BuzzFeed News Animates Jewish Folktale

Zahra Hirji and Lam Thuy Vo team up in Here’s Why Debunking Viral Climate Myths Is Almost Impossible, In One Animated Chart to animate a Jewish folktale, A Pillow Full of Feathers (as retold by Shoshannah Brombacher).

In the folktale, a businessman repeats all the gossip he hears, enjoying the attention it brings. One day his repeating of gossip brings real harm to another. The businessman asks his rabbi what he can do to undo his deed. At the direction of the rabbi, he cuts into a feather pillow, which scatters feathers all over the room, some fly out the window, etc. Now the rabbi commands him to recover every feather that came from the pillow.

The businessman protests it is impossible to recover all the feathers and the rabbi points out the same is true for undoing his gossip. He can’t ever reach everyone who heard his gossip. (Brombacher’s retelling is much better than mine so see his version. Please.)

Hirji and Vo are concerned with a story published on February 4 (2017) and admitted to be false on September 16 (2017). They write:

When a British newspaper published an exposé in February alleging proof that US government scientists had used flawed data to show recent global warming and rushed to publish their research to sway the Paris climate talks, conservative media was lit.

“The latest example of misinformation from the left comes directly from the federal government,” SarahPalin.com said about the article, published in Britain’s Mail on Sunday. It was a “bombshell,” according to the climate skeptic blog Watts Up With That, and “explosive,” according to The Federalist Papers Project. “BUSTED: NOAA Lied About Climate Change Data to Manipulate World Leaders,” blared the website Louder with Crowder.

The story centered on a two-year-old Science study showing that the rise in global temperatures had not recently stalled, as previous data had suggested. The Science paper had repeatedly been attacked by climate skeptics, including House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). After the Mail on Sunday’s piece, Smith demanded, for at least the sixth time, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration turn over its correspondence about the Science data.

Now, some seven months later, the Mail on Sunday has begrudgingly admitted its story was wrong. But will this update change anyone’s minds?

That seems unlikely, based on a BuzzFeed News review of how widely the article was shared across social media compared to early attempts to debunk it.

Hirji and Vo have a great visualization of the rapid spread of Daily Mail story by the Internet. BTW, they reach the same conclusion as the businessman and the rabbi on undoing fake news once it spreads.

Pillow Full of Feathers differs from this account of the spread of a climate myth in the following exchange:


When the nice man with the nasty problem heard from the rabbi how devastated his colleague was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly had not considered it such a big deal to tell this story, because it was true; the rabbi could check it out if he wanted. The rabbi sighed.

True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all lashon hara, slander, and it’s like murder—you kill a person’s reputation.” He said a lot more, and the man who started the rumor now felt really bad and sorry. “What can I do to make it undone?” he sobbed. “I will do anything you say!”
… (emphasis added)

It’s popular to talk about the spread of false or mis-leading news, but the mechanisms for spreading true and false news are the same.

The emphasis on false or mis-leading news has a hidden assumption that we have correctly identified false or mis-leading news.

That’s certainly not my presumption when I hear the management at Facebook, Twitter, Google or any of the other common suspects discussing false or mis-leading news.

What about you?

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