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Is sharing fake news okay if it feels right?

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A fake viral image is being widely shared in London after yesterday’s terrorist attack

Firearms Incident Takes Place Outside Parliament Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Yesterday, London suffered a terrorist attack that left four people dead (including the assailant) and at least 40 injured. This morning, Londoners around the city got up and went to work as normal. Some have interpreted this as a special sort of bravery; others say it’s just how people — everywhere — live.

On social media, the first sentiment is more visible, and one viral image has been particularly widely shared and held up as a symbol of London’s spirit. It’s of a whiteboard outside a tube station, the sort that the city’s transport authority, Transport for London, uses to share information with commuters. The message isn’t about tube delays though. It reads: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.” Here it is, being shared by a UK politician:

It’s fake, of course. These real tubes signs are common enough, and when you see them on your commute they sometimes bear funny (occasionally viral) messages. But they’re so commonly Photoshopped that web apps for generating fakes have been around for years. Often this leads to a game of cat-and-mouse, where people share fake signs, are then mocked as rubes, with the mockees then mocked in turn for caring in the first place.

But the strange thing about this morning’s bout of infectious virality is that a lot of people — including some high-profile journalists — are saying that the fact the sign is fake doesn’t matter.

Sky News presenter Kay Burley tweeted the sign this morning, then followed up by saying: “For the avoidance of doubt this is a computer generated sign but nevertheless a sentiment shared by millions.” BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson read the sign out live on air this morning, but later tweeted: “Well, you learn something every day. That lovely tube sign might be ‘fake’ but the sentiment isn’t for thousands sharing it.”

The justification from Robinson and Burley could just be professional back-covering. (They were tricked and they want to explain why being tricked doesn’t matter.) But the idea that sentiment is more important than veracity seems to be widespread, with plenty of people — again, including journalists — saying that “fact-checking” the sign is “missing the point.”

But does it matter? Should we care?

The situation has drawn inevitable comparisons with our anxieties about fake news and public falsehoods, and there are certainly parallels. Some people shared the signs knowing they were fake, in the same way that people share hyper-partisan news because it fits a narrative they want to express. “We love to hear things that confirm what we think and what we feel and what we already believe,” Craig Silverman, a BuzzFeed editor who’s written extensively on fake news, told NPR last December. “It makes us feel good to get information that aligns with what we already believe or what we want to hear.”

Others justified the fact they were sharing a fake image by saying the fakeness didn’t matter because it expressed something lots of people felt. Compare that to President Trump defending his baseless claim about widespread voter fraud by asserting that “millions of people agree with me.” It’s about public sentiment being more important than veracity.

The stakes are different, of course. A viral tube sign is not as important as a president who lies, and sharing even a fake symbol of unity is more laudable than spreading fear and confusion. Plus, there were real tube signs this morning with messages of solidarity. They just didn’t go as viral.

You might say that because this tube sign stuff is so low stakes, it’s perfectly excusable to share even a fake image, and acknowledge that it’s fake, and not care. Because sentiment is a sort of higher truth. You might also say that this shows how, in the face of an outside threat, people — even spokespeople for trusted authorities like the BBC — are less likely to care about accuracy. Again: because sentiment is a sort of higher truth.

Will we always know where to draw the line?