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Tasmanian firefighter photo goes viral in Ukraine!

The former press secretary to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has published a 2019 photo of exhausted Tasmanian firefighters, wrongly captioning it as coming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While it’s simple to glance at this photo and assume these are Ukrainian firefighters, they are in fact from Tasmania.

In Iuliia Mendel’s now-deleted post on Twitter, she described the three Tasmanians as ‘Ukrainian Firefighters [peace hands emoji]’. A screen shot shows the wrongly captioned picture attracted 1747 Retweets and 9165 likes in under an hour.

The photo was actually captured in 2019 and, according to SBS, is credited to a fellow firefighter named John Lyons. As fires swept south west Tasmania in early 2019, Australian country music duo, The Wolfe Brothers, published a photo to Facebook to raise awareness about the bushfire.

‘If you are unaware currently in Tasmania there is some seriously bad Bush Fires,’ The Wold Brothers posted in Facebook. Nearly 3 percent of the state has been destroyed. A friend sent us this photo.. LOOK at these incredible men, they look like they have been in a war zone! To all the Firefighters, Emergency Services, Police, Paramedics and Volunteers know there is a LOT of people around this country that really appreciate you and can’t thank you enough for what you do! #Respect

Thank you to these men pictured, Jason Luck, John Kroczewski, Paul Catteral. Photo Captured by another brave Fire Fighter John Lyons’.

At the time the photo went ‘viral’, with it re-shared 24,000 times, garnering 28,000 likes and 4100 comments. Lyons’ photo was popular enough for SBS, Daily Mail Australia and other Murdoch rags to base articles on it. Tracing the picture’s original source isn’t a challenge.

After the photo’s short-lived fame, it remained dormant on social media until now. The most prolific ‘sharer’ of this miscaptioned photo is Mendel, a journalist who worked as Ukrainian president Zelenskiy’s spokesperson from 2019 until 2021.

Prior to her role as press secretary, she contributed political pieces to the New York Times about Ukraine issues, including one controversial 2019 article linking then-US Vice President, Joe Biden, to the ousting of a Ukrainian top prosecutor in 2016.

Mendel’s Twitter feed – which has 33K followers – regularly posts Ukraine invasion updates.

Inside Imaging recently covered how misinformation about the Ukraine invasion was being spread on social media. In among the plethora of real photos showing the horrors of war, there are random old and unrelated invasion pictures re-purposed with wrong captions.

While it’s tempting to suggest this is part of a massive misinformation propaganda campaign by either side, a more plausible explanation is that these mistakes are a symptom of social media sharing culture. When a major event – typically a crises – captures the attention of a global audience, people begin to frenetically re-post related information. If social media users come across a powerful photo which seemingly fits the visual narrative, few seldom check the original source before re-publishing the post.

In most cases the people sharing misinformation aren’t journalists, who are expected up uphold their integrity by sharing accurate information, or even people of public interest. It’s typically just everyday people who likely consume the photo, re-share, then move along. This phenomena is causing plenty of issues for social media platforms, which are dangerously attempting to control the spread of certain information. (We say dangerous because the truth ain’t always black and white, so where do you draw the line?!)

We’d have left the Ukraine photo fact check topic with the last article, but Tasmanian firefighters re-framed as Ukrainian by the president’s former press secretary is too good to pass.

Someone like Mendel with a background in journalism, who has contributed pieces to respected news outlets, and is acting as a social media authority on the current Ukraine situation – should strive to be as accurate as possible. She may not ‘get it right’ 100 percent of the time – only human, after all – but accidentally publishing a wrong photo that’s easy to trace to the original source is sloppy work. And it provides potential ammo for opposing players, who may bring into question the credibility of the accurate information she shares in social media posts.

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