A case study in critical reading on the internet

Screenshots taken 2019-04-20. Text written 2019-04-24. Published 2019-05-16.

Content notes: Mentions of food; discussion of animal hunting; links to a tweet and an article that include photos of dead animals.

I'm going to talk about some very common dark patterns on social media, and strategies for defying them. And I'm going to build all of this up on the framework of an example.

A friend sent me a link to this tweet:

Owner of Jimmy Johns celebrating the killing of a beautiful animal. Remember next time you want a sub. Please retweet!

(It's a photo of Jimmy John Liautaud, the owner of the Jimmy John's sandwich chain, sitting in front of a dead elephant giving two thumbs up. It's not particularly gory or anything, but I'll still spare you the photo of a dead animal. Y'all can follow the link if you really wanna see it.)

So we have here:

All three of these immediately make me suspicious:

I'm not here to defend Jimmy John's sacred honor. I'm using this tweet as an example; I see here a lot of warning signs, including the three listed above, that trip my very general bullshit filters, and I apply my standard general practices for researching claims, finding (as best I can) the truth, and deciding my action—if any—based upon that truth. This tweet is a particularly good example, but the symptoms, methods, and philosophy I describe in this article go well beyond this specific case.

So, let us consider the source and then the content.

The source

Here's what I see when I go to their profile (this is in Tweetbot on my iPad):

Composite screenshot of everything from their header image through their last 10 non-reply tweets to their last 9 images.

Rather a lot of this account's output, especially in images, is political (in this case, anti-Trump).

There are four kinds of political tweeting:

This account is squarely in the last category.

Maintaining outrage is a demotivation tactic. Outrage, especially without an outlet (something to do about it), is exhausting. It leads people to tune out and disengage. Rebecca Solnit elaborates on this in her book “Hope in the Dark”; I strongly recommend reading it.

It's also extremely effective at gaining followers/attention. Lots of people follow these sorts of accounts; I'd never heard of this one but I know of others. And beyond Twitter, think of every provocative headline in history. Outrage sells.

If you want to get politically educated or involved via Twitter, there are many good accounts to follow. This is not one of them.

OK, but what about this one tweet? The messenger is not the message; a broken clock can be right as many as three times in a day. So let's take a look…

The tweet

The claim: The picture attached to the tweet shows the “owner of Jimmy John's celebrating the killing of a beautiful animal”.

First let's acknowledge a couple of things the tweet does not say:

As for the things it does say, let's start with the best-known broad-spectrum first-line fact-checker, Snopes.

Oh hey!

Claim: Photographs show Jimmy John Liautaud, the owner of Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches, with animal kills from big game hunts.

Rating: True

The Hunting Report, a magazine that has been covering “high-quality big game hunting in North America and Africa” since the 1980s, has recorded several of Liautaud’s hunts for animals such as wolf, Rhinoceros, deer, and Lynx.

The Hunting Report also has a record of Jimmy John Liautaud (although misspelled “Liaufand”) going on a big game hunt in Botswana for elephant, buffalo, and zebra with Johan Calitz Safaris:

[Screenshot of that record]

There is no evidence that any of the above-mentioned activity was illegal. Big game hunting is legal in many parts of the world, and some claim that it can be beneficial to conservation efforts.

(Indeed, some countries actively involve licensed hunting in efforts to manage the population of certain animals. The US is one of them, and it's an ongoing debate in African countries. Botswana in particular banned trophy hunting in 2013. Remember that date; it'll become important in a minute.)

The article also includes a video clip that shows several photos, and the first photo shown in the video is the same one we're looking at here.

OK, so the photo might actually be real, and he wasn't there just for a photo op or something—he might have actually killed that elephant himself.

Now, here's an important question: Is he still doing that?

Let's go back to the tweet. “Remember next time you want a sub.” There's a veiled direction here to boycott Jimmy John's.

I want to be clear about the word “boycott”. If you find hunting to be so repulsive that this man is now dead to you, and his restaurant with him, that's your decision. But I wouldn't call that a boycott; the statement “Jimmy John did the thing” will always be true forevermore, so that condition for “boycotting” remains satisfied eternally. Staying away on those grounds is your choice, but not what I would call a boycott.

A boycott is a protest, and a protest carries a demand—either to do a particular thing, or to stop doing something. In this case it'd be for the owner of Jimmy John's to stop hunting big game.

(You could go further and demand that he issue a statement with a proper apology, and donate money to such things as conservation efforts, smashing the ivory trade, etc. Point being, there must be a demand for some action or cessation of action that a specific person or company/organization could do that would cause the end of the protest, the end of the boycott.)

So, has he done that?

The tweet doesn't say when the photo was from or make any claim on whether he's still doing what it implied he did. But now that we have a Snopes article, we have some dates:

So, the photo is from 2010, according to an article in July 2015. What about since then?

Here's a Chicago Tribune article from November 2015:

An avid hunter, Liautaud acknowledges the biggest misconception about him is that people still connect him to 10-year-old photos of him posing with elephants, rhinos and other endangered animals he shot, photos which have prompted calls for boycotts in recent years. Just asking him about it makes his eyes well up with tears.

"I choose to hunt and I choose to fish," he said. "Everything I've done has been totally legal. And the meat has been eaten, if not by me than by someone I'm with. I don't hunt big African game anymore."

“I don't hunt big African game anymore.” OK then!

If we are to boycott Jimmy John's in demand that he stop hunting big African game, then good news—the demand has been fulfilled!

If your demand was broader (stop hunting/killing animals entirely, for example), then maybe he hasn't fulfilled all of it and maybe you don't end your boycott. That's fine, too; it's your boycott, so you set the conditions.

The backdrop

I'm strict about this sort of thing for a number of reasons. In no particular order:

The concept of a boycott is widely misunderstood. “They did X so don't shop there” is reductive, fixed-mindset thinking; considering how many companies (or their founders, or current CEOs/directors/major shareholders) have one or more skeletons in their closet, you'd never be able to shop anywhere.

A boycott is a protest, and a protest carries a demand. Which means that when the demand is fulfilled, the boycott must end.

Failing to end a boycott when the demand is fulfilled just trains companies and their execs to ignore boycotts. A mass “boycott” with no end just becomes part of the background radiation, instead of motivating change, since there's no carrot attached to that stick.

Which brings me to sourcing, fact-checking, and the outrage cycle.

Fact-checking is both about making sure something is true, and making sure it's current and hasn't been superseded by changes. (E.g., he did hunt big African game but no longer does.)

That's important because when we trust unsourced info without verifying, we make ourselves vulnerable to the outrage cycle: Digging up some outrageous tidbit from, say, 5 or 10 years ago to stoke a fresh wave of outrage.

Resurfacing of outrageous info happens naturally sometimes (corrections notoriously don't travel as far as errors, nor updates/apologies/redress as far as original outrage); even then, understanding the outrage cycle helps you to avoid inadvertently contributing to a wave in the cycle, and to resist it (or assist it) with truth/updates/citations when appropriate.

But resurfacing old outrage is also something that can be done as part of a deliberate op, with one or more chosen or unlucky targets.

Screenshot of a later tweet from the same account citing a much older tweet, from an Anonymous-branded account, containing an “Op” hashtag.

Hm. The embedded tweet was from 1,930 days ago; when was that…

Screenshot of that Anonymous tweet's datestamp from January 2014.

So that tweet is from about a year and a half before the Snopes article, and from after Botswana instituted their hunting ban in 2013. We can infer that both the Snopes article and Liautaud's tear-streaked interview were in response to the building (indeed, purposefully built) original wave of outrage over the viral photo. And now some other Twitter account has brought the outrage round again.

(To be clear, I'm not saying that this particular figure knows what an op is or was knowingly part of one—I have no evidence of either claim. I say only that they did momentarily revive that op by renewing its message, whether they fully understood what they were doing or not.)

A follow-on effect of this sort of perpetual renewal of old outrage is that it weakens boycotts. Remember, a boycott must end when the demand is fulfilled, or else we train companies to ignore boycotts. Likewise, when the outrage cycle resurrects a boycott that should have ended (hopefully did end) years ago, it teaches companies that fulfilling a demand will not save them from further outrage. When they instead ignore the boycott or issue a mealy-mouthed statement, that teaches people that boycotts are ineffective.

We can help prevent this by being aware of these mechanics, by cutting accounts like this that vend unsourced info and constant outrage-with-no-outlet out of our lives, and by checking any info we receive to make sure it's both true and current before acting upon it.