“Own the school year like a hero,” the sign reads, sitting tight above a glass cabinet where firearms face the ceiling, their size imposing.
It’s the kind of cabinet where you would typically see sunglasses, bags and wallets displayed, readied for sale.
This time, though, it’s guns in a local Walmart. The juxtaposition between the signage and the guns underneath is jarring at best, insulting at worst.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting at the weekend, where 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured, the image is a timely reminder about the kind of gun culture that sits at the very bedrock of American society: The idea that an individual’s right to bear arms trumps a universal right to live without fear of raining bullets.
It’s an image that is circulating this week. Todd Sampson shared the image on his Facebook page, where the post has been met with nearly 400 comments, 1,700 likes and nearly 500 shares. Outrage is the common and binding thread.
But before you jump, with both feet, onto a bandwagon moving with the force of a world desperate for the US to legislate against guns, the image isn’t helpful. Because the image isn’t real.
The image in question was initially posted on Twitter on the 9th of August this year by user Ismail Kidd Noorzai. Backlash was swift like backlash always is, because backlash rarely waits for truth before sprouting its headlines.
However, in the days after the story had already spread, Walmart confirmed the image was, in fact, a prank.
Charles Crowson, a spokesperson for Walmart, told USA TODAY the company is “certain” the incident was a ruse. He did not specify what part was a prank – whether the image itself was doctored or someone fixed the display – but did make sure the message was clear: this was, by definition, fake news.
Noorzai confirmed to Snopes he initially stumbled across the picture on Reddit on a board dedicated to humour. That was, he didn’t take the image himself.
So in an era of fake news, and in the turbulent times following such senseless and massive acts of evil, how can we not be blinded by our own passion? How can we be skeptical of news, when anger points us to see, occasionally, only the things we want to see?
According to Vincent O’Donnell, an honorary research associate in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, a dose of “healthy skepticism” when considering the news on your feed is always helpful.
“The first place to start when trying to pick fake news [is considering] whether the message confirms all your worst fears or confirms all your nasty prejudices,” O’Donnell tells Mamamia.
Bluntly, is this just too good to be true? Or, well, too good to be evil. According to O’Donnell, ‘true’ isn’t necessarily the word you want to use “in this situation”. So perhaps, we will stick with the latter. Is it just a little too good to be evil?
“Truth is far more more nuanced, it isn’t black and white. It has many more colours and shades to it,” he says.
It’s an interesting and powerful point in an age of literal and metaphorical terror. When we’re scared, and we’re looking for blame, we exude a sense of confirmation bias.
See a story that confirms every prejudice I’ve ever had? Boom. Must be real. I’ll therefore share it on social media to fuel the rage that bubbles within.
Mia Freedman and Amelia Lester discuss the shooting at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel that left 59 people dead.
O’Donnell believes a hint of skepticism “is the beginning of wisdom”.
“Social media and access to news feeds are creating an impression that nasty things happen to everyone all the time,” he says. It does, naturally, “contribute to a high level of anxiety” within all of us in times that don’t feel as stable as they could. We’re vulnerable, and fake news only heightens that.
“You only have to look at Eastern Europe launching fake media sites during the presidential campaign to see how much remarkable insight they had into the psychology of the American voter,” he says.
“The fact they got so many of their fake stories tapped into the psyche of the American people says a lot.”
But then, it’s not just the US – in their proximity to mass murder and gun violence – that are vulnerable to fake news. Because the rest of us, in our fear for the future and our uncertainty about what it will look like, are just as vulnerable too.
We’re desperately seeking confirmation of the ideas we already hold. But until we step back and consider whether what we see is just a little too convenient, or plays into our emotions just a little too well, we’re highly susceptible to fake news.
And ignorance of the truth is a threat to us all.