity of instruction” became part of our daily vernacular.

Last week, National Geographic published an article titled “Fake Animal News Abounds on Social Media as Coronavirus Upends Life.” The piece mentioned many stories that had gone viral while the pandemic raged around us. Many of these viral bits were uplifting and cheerful, and they included stories such as swans and dolphins returning to Venice canals since humans had vacated public life. A similar story involved a group of elephants raiding vats of corn wine in the Yunnan Province in China, where they drank so much that they passed out in a tea garden. These stories about swans, dolphins, and elephants roaming freely because human public gatherings have been prohibited offered some heartwarming news in the face of dangerous, uncertain times, and they seem to underscore an unspoken point: With humans out of the way, nature can reign free again. …

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Narwhal the unicorn puppy (source: @macthepitbull on Instagram)

Last week, a unicorn puppy named Narwhal went viral on the internet. This week, the rescue organization taking care of him issued a statement on their Instagram: they were the real rescue organization, and fake organization Instagram accounts had cropped up and were using their photos to gain followers and/or donations. Also this week, the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign used a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to promote the presidential hopeful’s plan for black Americans, all while passing the woman off as an American citizen. These are just two examples, but they are the latest iterations of online image misuse that has become newsworthy. Digital images have a hard time online. …


Jessica Maddox

Professor of digital media studies and technology. Into all things internet and dogs.

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