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How a viral photo of USPS collection boxes became a lesson in misinformation

Beware of what you retweet.

The logo on the side of a USPS collection box, which is rusty and weathered.
Pictures of collection boxes being removed are spreading online. Sometimes they’re years old.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Amid a slew of very concerning stories about the state of the US Postal Service, one particularly alarming photo recently went viral. It shows piles of blue USPS collection boxes stacked up behind a fence in what sort of looks like a dump. Amid mounting concerns about the prospect of the Postal Service processing a record number of mail-in ballots in the November election, to some the image might look like evidence of voter suppression. But it’s not — not quite, anyway.

As anxiety over President Trump potentially sabotaging the mail service mounts, this photo of collection boxes represents a particularly dangerous form of misinformation, one that social media companies are still figuring out how to moderate. One tweet, which has now been retweeted nearly 80,000 times, uses the image to illustrate a bold point:

But the problem is that the collection boxes in the image aren’t in a dump. They’re on a lot operated by a company called Hartford Finishing, which regularly refurbishes mailboxes for the Postal Service. In other words, the viral image shows a place where it’s not unusual at all to see stacks of collection boxes. It does not reveal an apparent effort to sabotage the election.

While one misleading viral photo is hardly a rarity online, misinformation related to how Americans will vote and the election in general is particularly concerning. Viral posts and images don’t need to contain outright falsehoods to be dangerous, either. Those that lack critical context also contribute to overall doubt in the electoral process and detract from the truth. In this case, posts containing the viral collection box image can be debunked, and that stands to make people question other accounts about the threat to the USPS.

This is not to downplay the many very concerning things happening at the USPS right now. In the weeks since longtime Republican fundraiser and Trump donor Louis DeJoy took over as postmaster general, there have been widespread delivery delays and sorting machines removed from post offices. The Postal Service also warned 46 states and Washington, DC, that it could not guarantee mail-in ballots would reach election boards on time in November, while Trump has admitted that he opposes more funding for the USPS because that would enable mail-in voting.

DeJoy promised to suspend some cost-cutting measures linked to the delays until after the election, and said that “mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are.” But it’s possible the American people’s confidence in the Postal Service is already compromised, due to not just the hard truth but also misinformation.

There are verified reports about collection boxes and sorting machines being removed that are fueling concerns about election sabotage. These worrisome facts have also created a prime environment for misleading posts like the one above from Thomas Kennedy to go viral. In a thread, Kennedy links to several reliable news articles about the state of the Postal Service, but the lack of correct context for the photo undermines those reports. And Kennedy wasn’t the one who took the picture. As many people do online, he simply shared his thoughts along with the photo after seeing it elsewhere.

“I was reading about the USPS boxes that were removed in Montana and Oregon,” Kennedy told Recode. “There were different images being shared, and I saw that image. And I was like, ‘Holy shit, this looks fucked up.’ And I just shared it.”

Meanwhile, others did a bit more sleuthing. Twitter user @UsHadrons traced the photo Kennedy posted back to a Reddit post from August 14, while using Google Maps and other images on social media to identify the location as Hartford Finishing Inc. in Wisconsin. Gary He, a photojournalist at Eater, contacted Hartford Finishing, where a woman said the company gets collection boxes “from everywhere and make[s] them look good again.” (Eater and Recode share a parent company, Vox Media.)

Adding to the confusion, Reuters sent a photographer to the location and made more than a dozen photos of old collection boxes available without providing the proper context of what the boxes were doing at the Wisconsin facility, an issue He flagged. Reuters later updated its captions with this context and confirmed to Recode that it did not take the photo shared by Kennedy.

“A person or organization that isn’t the primary source for an image is usually a red flag for me, and will often invite a few clicks into the thread or into the person’s bio to see if I can find some sort of attribution or credentials,” He said in a message to Recode.

Still, the image in Kennedy’s post spread much further than those debunking it, not only on Twitter but also on Facebook and other platforms. Celebrities, including Alyssa Milano, Kyle Kuzma, John Cusack, and Jeri Ryan, also amplified the image.

Eventually, Kennedy’s post caught the attention of PolitiFact fact-checker Eric Litke, who determined that the post was false, as were other posts that included the collection box photo and made similar claims about it. Litke pointed to evidence that refurbishing mailboxes is a regular practice at Hartford Finishing by looking at previous images of the facility captured by Google Maps.

“That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing nefarious happening anywhere, but it doesn’t mean that everything is nefarious either,” said Litke.

David Partenheimer, a spokesperson for the Postal Service, confirmed to Recode that Hartford Finishing has worked with the USPS for several years.

“They are a contractor that repairs or destroys old collection boxes. They now make new collection boxes also,” Partenheimer explained. “Photos such as this appear every couple of years.”

Partenheimer also said that the Postal Service “reviews collection box density every year on a routine basis to identify redundant/seldom used collection boxes as First-Class Mail volume continues to decline.” He added, “Based on the density testing, boxes are identified for potential removal and notices are placed on boxes to give customers an opportunity to comment before the removal decision is made.”

Facebook added a fact-checking label to at least one widely shared screenshot of Kennedy’s post, after PolitiFact flagged it — though not all posts like it have gotten the label. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s post remains up on Twitter without a label, and a company spokesperson told Recode that the tweet doesn’t currently violate Twitter’s rules and won’t get a label.

Despite the fact-checks, Kennedy says he doesn’t regret sharing the photo and argues it raised awareness about various threats to the integrity of the election and the Postal Service. Some argue the exact opposite: Misinformation in any form leaves the public guessing about the definition of facts and the integrity of the media, reinforcing whatever doubts the public already has about the truth.

“Already, important reporting around the Postal Service has been cheapened by viral photographs of post box graveyards that turned out to be refurbishment plants,” wrote Charlie Warzel at the New York Times earlier this week. “Similarly, rumors from anonymous post office employees muddy real reporting and allow the White House and its allies to cast aspersions on legitimate concerns about suppressing votes via mail.”

At the same time, conservatives are already using the fact-checks of the collection box image to discredit the idea that Trump is trying to sabotage mail-in voting. For example, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who shared a screenshot of the PolitiFact fact-check on Facebook, pointed to it as evidence that “the left is stiring [sic] up a fake postal controversy in hopes that worried people will vote by mail before first debate.”

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cited PolitiFact’s factcheck of the viral post as evidence of a supposed “fake postal controversy.”
Screenshot from Facebook

This fits into a dangerous but familiar pattern of misinformation fueling more misinformation, gradually pulling the narrative further and further from the truth.

“Ultimately, we see a lot of these [photos] just completely divorced from context and then a poster can kind of make whatever points fits them politically to go with it,” Litke told Recode.

While it seems impossible to force people to recognize misleading content — or prevent some from sharing it in the first place — the responsibility for social media companies to protect their users from misinformation has never been more apparent. The Postal Service has some serious problems. Dealing with misinformation shouldn’t be one of them.

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