Posted by Steve Lettau on Feb 20, 2020

By Kim Lisagor Bisheff Illustrations by Joan Wong in The Rotarian Magazine

Journalist Dan Mac Guill was working at his home office in Maryland last August when he got a news tip from a colleague: A photo of a Democratic congresswoman was circulating on Twitter. It appeared to show her at a press conference amid a group of armed terrorists. She was smiling.

The Twitter replies ranged from skepticism (“This is verifiable as a real photograph?”) to condemnation (“The enemy is here”) to something in between (“I blew it up. … If it is photoshop they did an amazing job”). Many comments were too hate-filled to bear repeating.

The reactions caught Mac Guill’s attention right away. “If you see people who seem to genuinely believe that a sitting member of Congress is or has been a terrorist, then that’s worth pursuing,” he says.

Mac Guill, who works for the fact-checking website Snopes, suspected that this was yet another digital misinformation attack against U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who has been a frequent target of online trolls since she became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, in 2018. Just the previous week, in fact, Snopes had debunked a photo caption that falsely claimed that Omar had attended a “jihad academy.” The photo, which appears to show a woman in a headscarf holding a rifle, was taken before Omar was born. But that didn’t stop it from gaining traction on social media.

Though Mac Guill was pretty sure the newer image was also a fake, he knew it would require research to settle the matter. “You can’t always make the assumption that what’s obvious to you is obvious to everybody else,” he says. “Especially if people have certain biases that they might not even be conscious of, they might look at that image and say, ‘Well, look at it; it’s clearly her, and she’s been caught.’ And then you have somebody else saying, ‘She’s a sitting member of Congress. There’s no way this is real.’ People approach this content from different starting points.”

So he got to work.