Another type of content that often goes “viral” is photography. It is also some of the most difficult to track to a source. Note the example (below).
So, what is the story here? To get more information, insert the textual information off the image and do a Google search:
A YouTube video indicates that this was taken “outside a Portland, Oregon Walmart” and has been shared “hundreds of times since yesterday.” We will continue to trace the source with this new information. The next result shows why it is important to continue the search beyond the first set of results.
Which one of these items should I click on? Again, the idea here is to get closer to the actual event. One way to do that is to find the earliest post, but another way is to get geographically closer to the source. Who is more likely to get the facts of a local story correct, the local newspaper or a random blog?
As you scan the search results, look at the URLs. Fox 13 News has it in “trending.” AmericaNow has it in the “society” section. But the WGME link has the story in a “news/local/” directory. This is interesting, because the other site said it happened in Oregon, and here the location is clearly Maine. This URL pattern is a strong point in the website’s favor.
Further indications that it might be a good source is that in the blurb it mentions the name of the photographer, “Matthew Mills.” The URL plus the specificity of the information tell us that we are on the right track.
This takes us to what looks like the news page where it went viral, which embeds the original post.
We see that the first news report contained many inaccuracies. The photograph was not taken in Portland, Oregon—it was in Biddeford, which is near Portland, Maine. It has not been shared “hundreds of times” – it has been shared hundreds of thousands of times. And it was made viral by a CBS affiliate, a fact that ABC Action News in Tampa does not mention at all.
Now let’s look at the Facebook page where Matthew Mills shared it. We are looking to determine whether or not this went viral before CBS picked it up. We will double check that Mills is really from the Biddeford area and whether he was responsible for the shopping carts or just happened upon the scene.
The news post does not link back to the original, so we search for Matthew Mills again. We find some news outlets mentioning the original caption by Mills – “This guy got a lesson in parking.”
That is not the same as the caption that the news station put up – maybe it is what Mills originally used. We type “‘got a lesson in parking’ Matthew Mills” into Facebook, and we arrive at the original post.
Now we see an unfortunate practice perpetrated by some news organizations. They will cut other news organizations out of a story. In this example, ABC Action News said that the photograph had been shared hundreds of times, when in fact it was shared hundreds of thousands of times. If they had been completely truthful, ABC Action News would have mentioned that is was actually popularized by a CBS affiliate.
This practice can make it easier to trace something to the source. News organizations work hard to find the original source if it means they can cut other news organizations out of the picture. But it also tends to distort how virality happens. The picture here did not magically become viral—it became viral largely due to the reach of WGME.
Incidentally, we also find answers to other questions in the Matthew Mills version – he took the picture but didn’t arrange the carts, and he really is from Old Orchard Beach.
An extra verification step is to use Google Images to determine whether the photograph is a recycled image. Sometimes people take old images and pretend the images are their own – changing only the date and location. A Google reverse image search (see below) indicates that this does not appear to be the case in this instance; however, this is a very common type of viral photo called a “parking revenge” photo. The specific technique of circling carts around a double-parked car dates back to at least 2012.
When we click through we can see that the practice was popularized, at least to some extent, by Reddit users. Note the post from December 2012:
It is part of a parking revenge meme that dates back at least four years, and was popularized by Reddit. This particular photograph was shot by Matthew Mills in Biddeford, Maine. It became viral through the re-share provided by a local Maine news station.