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Apparent hoax photo a hit on Chronicle page on Facebook

An image purporting to have been taken during the 2012 Super Bowl.

UPDATE, 10:52 AM: I heard back from the submitter a few moments ago. He said that he found out a short time after sending the photo to news outlets that it was actually his wife playing a prank on him. “It was definitely not a purposeful prank,” he said.

He said he was new to Montana and had no idea that the photo was not real. He apologized to the confusion and said he tried to contact everyone by email after the trick came to light, but he couldn’t get in touch with everyone in time.

Lessons learned all around, it seems.

Well, we thought we had what I call a “lightning strike,” a big, viral story online that gets a lot of attention and a lot of shares from our fans.

It was a photo sent in from our mobile app showing a mountain lion outside a set of double glass doors. The caption, written by a reader who identified himself only as Nick, said that the photo was taken “during Super Bowl by Bozeman deaconess.”

The app’s email to us at the BDC told me that it was sent in on Feb. 5, 2012, and its latitude and longitude, taken directly from the phone at the time of the submission, matched with a location near the hospital in Bozeman. It seemed legit.

I posted it to the paper’s Facebook page, and it was a hit. More than 100 shares and almost 90 comments. It was the biggest thing we’d posted to the social network in a long time.

Then there was some controversy.

First of all, when the photo came in to my email program, it was displayed quite small. I did not notice that there was a mouse cursor in the shot and that some of the distortion in the photo was clearly not just due to poor focus — it was due to the shot haven been taken of a monitor showing the mountain lion photo.

Then, a number of commenters noted that they had seen the photo before. One woman, Melanie Musson, said a coworker of hers at a nursing home near the hospital took it a year and a half ago.

Musson provided a link to the original photo, which Facebook says was posted on June 25, 2010. The link is here, though Musson said it was only going to be set to “public” for a short while.

A screenshot of the page is below.

Screenshot of a photo posted to Facebook on June 25, 2010, showing a mountain lion outside a set of doors.

By all appearances, the photo we received on Monday was a hoax, but I don’t think the story will be complete until I hear back from submitter Nick. I left a voicemail at the number from Nick’s email this morning. I will update this post if Nick replies.

I took the photo down from Facebook late last night and posted a notice about it.

So what went wrong? I didn’t open the photo and glance at the full-size image. I probably would have seen the mouse cursor in the shot, and that might have been a red flag. I had checked the meta data first, and the GPS coordinated checked out. That means that, hoax or not, the iPhone uploading the photo was located in the right spot — geographically near the hospital in Bozeman. On top of that, there was no way I could have known the photo had been posted to Facebook before.

The trouble came when I didn’t call Nick. I put a measure of trust in the people who submit videos and photos to the Chronicle, and perhaps that trust is ill-advised or misplaced. I like to think that the photos people take the time to send us are real, but that is clearly an assumption I can no longer afford.

Admittedly, I probably never should have had that trust, but sometimes you think you know things that you don’t.