Don’y worry about the millions of Syrian refugees — it turns out Marwan had not lost his parents

e13-iconThe Guardian reports: A heart-rending picture of a four-year-old Syrian boy apparently alone in the desert, separated from his family and clutching a tattered plastic bag of possessions, seemed to epitomise the refugee crisis caused by the civil war.

The image went viral after it was tweeted by United Nations staff who helped the child find his family, with the caption: “Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family …”, and then retweeted to a wider audience by a CNN International anchor with the caption “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria”.

But it was not quite what it seemed at first glance. A second photograph, posted by UN staff on Tuesday, showed that the boy was straggling behind a larger group of refugees. “He is separated – he is not alone,” Andrew Harper, head of the refugee agency UNHCR in Jordan, who took the first picture, clarified. Marwan had been reunited with his mother within 10 minutes.

The picture triggered a wave of sympathy on social media, swiftly followed by scepticism and anger at the perceived misrepresentation of Marwan’s plight.

I posted Hala Gorani’s first tweet yesterday and also included a link to her second tweet which said Marwan had been reunited with his family. Her two tweets were separated by a whopping six minutes!

A Storify analysis in which both tweets are embedded, each showing the time they were posted — the first at 9.54AM and the second at 10.02AM — nevertheless claims “Gorani followed up, 30 minutes later”.

It seems like the sticklers for accuracy aren’t too hot about ensuring the accuracy of their own reporting.

To the extent that clarifications about the Marwan story then provoked a “backlash” (though I can’t say I’ve been able to find an abundance of backlash tweets), this would seem to represent one of the pathologies of Twitter: that it empowers cantankerous nitpickers.

The Pulizer-prize winning photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc — a naked girl who was a victim of a napalm attack during the Vietnam War — was selective in highlighting one of the most heart-rending moments of her distress. There were other photos that showed her running but not crying. Did the choice of one moment of anguish make a photo that became one of the most famous icons of the whole war in some way a misrepresentation?

To focus on ostensible discrepancies of this nature is to some extent simply the product of pettiness — an unwillingness or inability to look at the big picture.

But it also seems to represent a deficit in the very ability to recognize and use icons — a consequence of an overly literal way of thinking that narrowly circumscribes meaning.

Marwan may not have trudged across the desert alone, but the image of a lost child in the desert remains emblematic of a people who have been largely forgotten by the world.

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