The death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot in Florida last month, has riveted the nation and captured much of the online conversation for the past several weeks.
But as new details continue to emerge about Martin, his shooter and what happened at the scene, misinformation has spread rapidly online.
The most prominent piece of misinformation was a photo that alleged to be of Trayvon Martin. The photo showed a shirtless boy in sagging shorts, giving the finger to the camera. It was shared widely on social networks, but the most influential posting was on Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation project by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin.
Twitchy later retracted the photo, saying “The photo on the right is not Trayvon Martin.” It is unclear where the photo came from or who is actually shown in the picture — but it is no longer believed to be Martin.
Liberal commentators also pounced on a second photo allegedly of Martin, posted by conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report. This photo shows a boy in a white undershirt. M.J. Rosenberg, a senior policy fellow at liberal watchdog site Media Matters, heavily criticized Drudge for using the “fake” photo in a series of tweets, according to Mediaite. Rosenberg accused Drudge of posting the picture for “incitement purposes.”
The Daily Caller, however, has insisted the photo is authentic and that the site had taken it from Martin’s Twitter feed. Fox News also reported that the photo was likely real but had been doubted because it was a more recent photo than the ones circulated in the media. (For an example of the age of Martin in photos available to the media, see the photo above.)
Rosenberg subsequently apologized and said he was not sure whether the photo was real or not. The Washington Post cannot verify the photo.
Although fake photos have not circulated of George Zimmerman, misinformation about Martin’s shooter has also spread. The Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday:
“A school-cafeteria lunch lady and her husband have received hate mail, unwanted visits from reporters and fearful inquiries from neighbors — all because their Sanford-area address is being disseminated on Twitter as belonging to ... George Zimmerman.”
The address is not actually that of George Zimmerman’s, according to the Sentinel. The confusion apparently happened because the woman, who is 70, has a son named William George Zimmerman who used to live with her. He is of no relation to Martin’s shooter, the Sentinel reports. The woman and her husband, 74, have now moved to a hotel to avoid danger, according to an account from the couple’s son.
The tweet containing the couple’s address reportedly first came from an ordinary man in California, but the address was spread widely after it was retweeted by film director Spike Lee.
Although the wrong address for Zimmerman may have been a mistake, others on social media appear to have actively sought to spread misinformation about the case.
A Twitter account claiming to belong to actor Will Ferrell, @RealFerrellWill, tweeted a number of times about Martin’s death, according to the Hollywood Reporter. At one point, the account wrote: “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin... For every R-T this tweet gets, $1 will be donated to the #TrayvonMartin Foundation, which helps counteract racism.”
The account later turned out to be a fake. There is no Trayvon Martin Foundation, and the person behind the account was not Will Ferrell, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The Twitter account has now been suspended.
But although Twitter accounts can be suspended, blog posts can issue corrections and watchdogs can apologize, the life span and connectedness of the Internet is such that misinformation will keep on proliferating. On Wednesday, some of the rumors laid out in this post were still being shared as if they were true.
For those who are optimistic about the Internet, however, the hope is that that same connectedness online will ultimately self-correct. Information about misinformation, after all, can spread equally as fast.