Chuck Haga: Share and share alike? Be cautious

On social media, sharing information with friends isn't always the best idea.

Chuck Haga is a columnist for the Grand Forks Herald. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

The problem I have with North Dakota Rep. Oley Larsen’s Facebook posting of a fake photo isn’t just that it was fake. What really troubles me is that he urged people to share it.

The image, since taken down, purported to show U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, holding a rifle at an al-Qaida training camp. The picture proves she is a terrorist, Larsen wrote. “Share it everywhere.”

Omar is a Somalia-born naturalized citizen who came to this country when she was 12. She may hold views that disturb many, but she is not the woman in that photo. The AP says it was taken in 1978, four years before Omar was born.

Larsen, a Minot Republican, no doubt considers himself a patriot, a defender of American values. But his own party leader in the Senate told him he should apologize and resign his position as Senate president pro tempore.

The incident may fuel efforts to force Facebook and other social media platforms to police the legitimacy of such postings. I have mixed feelings about that, given the implications for freedom of speech. But I hope it leads all of us to better consider what we share via social media.


Like Larsen’s picture “proof” that Omar is a terrorist, social media is frequently contaminated by photo-shopped images designed to rile or rally. One that was widely circulated on Facebook in 2015 shows a young black man in a protest line holding a sign: “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.” Outrageous, right? But that sign actually said, before it was altered, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home.”

An image posted by “Vets for Trump” and widely shared in 2017 showed a black member of the Seattle Seahawks football team dancing in the locker room as he holds a burning U.S. flag. The intended message: NFL players taking a knee at the singing of the national anthem hate America. But it was a fake. The burning flag was added digitally.

When the film “Black Panther” opened in the U.S. in February 2018, several pictures of bloodied young white people made the rounds. “I went to see #Black Panther with my gf and a black teenager shouted ‘u at the wrong theater’ and smashed a bottle on her face,” one man posted. It didn’t take long for fact-checkers to find the original photo, which was of a woman who had been attacked at a nightclub in Sweden.

It’s not just a matter of altered, misleading photos. There was Pizzagate, the rumor that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring operated out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. The hoax was shared more than 1 million times.

Fake news spread on social media is getting lots of attention lately as U.S. investigators look into Russian meddling in our elections. But it’s not all Russian bots. An editor at Snopes put some of the blame for the spread of fake news on traditional media. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there,” Kevin Rawlinson wrote in the Guardian in April 2016. And there exists a “whole cottage industry of people who put out fake news,” profiting through “clicks” when people share their stories, overlooking small print that identifies material as satire.

And then there’s us, just folks, posting about our grandkids and camping trips and fancy meals – and sharing startling, defaming posts from “friends” without any effort to verify their accuracy. “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” Jonathan Swift wrote three centuries ago, long before Facebook and other platforms made the race immediate and global.

Does it matter? I think it does. A 2016 study by Stanford University tested the ability of young people in 12 states to evaluate the credibility of information presented in tweets and other sources. They described the results as a “threat to democracy.”

I often see Facebook posts that I know or suspect are false. It doesn’t take much to check them out. It takes even less effort to simply not share them.


Chuck Haga had a long career at the Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He now writes for the Sunday edition of the Herald. He can be contacted at

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