What it's like to see your photo transformed into a racist online hoax
When Gabriella Angotti-Jones checked her email Thursday, she found something she wasn’t expecting.
“I got a Google Alert, because I signed up for Google Alerts for my name, and I’m used to ignoring them because they’re usually just from the (Tampa Bay) Times,” said the 23-year-old photo intern. “But then I clicked on a link and it went to Snopes, and I was like, ‘Snopes? What the heck?’”
The article debunked a video posted to the USA Politics Daily News Facebook page claiming that beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program burned an American flag. The video had more than 42,000 shares and 800,000 views as of publication.
And at the center of it all was one of Angotti-Jones’ photos.
“I saw it was a photo I’d taken two years ago at the California GOP in Burlingame, and it was a photo of a (Donald) Trump piñata burning,” said Angotti-Jones, a recent San Francisco State University graduate.
Originally published in a San Francisco newspaper in April 2016, the image was picked up by fake news website Truthfeed in September 2017 and repurposed into a video and accompanying article, Snopes reported. A related tweet had racked up nearly 500 likes and retweets as of publication.
Draped in Mexican Flags
Burn the American Flag
Yet want amnesty??
— Boca Vista (@bocavista2016) September 6, 2017
Poynter caught up with Angotti-Jones (full disclosure: It wasn’t that hard because she happens to be my roommate) to talk about her reaction to seeing one of her photos used for a piece of fake news, as well as how that affected the way she thinks about her work as a photojournalist. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.
What was it like to see your photo debunked by Snopes nearly two years after you took it?
I saw that the whole article was on how some alternative news website said that DACA recipients were burning an American flag. But if you look at the image, what is burning doesn’t even look remotely like a flag — it looks like the remains of something. If you look on El Tecolote’s website, the newspaper I was shooting for, and you click through the gallery, you can see that it’s a Trump piñata being burned.
Also, I thought it was kind of funny that someone dressed up as “Captain Mexico” put out the Trump piñata right after. So despite what all these people were saying about how DACA recipients weren’t grateful for America and were burning an American flag, they just completely didn’t realize that someone dressed up as Captain Mexico extinguished the fire.
— SFist (@SFist) April 29, 2016
Has this ever happened to you before? I know you cover a lot of protests and politically charged events.
No it hasn’t. It’s happened to a lot of my friends; images have been picked up and circulated around Twitter, or occasionally you get a couple of comments on your images if you cover these kinds of protests. That’s pretty much it.
It sounds crazy to have your photo used like that.
It’s insane. I really don’t know what to think of it other than the fact that the way that they construed it was just so off from what it actually was. There’s no other explanation for it other than that it was meant to be misinterpreted. Because if you really look at the image, it’s literally just a bunch of kids who are wrapped in Mexican flags watching this Trump piñata burn.
And these people said, “Oh, they’re DACA recipients,” which literally is because they’re brown and wrapped in Mexican flags — even though we don’t know that. We don’t know if there were DACA recipients there; the protest wasn’t even for DACA. It was against Trump because he had recently said stuff about Mexican immigrants and undocumented people, so a bunch of young people came out with Mexican flags to say, “We’re here,” as a solidarity kind of thing.
How does this affect the way you’re going to think about your work going forward? I feel like it would really freak me out to see my work appropriated.
I think as a student especially, you don’t think your work is going to get looked at. You just kind of put it on Twitter for your school newspaper, whatever paper you’re volunteering for, and it’s just kind of a way to go through the exercise and get the reporting out there and inform people. But you kind of forget the other side of the internet, where people are just trying to spread their ideologies. Even for Antifa, they use a lot of the images from protests that identify Trump supporters or even journalists and they tag them and say, “Okay, this is so-and-so. Look out for these people at the protests and make sure you do whatever to them.”
So I think for me, it helped me realize that I need to be more careful about what I document and how I document it, because if there’s anything that can throw the image and allow the image to be misconstrued, that can affect the storytelling capabilities of the image.