Social Media

A Victim or an Internet Hoax?

Alicia Shepard
Lisa Shepard, a former ombudsman for NPR, describes a recent example of a viral video.

The tweet on Dec. 21, 2016, seemed a clear-cut case of shameful Islamophobia that begged to be spread far and wide: Delta Air Lines had thrown two young men, both Arab-American, off a flight because they were speaking Arabic.

Adam Saleh, 23, shot video on his cellphone as a commotion erupted while passengers were settling in for a flight from London to New York. “Guys, we spoke a different language on the plane and now we’re getting kicked out,” says Saleh, who appears visibly upset. “This is 2016. 2016. Look, Delta Air Lines are kicking us out because we spoke a different language. … You guys are racist. I cannot believe my eyes.”

As soon as he could, Saleh added the video to a tweet, sending it to his 350,000 followers: “We got kicked out of a @Delta airplane because I spoke Arabic to my mom on the phone and with my friend slim... WTFFFFFFFF please spread.” 

Thrown off a flight for calling your mother to tell her in Arabic that you are safe? Saleh’s cellphone footage instantly went viral, sparking a tweetstorm of protest that included the hashtag #BoycottDelta.  (#BoycottDelta even became Twitter’s top trending topic worldwide.)

Adding to the buzz, Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s media commentary program “Reliable Sources,” retweeted Saleh’s tweet to his 419,000 followers, noting that it had garnered 75,000 retweets in under two hours and was “gaining fast.”

In total, Saleh’s tweet footage was retweeted 846,530 times and liked 756,515. CBS interviewed Saleh, who told the network he was crying after he and his friend, Slim Albaher, got off the Delta flight. Since then, millions have seen his video.

But was Saleh really kicked off the flight for speaking Arabic? Delta says no. So does the fact-checking site Snopes.com

For people outraged about Saleh’s claim and tempted to share it, a quick check of his biography should have raised some red flags. He is widely known as a YouTube prankster who has built internet stardom around provocative stunts — for instance, tweeting that he had traveled from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia, while jammed in a suitcase in the cargo hold. (He was busted when the airline replied that it had footage of him boarding the airplane in the normal manner.) His YouTube channel has 1.7 million followers.

Yet he has a serious side as well: His channel also includes videos that illustrate how Muslims in America face discrimination in ways other Americans don’t. Indeed, in the 15 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, there have been a number of incidents of Islamophobia from airline passengers and crew, lending credibility to Saleh’s assertion. 

In addition, what Saleh claimed happened to him reinforces a belief — that Muslims (most of whom speak some Arabic) are persecuted simply for being Muslims — that many are eager to demonstrate or “prove” to others. This is an example of confirmation bias, meaning that people are less skeptical of and more likely to share information that supports what they already believe.

In this case, they were willing to believe Saleh because getting kicked off an airplane for speaking Arabic seemed plausible — and would have been an outrageous example of intolerance. Being skeptical might have been seen as being politically incorrect. 

The problem, as often happens, is the speed with which our perceived outrage pings around the internet before anyone has a chance to find out if it’s even valid.

While Saleh was free to post tweets and videos positing himself and Albaher as victims, Delta was more cautious. The airline wanted to talk to Saleh, the crew and other passengers before reaching a conclusion, company officials said in a statement a few hours after Saleh first began posting. 

Six hours after its first statement, Delta issued a second:    

Upon landing the crew was debriefed and multiple passenger statements collected. Based on the information collected to date, it appears the customers who were removed sought to disrupt the cabin with provocative behavior, including shouting. This type of conduct is not welcome on any Delta flight. While one, according to media reports, is a known prankster who was video recorded and encouraged by his traveling companion, what is paramount to Delta is the safety and comfort of our passengers and employees. It is clear these individuals sought to violate that priority.

Because Salah’s tweet and video went viral, dozens of news outlets wrote about it. Several talked to passengers who refuted Saleh’s claims that it was his Arabic that got him removed. One passenger told Mashable that Saleh and Albaher were yelling at each other across the cabin and a woman told them to stop shouting.  

CNN’s Stelter was criticized because he didn’t raise any skepticism when he noted how fast Saleh’s tweet was ricocheting around the internet. “I'm not sure it's responsible to promote an unsubstantiated story with many Qs that may/may not be false regardless of motive for doing so,” tweeted Joe Concha, a media reporter for The Hill, a Washington news outlet covering politics and Congress.

Stelter said he was wowed by how quickly Saleh’s tweet went viral — but shouldn’t he have also noted right away that the information was suspect? (In later tweets, he did say that he and other reporters were aware of Saleh’s reputation as a prankster and that there were “many unanswered Q’s.”)

There are lessons in this incident for responsible news consumers: If a tweet, photo or story sparks your “outrage” meter, take a step back and ask: “Is this true? What evidence is there? Have you heard all sides?”

When I saw the tweet, I went to Snopes.com, a fact-checking website that employs a small army of researchers. Initially, the site labeled the claim in Saleh’s video as “unproven.” Snopes now labels it as “false” — he was kicked off for creating a disturbance, not for speaking Arabic.

In the end, Saleh got what he seems to want: attention. And for him, attention means fame and money — the more clicks his videos get, the more YouTube revenue he gets. Those who consume and share his posts, including journalists, only enable him.