Social Media and The Problem with ‘Socially Constructed Truths’ : Why all Believed that the NASA Picture Was Clicked on Diwali

India and her diaspora worldwide was excited about Divali, (the festival of lights), and for good reason. A day before Divali,  October 25 2011 3:30 pm CT, I noticed that a map had become a ‘Facebook hit’. In less than 5 hrs,  the link had first appeared it had already been shared by 1000 odd people ( giving it a potential audience of at least 200,000). Remember I am reporting figures for only 1 thread that I could trace.

An idea took form that the picture was an illumination of the country on Diwali night. Of course most people related the distinct, yellow, green and red dots to the colors of fireworks.  When it popped on my wall ( as the 950th share) I immediately questioned that Colombo(Sri Lanka), Lahore (Pakistan) and Delhi could not be celebrating divali with the same ‘illumination’. (Some even speculated these were the remnants of Hindu legacies in these cities!) Also why would people in certain areas burst green colored fireworks when the rest of the country was bursting yellow.

Leave that, it was easy to explain the map if one understood some   development parameters and grade school geography of the region ( Electrical Connectivity and Population Density, Location of the cities, Mountains).

So I decided to question how could the illumination be different from any other night (when the Power grid hadn’t failed)? I commented with my reservations on the wall of the friend who had shared this with me. Seeing some merit in my reservations, he digged the original source of the picture and indeed found it had nothing to do with Divali. He found the original source on FB itself, when someone else like me ( a friend of a friend of his) had commented on their common friend’s share of this post with similar concerns and found this link.

But our counter-currents are far and few between. That they are the complete truth does not matter . As I write, the Indian diaspora on Facebook believes that the map is indeed a NASA picture clicked on a Divali evening. I am sure in a few hours when Indians wake up this ‘socially constructed truth’ will spread further and more widely. ( See my update tracking the numbers)

To me this is the grim reality of online social media!

Happy Divali Regardless

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Author: harshT

Assistant Professor at the Missouri School of Journalism

19 thoughts on “Social Media and The Problem with ‘Socially Constructed Truths’ : Why all Believed that the NASA Picture Was Clicked on Diwali”

  1. similar case of ganesh drinking milk in Mumbai, and later diamonds found on the sandy beaches of Mumbai…. both these incidents caught the audience psyche and … INTERNET was abuzz with a lot of stories across the world and photos of Ganesh drinking milk from Canada,la etc.. with 5 to6 hrs.. mob psychology at play.

  2. Hello. Sorry for the late reply. Like someone else pointed above, this was a photo that took off last year (on one of the India Space communities or something, I believe). As someone else also pointed out, you really can’t stop such things from spreading. The premise of social media lies in that people like sharing stuff, and you have to agree – stuff like this is imminently share-able.

    However, that doesn’t mean that (online) social media is inherently bad by itself. Everyone who’s been online for a while will have seen a bunch of things like these. Like that panda sneezing or some kid prodigy pulling off an impossible guitar solo, and would have developed a healthy sense of cynicism. And like you say, it’s only a matter of time before the truth (in this case – either a manufactured photo or a photo-over-time of Indian space – both arguments have been seen online) also spreads.

    There was another extremely viral video a few years back – don’t know if you’ve seen it – is that of a baseball match, where a ballgirl (baseball’s equivalent of a boundary ball-retrieving boy) jumps impossibly to catch a ball and return it, much to the shock of the audience. This went viral like nuts (“Who says girls can’t play baseball”, “Amazing chick catch!!!!”, etc). A few days later, some sites reported that it was actually a fake (some said it was a Gatorade viral) and before long, as soon as people were sharing it, there were other people popping up saying this was a fake.

    Stuff like this keeps happening. To me, the true power of ‘democratic’ social media as you put it is that it is a self-correcting system. See, even if it’s traditional media (say, people talking in a bar) rumours will keep coming up and news will spread. The truth will spread eventually. Social media is just an extension of that – true, it’s easier for people to share rumour, but keep in mind it’s also easier for people to spread the truth.

    1. Social media is not ‘bad; , social media is inherently ‘biased’ due to the structures it provides consumers for navigation. Consider traditional structures such as,scheduling in the world of linear television, a program shown at 2 am on a weekday alone can never gain mass popularity. Or Gatekeeping in news media ( news organizations could suppress what they wanted to). Evangelists like you suggest that social media is devoid of such structures, which is why it enables a free flow of all ideas, facts and make believes, and ultimately the truth will prevail due to the wisdom of crowds! ( as seen from your comment above)
      These notions are inherently problematic.
      Success in cultural markets was never strictly correlated with quality. Social media has not only weakened that correlation, but increased such inequalities. These views have been empirically proven in large scale randomized experiments, a gold standard methodological approach to show causality – http://goo.gl/Wvav1
      Now if you are wondering why does it happen and what are the biases, here – Chuck, at this stage I urge you to read this essay by one of the foremost scholars on audience behavior. http://goo.gl/hF5vp. Particularly focus on the three biases he talks about in user information regimes! And you will understand why your arguments although intuitive are inherently problematic

      I know its too long in the world of short-form content, but do read the three biases in user information regimes he talks about.

  3. Haha, I observed the same thing you did about this “Diwali” map and created a blog post about it: http://bit.ly/ukiBeL and just now updated the post with some Google Analytics Maps showing how far and wide this story has spread. It’s crazy!! I have gotten over 10K hits just about this one post from people trying to figure out if it’s real or not. At least it shows that we Indians aren’t completely gullible (well, at least some of us) 🙂

    1. Pathik, its amazing. I have also 6K hits already and most are from search engines! But the bigger story is that the picture has reached 66,284 shares from that one thread where I stated that it was 950 when I wrote that blog!

  4. Oh, facebook is full of such manufactured Visual truths. Some months ago a guy posted a B&W photo portrait (of probably Sania Mirza) claiming it to be the photo of Rani of Jhansi taken in 1850s, and a Hindi newspaper actually printed it as such. Also there is a satelite picture of Ka’ba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) which shows only the shrine very bright while the rest of the earth looks dark, claiming it to be God’s noor falling only on Mecca. They also claimed an astronaut embraced Islam after seeing this miracle from their spacecraft. Then a series of pictures of a new house (made of glass) in California was being forwarded as the house A.Raja built for himself in Tamil Nadu after earning all the 3G scam money. I think we generally love seeing such pseudo miracles.

  5. Hah I knew this. It can’t be real. True, Diwali is the biggest festivity but that does not mean the entire country is glowing with lights that are so bright and colorful as demonstrated in the pic. My cousin thought it was real. I told him it wasn’t. Thanks for sharing man. Now I can show this to him 🙂

  6. The issue is that humans, as a species, have always associated cause and effect. You see Y, so X must have happened – in fact it has been one of the evolutionary tactics of our species. So, before even questioning authenticity of anything, people just find comfort in accepting whats out there and never challenging it. As in the ‘old’ adage, if there is anything on the Internet, it MUST be true! Good luck all and indeed a very happy and bright Diwali to you all..

  7. You made my job easier. I was looking online for the source of the image (If it was a NASA picture, it should be easily searchable am-I-right?) and landed up here. There was a similar case before with the fake “Jan Lokpal bill in Singapore” set of statements that blew up on simple google search.

    1. Always welcome. I hope at least the 707 odd who saw this ( so far) will be more prudent before they share anything on FB in the near future!

  8. Hey, I know you’re probably going to find this reply pretty LAME, but it’s exactly what occurred to me as I got the pic and shared it on FB. When I saw this pic, immediately recognized it from a global image I had seen some years back, where you can see just how bright places like NYC are compared with, say, central Africa. BUT, here’s what said to myself. This photo could have bee taken on Diwali (I’ve not found any date reference, notwithstanding the compilation fact of it being done on several different years). So i said to myself — and I believe this is VERY Indian — “it fits the spirit of the truth and makes people happy, so share.” It’s just too damn technical and notinspirit to put a footnote that says “statistically almost certainly not shot on Diwali!” I’m glad you posted this blog entry AND I’m glad millions of Indians around the world have an image of one India rejoicing on the biggest holiday of the year. – Zack

    1. BombayZack,
      Of course I understand the motivation and many others would have thought its ok, My post is about the larger idea – the idea of “the winner takes all”, “the persistence of popularity” and the inherent biases. What we learn is that not all truths are created equal when crowds create the wisdom!

      1. >”…not all truths are created equal when crowds create the wisdom!”

        Well put!!
        (And, not all equal when individuals do either.)

    1. More than the story of this specific picture, the idea that alternate truths can be so easily constructed is disturbing. Think of someone falsely promoting a picture as one of a criminal wanted in some case and asks people to circulate it widely, as that is for the good of the society. And it may just about become viral! And then!
      And it does not apply only to pictures, any information that requires a simple contagion to diffuse can become a truth this way! I urge you to share the post widely for this general idea to become clearer to people. This example just helps demonstrate the point very well.

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