Photo: An edited screenshot of a video that has been mislabelled, stigmatising Haitians in the disaster-struck Northern Bahamas.
The last two weeks have truly shown how much value social media holds, despite the run-of-the-mill mumbling about society “being more disconnected than ever” because of it.
It would be hard to find someone on the islands that was not glued to their phones, reliving their worst Irma memories, from the moment it became clear Dorian would be pummelling the Northern Bahamas with a direct hit at 185mph.
We knew how this story would end, but we got to experience it unfold as it happened, with the presence of mind of someone whose life is not in immediate danger.
The Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama bore witness to the terror of a record-setting storm, in real time.
The world could see water starting to engulf a house, from the inside of a second-storey living room, and wonder how long it would take for the glass to crack.
We could hear the voices of those who lost their homes and didn’t know what to do, or if they would live through it. Come to think of it, for the most part, we don’t know who took the videos we’ve seen, and if they did live through it – all this, before the eye of the storm.
The full impact of Dorian will not be uncovered anytime soon, but the ability to share important information and connect people has no doubt contributed to saving lives, and will continue to help in recovery efforts.
Moreover, first hand stories compel people to help. Videos don’t struggle to communicate the urgency of the situation.
But what would the wonders of technology be, without some people making it their business to spread misinformation? The good thing is that everyone can share, and the bad thing, is that everyone can share.
It happens after every tragedy in the international spotlight, and this had no chance of being any different. Some lies can be motivated by money, some by misguided speculation and biases, and some by the fact that people with a screw loose have Internet access.
Conspiracy theories of who is to blame, false missing-person reports, fake GoFundMe pages, and images of unrelated events are simply part of the package.
Figuring them out is doable, but not if you feel bombarded.
One example is a video showing a large number of dead cows “in the Bahamas”. Never mind that they were neatly lined up along an undamaged wood and barbwire fence, there was no flooding in sight, and the grass and trees looked healthy and green. It was still in circulation.
The video is from Annona, Texas, following a lightning strike in late August.
Another video stigmatises Haitians in the Bahamas, adding to what seems to be already existing social tensions following unrest in the aftermath of Dorian. There has already been hearsay about “the Haitians taking over”, and a video is circulating that supposedly shows a gang of them chasing riot police, hurling rocks at them as the police run scared.
What the video really shows is violent political unrest in West Papua, Indonesia. It was uploaded to Twitter by Human Rights lawyer and activist Veronica Koman two weeks before Dorian struck the Bahamas.
Koman has faced death threats for her work, and now faces arrest by Indonesian police (note: she has previously taken the Indonesian police to court). She has fled the country after being one of the only people reporting on the realities on the ground – foreign media is banned, and there have been Internet blackouts in connection to the unrest.
Someone took footage of violent protests on the other side of the world, and decided to mislabel it, potentially pitching hurricane survivors against each other in disaster-struck Northern Bahamas.
Another video making rounds on social media is even more inflammatory. Scores of dead bodies, burnt beyond recognition, are lying on the ground. A fire is blazing in the background. The false version of the story asserts that a shelter full of Haitians was set on fire, and that Bahamians are killing them because they blame the “devilish” Haitians for causing Hurricane Dorian.
The footage actually shows the aftermath of a fuel tanker accident in early August in Morogoro, Tanzania. The tanker tipped over on one of Tanzania's key throughways. A large crowd gathered to collect fuel that was spilling out of it, and more than 60 people died in the explosion that followed. Dozens more were hospitalised.
The tanker is clearly visible in the background of the viral video. Also noticeable is that the yelling does not resemble English, or Haitian Creole/French for that matter.
It’s not odd if people can’t figure out where such videos come from or if they are real – I admit it took time to find the original West Papua video – but there are clues that are easily picked up on if you haven’t been told what to expect.
As with any upsetting video that has you reaching to click “forward”, slow down and ask simpler questions: What do you really see and hear? Is anything out of place? And are you reacting out of fear?
Note: The online version of this article includes additional information pertaining to the Tanzania video, which does not appear in the printed article. This information was uncovered after the original article was printed.