Tracing Photo Back to a Personal Account

Mike Caulfield on his blog Hapgood (or should we call him HapGoogle) shows us a “work outloud” on fact-checking and the unsung art of the crap detection. I will be using this example in my class next semester as well as creating a few of my own for the new year.

I like to think of this as a re-telling of a very old story of the examined versus the unexamined life.  Caulfield’s post is an extended paean to the former. All hail the HapGoogle.



Another quick lesson in sourcing viral user-created content. Here’s a picture that showed up in my stream today.


OK, so what’s the story here? To get more information, I pull the textual information off the image and throw it in a Google search:


Which brings me to a YouTube video that tells me this was taken “outside a Portland, Oregon Walmart” and has been shared “hundreds of times since yesterday”. So back to search. This next result shows you why you always want to look past the first result:


I type in Portland OR, but the fourth result looks like it is reporting the story as a “local” story (look at the URL) and its location is not Portland OR, but Biddeford, Maine. Further indications here that it might be a good source is that I see in the blurb it mentions the name of the photographer “Matthew Mills”. The URL plus the specificity of the information tell me this is the way to go.

That article points me to what looks like the source where it went viral.


We see here that the original news report had a bunch of things wrong. It wasn’t in Portland, Oregon — it was in Biddeford, which is near Portland, Maine. It hasn’t been shared “hundreds of times” it’s been shared hundreds of thousands of times. And it was made viral by a CBS affiliate, a fact that ABC Action News in Tampa doesn’t mention at all.

OK, let’s go one more step. Let’s look at the Facebook page where Matthew Mills shared it. Part of what I want to see is whether is was viral before CBS picked it up or not. I’d also like to double check that Mills is really from the Biddeford area and see if he was responsible for the shopping carts.

The news post does not link back to the original, so we search on Matthew Mills again, and see some news outlets mentioning the original caption by Mills: “This guy got a lesson in parking”.


That’s not the same as the caption that the news station put up. So we pump that into Facebook, and bingo: we get the original post:


And here’s where we see something I really dislike about news organizations. They cut other news organizations out of the story, every time. So they say this has been shared hundreds of times because in order to say it has been shared hundreds of thousands of times they’d have to mention it was popularized by a CBS affiliate. So they cut CBS out of the story and distort the truth.

On the other hand, one of the good effects of it is sometimes it makes it easier to track something down to the source. News organizations work extra hard to find the original source if it means they can cut other news organizations out of the picture.

But it also tends to distort how virality happens. The picture here did not magically become viral — it became viral due, largely, to the reach of WGME.

Incidentally, we also find answers to other questions in the Matthew Mills version: he didn’t take the picture, and he really is from Old Orchard Beach.

Just because we’re extra suspicious, we throw the image into Google Image to see if maybe this is a recycled image. It does not appear to be, although in doing that we find out this is a very common type of viral photo called  a “parking revenge” photo. The technique of circling carts around a double-parked car dates back to at least 2012:


When we click through we can see that the practice was popularized, at least to some extent, by Reddit users. See for instance this post from December 2012:


So that’s it. It’s part of a parking revenge meme that dates back at least four years, and popularized by Reddit. It was shot by Matthew Mills in Biddeford, Maine, who was not the one who circled the carts. And it became viral through the re-share provided by a local Maine TV station.

Again, all of this takes some time to write about. In practice, though, it doesn’t take much time at all to check.


  1. // Reply

    Terry, this is a sad, situation.

    While you spent what you describe as a few minutes looking up details of this story, multiply that by perhaps a thousand (or more) other people who might duplicate your steps. Then add in those who are not as agile as you are in doing this search. It begins to add up to a lot of time spent tracking down the factual origins of a single story.

    Now multiply that by the many stories crossing our feed every day. What if just a thousand people fact checked each story?

    It becomes a colossal waste of time…and a hidden tax on productivity.

    There’s got to be a better way. I don’t know what it is.

    Turn this time spent verifying news into time spent diffing up information that could be used to improve one’s personal, family and/or community.

    1. // Reply

      Terry, thanks for sharing the “HapGoogle” process. It is useful, indeed. The need for “crap detection” dates back to the beginning of history. All that has changed are the tools and speed of dissemination of crap.

      In response to Daniel, one thing to consider is relevance. Do any of us need to “crap detect” every story that crosses our feed? No. We need to focus on those stories that are relevant to us. Ones that impact our lives, the lives of those in our community, and any other topics we are passionate about. Other stories are for other people to worry about.

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