Content Warning: This email includes a fairly well-known but still-disturbing photo of a malnourished child, as well as some brief mention of suicide. If that is not your thing, you might want to skip this one.
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Is this Just Perfect?
I was scrolling through Twitter recently…
(you follow me on Twitter, don’t you?)
…and came across a tweet that made me stop and think.
How incredible, I thought.
How sad, I thought.
What an ending, I thought. Lands like a ton of bricks.
I was about to scroll on, but instead I paused for a moment.
You may have this feeling yourself, as you scroll through the internet nowadays. It’s a very distinct sensation.
I felt like I was being played.
But I didn’t know why.
I went back and examined the tweet again. I thought about it for a bit.
I wasn’t familiar with the story, so that wasn’t it; I had no foreknowledge or background to pull on.
The story itself seemed almost…perfect.
Like a zen koan depicting man’s inhumanity to man, the callousness of modern media, and the devastating effects of success.
Suddenly, it struck me – and I knew why I felt like I was being played.
So I did what every good internet sleuth does:
I googled it.
The first result for the name “Kevin Carter” is Wikipedia:
“Carter shot an image of what appeared to be a little girl, fallen to the ground from hunger, while a vulture lurked on the ground nearby. He told Silva he was shocked by the situation he had just photographed, and had chased the vulture away. A few minutes later, Carter and Silva boarded a small UN plane and left Ayod for Kongor.
Sold to The New York Times, the photograph first appeared on 26 March 1993, and syndicated worldwide. Hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask the fate of the girl. The paper said that according to Carter, “she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away” but that it was unknown whether she reached the UN food center.
In April 1994, the photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
In 2011, the child’s father revealed the child was actually a boy, Kong Nyong, and had been taken care of by the UN food aid station. Nyong had died four years prior, c. 2007, of “fevers”, according to his family.”
While Carter did commit suicide in 1994, his suicide note mainly spoke about money troubles and:
“…the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners”.
I moved on to Googling “Kevin Carter” and “Two Vultures” to try and source the quote that supposedly sent Carter into a depressive spiral.
But I could find no original source for this quote anywhere…
Only more tweets and a few blog posts repeating the same story, nearly verbatim.
All cited the source as a “call-in show,” but don’t bother to name it, or whether it was on TV or radio, the network, etc.
So, let’s recap:
- Kevin Carter did, in fact, take this photo.
- This is a picture of a little boy, not a little girl.
- Carter reportedly scared the vulture away after taking the photo.
- The child lived.
- Carter DID kill himself, but over money troubles and accumulated stress from his job.
- I could find no record of the “call-in show” or the “two vultures” comment, other than in various social media posts.
I think we can safely pronounce this story Complete and Utter Bullshit.
If the story itself is so easy to discredit after ten minutes of Googling, why is it being passed around?
Here’s the thing:
We are much less likely to give it the scrutiny it deserves when it reinforces our preconceived notions about how the world works.
This convenient little parable fits right into some of our current cultural narratives:
The actual callousness of “liberals” who proclaim to care…
The moral bankruptcy of the media…
But even if you somehow managed to never give in to your own biases…
(By the way, if you are nodding your head right now and thinking that, yes, “they” often fall prey to cognitive biases, I have bad news for you: you’re absolutely, 100% just as guilty of it as “they” are)
…You don’t have ten minutes to Google every cockamamie “fact” that crosses your Twitter feed.
There are people out there right now doing their damndest to get you riled up, angry, upset, to get you to tune out, or stay home, or shut off – and they couldn’t give two shits if a story isn’t exactly “true” or not.
I haven’t even mentioned the people that aren’t aware they’re doing this, the people blinded by their own incentives.
(After all, clicks on the internet mean dollars, and nothing gets clicks like strong emotional reactions.
All online content creators are incentivized to get you mad as hell, or sad, or horny, or some unholy combination of the three ).
Poor Kevin Carter – this man battled mental illness and put his life on the line to bring the plight of the poor and starving to the world…
Just to have his good name torn to pieces by internet trolls who can’t be bothered to spend five minutes on a simple Google search!
Of course, that’s a narrative, too.
And this, my friend, leads us towards an incomplete solution – but perhaps a useful one.
Since we don’t have time to engage in endless internet sleuthing, let’s turn instead to heuristics:
Handy rules of thumb we can use to decide if something deserves a second pass or not.
I call this one the “Just Perfect” Rule:
If a story is “just perfect,” it almost certainly isn’t true.
When we a say a story is “perfect,” what do we really mean?
We mean it felt right.
We mean it worked out in a such a way that delighted us, or surprised us, or shocked us.
It means we enjoyed the narrative; that we got wrapped up in the story.
But reality isn’t a story.
Reality doesn’t follow a narrative structure.
Reality is messy, and complicated, and endless…
Without borders, without boundaries, full of ambiguities, chaos, noise…
Reality is natural.
Narratives are man-made.
Examine any historical event that you think you understand – the Boston Tea Party, the War of the Roses, the birth of Islam…
And the deeper you get, and the more you learn…
The less sense it will make.
You’ll discover countless counter-evidence and facts that don’t fit and confused timelines and people acting “out of character.”
This is because to create any narrative – be it historical, or social, or personal – we must first sand down the edges of reality.
Remove the chaos.
Turn down the noise.
Simplify the plot.
We remove some pieces that “don’t seem to fit.”
We add a few flourishes that “enhance the effect.”
Sand down enough edges…
Remove enough noise…
And sooner or later, you can fashion a story that “makes sense.”
That conforms to our expectations.
But behind every story, there is a guiding hand.
And every author writes with a purpose:
To persuade, or cajole, or to confuse.
The problem with the internet is that in all it’s chaos, it’s very easy to miss the narratives…
And mistake them for reality.
So the next time you find yourself immersed in something that seems too good to be true, too perfect, too chef’s kiss….
“Is this real?
Or is it Just Perfect?”
Something Cool To Read:
A wonderful Twitter thread about Outsider Art (or “art brut”). This account (@PulpLibrarian) is great.
I’m enjoying Twitter very much – but trying to use it more as a search engine. Type in any question and it’s a fabulous way of finding any number of interesting jumping-off points.