By Sankalpa Dashrath; Research Associate, The Media Map project
The image populated my Facebook newsfeed on Diwali morning. It was being ‘liked,’ commented on, and sent around in mass emails. It soon grew into the feel-good story du jour; the consensus was that good had triumphed over evil and light had chased away the darkness. Diwali- the Indian festival of light – and its glittering brightness could be spotted from space this year. At least that’s what everyone was saying. A satellite image, purported to be released by NASA, showed a pretty, colorful map of India as seen from space on Diwali night.
As I watched the image go viral over the internet, I wondered about its source. A quick check on the internet confirmed my suspicions. This was a solid case of data misrepresentation. The image was not from NASA, but from the National Geophysical Data Center (part of the USDOC) website. And no, it wasn’t a single snapshot of a specific night but rather a composite of more than a decade of data imagery overlaid into a single data visual.
Someone somewhere had misinterpreted the image and lots of people everywhere were repeating the fallacy, making it grow stronger by the minute. The truth was lost amongst the hundreds of people who wanted to believe this ‘lie.’There are many unfortunate lessons to be learned from this story.
As the world grows increasingly impatient and attention spans decrease, data visualizations are replacing detailed reports. Data visualizations are just incomplete snapshots. They do not require viewers to really think about the information they contain. They are subject to interpretation and can be misleading, as evidenced from the Diwali debacle.
Social media allows half-truths to become solidified in people’s minds. Repetition by large numbers can validate an untruth. Google’s algorithms don’t check facts; they simply provide results with the most hits. Again, repetition by large numbers triumphs accuracy. The reason why stories go viral on social media is that everyone wants to post ‘breaking news’, so the traditional checks on data sources are neglected. Speed becomes the barometer of newsworthiness.
Lost in the intellectual debates, is the sad fact that these seemingly innocuous mistakes mask unpleasant facts. In this case, the areas on the Diwali image that are colored in blue and green used to be visible from space from 1992 to 1998 but cannot be seen any longer. So the picture is now darker, literally and metaphorically. While the wired world celebrates this fallacy, the situation for many un-connected Indians is getting worse, not better; The New York Times reports that, “Almost half of the Indian population has no access to the electricity grid, and many more people suffer hours without power”. Meanwhile, India’s ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index has steadily dropped from 126th in 2006 to 128th in 2007/08 and to 134th in 2010. But, instead of trying to analyze factual data from reputable institutions, the connected world is busy celebrating a fake picture with no source.
A version of this blog also appears on The Morningside Post http://themorningsidepost.com/2011/10/the-truth-about-lies/