Distorted image of billboard promoting racial equality leads to lesson for angry callers
‘Don’t believe what you see and verify information that is posted on the internet’
The giant ads were intended to promote peace and racial equality in Edmonton.
"Prophet Muhammad taught a white is not superior to a Black and a Black is not superior to a white, except by piety and good action," stated the electronic billboards displayed across Edmonton.
But soon Pattison Outdoor Advertising, the company that owns the billboards, was bombarded by angry calls.
It turned out that a distorted photo of the sign was being widely circulated on social media.
In the manipulated image it's difficult to see the second "not" so the message can easily be incorrectly read as: "a Black is superior to a white."
That altered message sparked a flurry of furious Islamophobic comments on social media, alongside the odd warning that the image had been tampered with.
A Pattison spokesperson said the company received close to 100 calls and emails from outraged people across Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. They demanded explanations or simply wanted to vent their anger.
"Many of the messages were extremely rude and offensive and some were violent and threatening," Pattison wrote in an emailed statement provided to CBC. "There were posts claiming that the sign should be burned down, pulled down, and that if we didn't remove the ad that it would be done for us."
Pattison checked the billboard to see if there was a mechanical problem but soon realized what had happened.
"Someone had intentionally posted a distorted, or doctored image on Facebook, claiming that the ad was racist, encouraging everyone to call our office to complain," the company said.
An employee called back more than 80 people to explain that the post they had complained about was not an accurate reflection of the real ad on the billboard.
"Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of people were surprised and upset to learn that they had been a victim of fake news," the statement said.
Many people apologized for being too quick to anger. Some even offered to repost the correct image.
"I learned something today, that all of us need to verify anything we see on [Facebook] as there are a ton of lies and post manipulation," said one post, which was shared with CBC. "Whoever posted this is an irresponsible POS."
'Don't believe what you see'
The backlash contrasted sharply with the intent of the campaign that saw 15 ads, mostly electronic, go up in the Edmonton area, and two more in Grande Prairie.
The Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC) said the billboard initiative was launched by a group of Edmontonians in the wake of George Floyd's murder and ensuing protests to promote peace and racial equality. The five-week campaign began three weeks ago.
Momin Saeed, AMPAC's executive director, praised both Pattison and others for setting the record straight. The incident provides a valuable reminder, he said.
"Don't believe what you see and verify information that is posted on the internet," said Saeed, who emphasized the importance of finding out if something is true before sharing it.
He said the original campaign was inspired by the final sermon given by the Prophet 1,400 years ago.
"He wanted people to understand that it's the content of your character and your deeds that God looks at," Saeed said. "Your skin has nothing to do with it."
MacEwan University sociology professor Irfan Chaudhry, who studies racism and discrimination, said the incident speaks to a broader divide connected to Islamophobia and xenophobia.
He said the divide is often amplified by misinformation and discussions around inclusion, which some instead view as exclusion and the encroachment of non-Christian religions in Canadian society.
"This is a strong narrative that's played oftentimes in a lot of these right leaning and right-wing extremist groups," Chaudhry said.
"Just because you're being inclusive doesn't mean you're taking away from anyone or anything. But it's one of those things where when people are scared of difference or they're unfamiliar with change … that's where you get that very strong alarmist perspective."