ParisHilton In spreading a phony quote about Nelson Mandela, Twitter user @DeletedTweets proved the powerful allure of the almighty screenshot. Photo: Reuters

For a number of bloggers and media professionals, it was too good not to share: Paris Hilton, the notably self-centered socialite, tweeted -- then deleted -- an ill-conceived tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela, saying that she was inspired by his “I Have a Dream” speech.


A screenshot of the offending tweet was shared by the newly created account @DeletedTweets, and it spread like wildfire amid Twitter-wide ruminations on the inspirational Mandela, who passed away Thursday at the age of 95. But almost immediately, astute tweeters called out the tweet as a phony, and indeed it turned out to be just that. BuzzFeed confirmed with Hilton’s publicist that the hotel heiress was on a flight to Miami when the tweet was sent out. Shortly after, Hilton herself sent out a series of tweets blasting the hoaxer who created the tweet as well as the gossip bloggers who were all too quick to spread it around.




So why were so many people -- including those who should know better -- so ready to believe that Hilton didn’t know her Mandelas from her Martin Luther Kings? Welcome to the power of the almighty screenshot. In the court of social media public opinion it can be irrefutable proof of misbehavior, faux pas, knee-jerk bigotry or, in this case, just plain ignorance. Ill-conceived tweets can be deleted, but as many companies and brands have learned, the Internet never forgets. Tweet something offensive and some quick-thinking Web dweller will be right there with a finger on the “Print Screen” button. The screenshot tells all.

Except as the propagator of the Hilton hoax inadvertently proved, it’s just as easy to create a screenshot of a fake tweet as it is to recover a deleted one. In fact, it’s easier. Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR) frowns upon third-party apps that catalog deleted tweets for easy recovery. One such app, Undetweetable, was asked to shut down following an outcry over its privacy implications. So if you delete an embarrassing tweet, you’re pretty much left to hoping that no one captures it in the act (although for someone with a large following like Hilton, you can bet that someone will).

At closer look, there are some telltale signs that the Hilton tweet is a phony. For instance, the large heart at the end of the sentiment seems suspiciously incongruous. The dateline, too, is a giveaway, displaying a four-digit year (2013) and a single option to “embed this tweet” as opposed to the “more” ellipsis displayed by Twitter on most browsers.  

Despite the instant debunkers, quick sleuthing by BuzzFeed and fierce denials by Hilton, the damage in some respects was already done. The fake tweet was retweeted more than 10,000 times, and as late as Friday afternoon, latecomers to the story were still perpetuating the phony Hilton flub with retweets and snarky and offensive commentary. The fake tweet reached as far away as Cairo, where the prominent journalist Bel Trew gleefully re-tweeted it in the wee hours. Told that it was a fake by numerous Twitter users, Trew replied, “Well, I love the idea anyway.”

The 32-year-old Hilton, whose travails and escapades dominated gossip-news cycles for much of the ‘00s, has settled into a relatively lower profile in recent years. Still, she believes she has a good reason for why the story of her so-called flub went viral. Deep down, we’re just “jealous.”  




In the meantime, caution is still the best policy when it comes to screenshots. Heed the sage advice of “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Wil Wheaton: