In January 2019, 9Gag shared a post titled “Barber Mistakenly Shaves A Play Button Into Client’s Hair After Being Shown A Paused Video.” It was light on details and included several amusing images:
9Gag had very little to say about the circumstance purportedly shown in the photographs and didn’t include any links to substantiate its claims:
The man paused the video to show barber what he wanted to look like. The barber thought the triangle was part of the style and shave two triangles onto his head.
The barber allegedly asked the customer if he wanted to keep the triangle.
Not sure what this meant, the client said yes.
The photographs appeared on another English-speaking site that publishes stories of questionable veracity, Britain’s Daily Mail. That version also relied heavily on terms like “allegedly” and “it is said,” claiming that the story came from Chinese social media site Weibo:
The fashion-conscious customer was allegedly left with two massive bald triangular patches on his head after showing his hairdresser a video of a model he wanted to look like without realising the picture had a ‘play’ button icon on it.
As a result, the diligent hairdresser shaved one triangle onto each side of his head to mimic the ‘trendy’ hairstyle he thought his client had desired, according to a trending social media post … It is said when he saw a man sporting a haircut he wanted in the video, he paused the clip to show the hairdo to the hairdresser.
The hairdresser allegedly glanced at the screenshot, and even asked the customer if he would want to keep the triangle.
Oblivious to what the hairdresser meant, the client apparently said ‘yes’ – not realising that the hairdresser would later cut the triangular ‘play’ button icon onto his head in the exact manner.
However, a line in the story suggested that the “play button” might not have been accidental:
The [uploader] also shared a footage which is claimed to be of the customer, who is seen satisfied with his new look and strutting across a room.
A linked post on Weibo featured the images, but it didn’t include any indications we could see that the image showed a hairstyle resulting from a misunderstanding between a barber and a client.
Although the claim is not necessarily implausible, there was also good reason to take a pause before sharing it as legitimate. As an exhaustive 2014 item from BuzzFeed explained, photographs from China often exist in a market where fabricated or otherwise tinkered-with back stories thrive.
The piece concerned an outfit known as Central European News (CEN), described as “one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories… often bizarre, salacious, gruesome, or ideally all three: If you’ve read a story about someone in a strange country cutting off their own penis, the chances are it came from CEN.”
BuzzFeed provided numerous examples of how photographs were distributed in tabloids with either a willful or negligent approach to determining whether or not they were real and unaltered:
New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo also took note of a CEN story that made its way into the New York Post[.]
“I see this happen often in tabloids like the Post or Daily Mail or Yahoo or other news sites – references to foreign news services (often in the developing world) whose credibility we have no way of assessing,” he said. “It’s just sort of an obvious signifier of the publication thinking that the story is too good to check, that it doesn’t really matter if it’s true because it’s so strange.”
This might be a comforting argument. But the consequence is that real people – an Argentinian teacher, a Russian photo model – are having their lives distorted and paraded before the world. And it also blurs the line between truth and fiction in a way that undermines the integrity of the news media as a whole.
Indeed, the blame for the fact that CEN has been able to circulate such dubious stories does not rest with Michael Leidig alone: He was able to build his business because larger news organisations were so eager to buy what CEN had to sell, knowing that their readers would lap up these lurid tales of faraway people and places.
It is entirely possible that a barber in China (or somewhere else in the world) mistook a paused video for a still photograph of a client’s desired haircut and subsequently created the style in error. But sites carrying the story had a long-documented history of purposely or inadvertently spreading nonsense stories alongside images from non-English speaking countries, precisely because an amusing and wholly false story could be easily tacked on to those photographs with little consequence.