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As Amazon Fires Spread, So Do the Misleading Photos

The jarring photographs of flames tearing through the Amazon have captured attention around the world, but they may not always be what they seem.

The fires have prompted global calls for a boycott of Brazil, whose far-right president has cut back on protection of wild lands, but many of the images widely shared online by politicians, celebrities and others depict events from different places and even eras.

Amazon Rain Forest Fires: Here’s What’s Really HappeningAug. 23, 2019

Take the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who on Thursday shared one such image with his 120 million Facebook followers and nearly 80 million Twitter followers, adding, “It’s our responsibility to help to save our planet.”

The photo he shared showed a dramatic view of a glowing strip of flames and smoke, but it was actually taken in 2013, in a part of Brazil far from the Amazon, according to a caption posted alongside the photo by The Baltimore Sun at the time.

On Wednesday, the musician Jaden Smith shared a different photo on Instagram with his 13 million followers that showed an aerial view of a snaking fire consuming what appeared to be a forest, noting, accurately and in all caps, that the Amazon is one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks.

What his post didn’t make clear is that the photo appeared to be three decades old, which is so old, in fact, that it was taken at a time when his father, Will Smith, was still starring in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

That photo, also shared by the tennis star Novak Djokovic, with his nearly nine million Twitter followers, and by Madonna, with her 14 million Instagram followers, appears to have been taken in 1989 in Brazil, according to a caption that appeared alongside the photo in a 2007 piece published by The Guardian, as Mother Jones and others have reported.

Video: Amazon Rain Forest Fires: The Scope of the DestructionAug. 22, 2019

The same day that Jaden Smith shared that image, Leonardo DiCaprio shared another with his 34 million followers that showed a verdant thicket of trees engulfed in smoke. The singer Ricky Martin and President Emmanuel Macron of France also shared that image, but none identified its source.

That image appears in a stock photo catalog, which credits it to the photographer Loren McIntyre, an explorer and photojournalist who died in 2003.

On Thursday afternoon, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile shared yet another photo of a smoke-filled canopy, but that one, too, was taken years ago. According to a caption found in the Adobe stock photo catalog, it was captured in 2013 by a photographer for Reuters.

There are other examples of photos misleadingly used to raise awareness. Some feature an elephant, which is not native to the Americas, in apparent distress, its back feet in flames.

Others showcase a mother monkey, her head tilted skyward and her mouth agape as she holds a limp baby. That photo was taken in India a few years ago, according to The Telegraph — the baby, which had just tripped, was soon back on its feet, the photographer told the publication.

Read more about the Amazon firesAs Amazon Fires Become Global Crisis, Brazil’s President Reverses CourseAug. 23, 2019Brazil’s Rainforest Fires Prompt Alarm and Anger in EuropeAug. 23, 2019


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