JEDDAH: The caption to a picture showing Angela Merkel with her hair pixelated said it was all a joke.
But some social-media users took the idea that Saudi television networks had censored images of the unveiled German chancellor very seriously.
Indeed, the erroneous claim soon became the latest fake news story to spread like wildfire online.
Merkel’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, during which she met King Salman and other officials, was covered widely by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) and local TV stations.
None censored the image of her uncovered hair — but that didn’t stop the fake news machine going into overdrive.
The image appeared to originate from a Facebook page for “Khase News.” It showed Merkel standing next to King Salman, with her hair pixelated, and the caption “just for fun.”
But that didn’t stop numerous people on social media falsely drawing the conclusion that the image was a real screengrab from TV.
Sarah Abdallah, who tweets @sahouraxo, wrote on May 4 that authorities had apparently “censored the German chancellor’s hair when she appeared today on Saudi TV.”
Her message attracted more than 33,000 retweets, prompting an exasperated response from those who saw through it.
“It literally says it’s a joke on the pick you posted,” wrote Ahmad Al-Shathry, who tweets @Abunass3r, in response to Sarah Abdallah. “9000+ (!) people didn’t bother with a Google search. Sigh.”
State media did in fact have no issue about showing pictures of Merkel with her hair uncovered, with SPA, for example, publishing several images of the chancellor online.
But this is not the first example of fake news reports about “censorship” of images of female visitors to Saudi Arabia who chose not to wear a veil.
In January 2015, for example, numerous media outlets reported that Saudi TV stations had blurred the image of Michelle Obama on a state visit to Saudi Arabia.
But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, such reports were “erroneous”. Even the Saudi Embassy in the US stepped in, apparently correcting news outlets that got it wrong.
“Too bad Bloomberg did not have someone monitor Saudi TV as other news outlets did,” the embassy said on Twitter at the time.
Not every visit by a female dignitary who does not cover her hair attracts fake news stories.
But many mainstream news outlets take pains to draw attention to the question of whether visitors choose to cover their hair, often at the expense of the political questions under debate during state visits.
The recent visit of British Prime Minister Theresa May to Saudi Arabia, for example, attracted numerous headlines informing readers that she did not arrive wearing a headscarf.
But such issues are often not even raised before official visits.
Holger G. Ziegeler, the German consul general based in Jeddah, said this was the case with Merkel’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week.
“Both the preparations for the visit as well as the visit of the German Federal Chancellor in Jeddah itself were coined by the spirit of close cooperation and mutual respect with a high level of professionalism,” he told Arab News. “Accordingly, the topic of clothing or attire was never raised.”