Taking photos and video has never been cheaper, and transmitting them has never been faster. This has been a boon for information-sharing, but I'm worried that skepticism lags so far behind technology.
Dogged journalism and essential truths are being buried under deliberate propaganda and accusations of "fake news." It's approaching a crisis, and yet almost every day, I see questionable images shared with abandon, often by people who should know better.
Three biggies caught my eye in recent days – including National Geographic's inescapable video of an emaciated polar bear. Stumbling across a not-so-icy northern landscape, it was seen by millions on Facebook and Twitter.
Next was a photo of an empty auditorium, cited by a respected journalist as evidence of the low approval ratings of U.S. President Donald Trump. Last came an image of the model Bella Hadid, wearing a red evening gown to a pro-Palestine protest.
Taken together, this wide-ranging group of catchy images carries an important lesson. For news you can use, take a deep breath, no matter how sensational the picture.
Environmentalists and Indigenous people on my Twitter feed did a thorough fact-check of the polar bear video, including the mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut, Madeleine Redfern. To start: National Geographic and the video makers, SeaLegacy, originally located the dying bear on "the Baffin Islands," which don't exist (that mistake has since been fixed). The video was taken in the summer, hence the lack of ice.
Most important, those who actually hunt or study polar bears know their populations are currently quite healthy and stable.
That doesn't mean this polar bear wasn't dying, or that climate change might not be implicated. Increased mercury and related illnesses in Arctic animals is a real problem, one that might be a result of warming soils.
Mercury "is definitely getting into the population, into the food chain," said James Eetoolook, the vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik, which works to make sure the Nunavut Agreement is honoured by the Canadian government. That said, Mr. Eetoolook was clear that he doesn't know why this particular animal was suffering (and that any Inuit who saw it would immediately put it out of its misery, not film it).
For SeaLegacy, a group without Inuit members, to raise money off linking the bear's death to climate-change-caused starvation is unseemly. It's also another example of non-Indigenous voices out-shouting those with the most experience, and who have the most to lose.
The next image to test my skepticism was shared by Dave Weigel of The Washington Post. After Mr. Trump boasted that an appearance at Florida's Pensacola Bay Center was "packed to the rafters," Mr. Weigel circulated a pic in which it appears that a Trump-like figure is entering a half-empty arena.
Turns out that photo was snapped before the actual event and the rally was in fact well-attended. Although Mr. Trump tells legions of lies, this wasn't one of them.
What a mess: Everyone makes mistakes, especially on social media. But as we scramble to keep up with the daily falsehoods coming out of the Trump administration, every misstep is unbearably magnified.
As David Frum, senior editor at the Atlantic, put it on Twitter, good journalists are currently trying to "inform the public about the doings of the most systematical untruthful administration in American history," while knowing that every mistake will be "weaponized." Mr. Trump is now demanding Mr. Weigel's firing.
Finally, the pic of the sultry Ms. Hadid raising her fist and looking elated in full makeup, a ballgown and fur-trimmed white coat, rather out of place in a serious crowd clad in keffiyehs. The image reminded me of a silly 2014 Chanel runway show, where models including Ms. Hadid's sister, Gigi, carried nonsensical placards bearing slogans such as "free freedom."
Wondering if it was real, I did a quick search and what do you know! Ms. Hadid's father is of Palestinian descent and she is often openly political. After an appearance at Tag Heuer's London store, she joined the demonstration against moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. At last, the truth.
Having navigated this over just a few days, I know personally that the volume of information and questionable images never stops. That's exactly why it's important that everyone remember to fact-check, especially eye-catching images shared on social media, where the BBC and basement blogs get equal billing.
The good news is it's usually not that hard, since a quick search usually turns up the facts, or at least a more nuanced discussion. The bad news is that such tricky problems belie clever mottos: So, uh, if it looks too good to be true, it's probably, at the very least, more complicated.