As the uproar grew over Natalie Portman’s decision to turn down Israel’s prestigious Genesis Prize last month, a related story about the Jerusalem-born actress appeared online. With a photo of her in formal dress, clutching a silver object and standing next to an Asian-looking man, the rightwing pro-Israel group StandWithUs told its Facebook followers that Portman had accepted an award from the Chinese government at the Beijing International Film Festival.
The implication: Portman was OK with accepting an award from a Chinese government that faces regular charges of human rights abuses, while rejecting an Israeli award because she doesn’t like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The charge: hypocrisy.
“Ms. Portman had no problem receiving a prize from China, administered by the Chinese government … where there are gross human rights violations,” the StandWithUs’s Facebook post read.
The post was quoted by Haaretz, shared 1,538 times on Facebook, and garnered 4,300 reactions and 874 comments.
But StandWithUs’ “news” wasn’t necessarily true.
The photo is of Portman on stage at the sixth annual Beijing International in April. But the object she’s holding is a microphone, not an award. The man next to her is not a representative of the Chinese government, but a Chinese actor.
And there’s no record of her receiving any prize at the event.
It’s an example of misleading news that hits close to home for friends of Israel. And as Israeli issues become increasingly divisive in America, there’s a risk that the sides will grow more likely to play fast and loose with the facts in order to advance their arguments.
It’s unclear exactly where the story of Portman’s Chinese award came from. When asked by WJW where StandWithUs heard about it, the group reversed itself. It changed its Facebook post to say that, as far as the group was aware, Portman did not receive a prize.
“There were multiple activists in English and Hebrew that said Natalie received a prize from China,” the group’s social media director, Emily Schrader, wrote to WJW. “We found no evidence that she received a prize, only that she participated, so we made a correction on our post.”
A tweet of the same picture, along with a description, in Hebrew, of Portman’s attending the film festival, appeared on Twitter prior to the Facebook post. The tweet was retweeted by a journalist at a website geared to the haredi Orthodox community, mistranslating the original Hebrew to an English description of Portman receiving an actual award.
Daniel Funke, a reporter who covers fact checking and fake news for the media news outlet Poynter, said that this incident falls outside the bounds of what’s typically understood as fake news, landing instead within the scope of a misleading or mistaken assertion pushed on social media for political purposes. But both kinds of stories are pushed to grab the reader’s eyeballs and provoke a response, typically one of anger.
“The stories that spread the most typically have headlines that pull on your partisan tendencies in order to make you react and share it and say, ‘I knew it,’” Funke said.
And according to Katerina Matsa, the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, social media is especially good at blurring sources and their importance in peoples’ minds. So if someone was flipping through Facebook and read that Portman accepted a Chinese award, they may simply remember that part, and not that it came from an ideological source.
According to Pew’s research, when people get news online directly from an outlet, they remember the source 78 percent of the time. When they get it through social media, that number falls to 52 percent. “When it comes to people remembering the source of that information or that news piece, there isn’t that same recall with the source or band on social media,” Matsa said.
For many, the notion that Portman happily accepted an award from the Chinese government undoubtedly remains true.