Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cristiano Ronaldo, Emmanuel Macron and Gisele Bundchen made the same (and, unfortunately, very common) mistake on Thursday: They didn’t fact-check an image before posting it on social media.
And the consequence was brutal. They generated an international wave of disinformation around fires in the Amazon region — a crisis that was already serious enough.
According to official public data released by the Brazilian government, there have been 72,843 fires in the country this year — more than half of them in the rainforest region. That represents an 84% increase compared with the same period last year.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, however, doesn’t seem to trust this information nor to be willing to take steps to prevent fires.
Some weeks ago, he laid off the head of the institute that had been keeping track of not only fires in the region but also deforestation for decades. Bolsonaro disagreed in public with the institute’s last reportings and now says he wants to hire a private company to collect data.
Meanwhile, the rainforest burns. NASA has photographed it from space. On Monday, São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, located hundreds of miles away from the rainforest, experienced a gray rain, or a storm of ashes. Specialists say they believe it was caused by the fire.
This is why on Thursday, famous people like the Portuguese soccer player, the American actor, the pop star, the French politician and the Brazilian top models went online to demand some action from Bolsonaro.
The photo published by Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram received more than 7 million likes but it didn’t show the Amazon region. It was actually taken in Rio Grande do Sul, in the southern part of Brazil. And it was not even a new photo. It was shot in 2013.
The two other images shared by the other celebrities in the list also showed flames in the forest, but there are even older — from 1989 — and can be both easily found in photo databases like Shutterstock or Alamy.
These mistakes didn’t just come from foreigners. Brazilian top model Fernanda Lima, for example, posted an image of a “crying monkey” carrying her baby, suggesting it was an effect of the fire. The photo, however, was taken in India, in 2017. There is no connection between that scene and the terrible situation the Brazilian rainforest is facing now.
Aware of the misuse of several images, President Bolsonaro hit back. Late at night, he tweeted against the French president, Emanuel Macron.
“I regret that President Macron seeks to instrumentalize an internal issue of Brazil and other Amazonian countries for personal political gains. The sensationalist tone with which he refers to the Amazon (appealing even to fake photos) does nothing to solve the problem”.
By the time this article was published, Macron and the other celebrities hadn’t changed their posts or talked about the use of misleading photos. International media had already shared some of Brazilian fact-checker Agência Lupa’s and Agence France-Presse debunks.
But fact-checkers in Brazil were afraid the discussion around the Amazon fires — a vital one — might just end up being a discussion around misinformation.
“There is no doubt old photos showing Amazon fires are symbolic and refer to what is happening at this moment in the Amazon region. But posting old images might trigger an awkward and misplaced discussion around fake news now,” said Natalia Leal, director of content for Agência Lupa.
“Instead of debating about solutions for the fires in the Amazon, which are pretty serious, people might spend time and effort pointing out what is true and what is not. We don’t need that. We don’t need to use old photos or out of context pictures to show how serious the situation is. It is just very serious.”