Barking up the wrong tree: The internet wants you to believe this is the dog Kristi Noem shot. It isn’t.

The photo of the dog believed to be the one South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem shot and killed has been seen millions of times on social media. It’s been published by one of the United Kingdom’s biggest newspapers. It was even distributed by a Washington, DC, animal rights group in a memo blasting Noem. Indeed, when I Googled “Kristi Noem’s dog” this morning, it was one of the first pictures that popped up.

But the dog in the photo isn’t Noem’s.

In an era of deepfakes and artificial intelligence, the photo is an important reminder in this election year that we can all still fall for far less sophisticated types of misinformation — especially when they come in the form of an adorable puppy.

And while the dog’s mistaken identity is undoubtedly good news for the dog in the picture (we are told he is alive and well), it’s a not so good reflection of the way we can all easily encounter and share unchecked viral misinformation.

Individual forums on Reddit are known as “subreddits,” and there is an endless universe of them devoted to dogs. 

It was on the “Puppy” subreddit where user “LukeWarm273” posted a photo of their dog “Blue” last year.

The Reddit post was identified in a recent report by NewsGuard, a journalism organization that rates the reliability of news websites and tracks online disinformation campaigns.

“This is Blue, he’s 3/4 German Wirehaired pointer and 1/4 shorthair pointer!” LukeWarm273 wrote.

“He’s a cutie,” one Reddit user responded. “He’s adorable! I love his little nose,” wrote another.

The next day, LukeWarm273 posted more, equally adorable pictures of Blue, writing, “Everyone’s kind words made me want to share some more photos of my Blue! Honestly love this community!”

But last month — more than a year after LukeWarm273 posted their first picture of Blue on Reddit — Blue’s photo started showing up across the internet.

An inevitable mix of shock and outrage had followed Noem revealing in her book that she had shot and killed her dog Cricket (because Cricket had allegedly attacked some chickens, bit her and was “untrainable”). Noem had once been considered a contender for former President Donald Trump’s pick for vice president, but CNN previously reported that the South Dakota governor had already fallen off the presumptive GOP nominee’s shortlist long before this controversy began.

Still, the story quickly entered the national conversation and the internet kicked into high gear.

“Please join me in wishing Cricket (the dog Kristi Noem shot to death) a blessed journey to the land of beautiful puppy dog souls. 💔,” one user on X posted after the story emerged.

But the picture the user posted with the message wasn’t of Cricket; it was a picture of Blue. The post has been seen almost 600,000 times on X.

Even the actor Mark Hamill weighed in on X, sharing a broken heart emoji in response to the photo.

It is unclear how the X user found the photo of Blue, and it isn’t clear who the first person was to falsely link the photo of Blue to Noem. The image was also shared on X by at least two prominent users with about 900,000 followers each — they have both since removed it.

It showed up in a story about Noem on the website of The Telegraph, one of Britain’s oldest and biggest newspapers. That Telegraph story, along with the photograph, was syndicated through Yahoo! News, bringing it to an even wider audience.

This screengrab shows a story from The Telegraph about Noem defending her decision to kill her dog. The story shows a photo of Reddit user LukeWarm273's dog, Blue, next to Noem. - From the Telegraph
This screengrab shows a story from The Telegraph about Noem defending her decision to kill her dog. The story shows a photo of Reddit user LukeWarm273's dog, Blue, next to Noem. - From the Telegraph

The picture, along with the caption, “The Dog Murdered By Trump’s Potential Vice Presidential Running Mate Choice,” also appeared on the “community” page of Daily Kos, a popular progressive website with more than a million followers on Facebook.

Staff at NewsGuard tracked the spread of the image and found a Washington, DC-based animal rights group had mistakenly used the picture in a press release blasting Noem’s actions.

But the group, Animal Wellness Action, used a press release distribution service that automatically publishes releases to websites of local news outlets across the country. That meant the release and the photo of the dog showed up on the websites of at least 11 local TV stations in places like Florida, Nevada and South Carolina, according to NewsGuard.

Joseph Grove, senior director of communications for Animal Wellness Action, told CNN: “Our writer relied on extensive news coverage of the dog and the proliferation of that photo and took as fact that the photo was of Cricket. She had seen the image used, for example, on Yahoo News and the Daily Kos, as well as on numerous other platforms that shared the story. In retrospect, given the importance of credibility to Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, we should have done our own due diligence. Lesson learned.”

Grove said Animal Wellness Action has asked the press release service to issue a clarification.

CNN has reached out to The Telegraph for comment. Daily Kos added a correction to its post after it was contacted by NewsGuard. The image “was not in fact a picture of [Noem’s] late dog,” the correction reads.

LukeWarm273 didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment. The user, who told NewsGuard they want to remain anonymous, did confirm to NewsGuard that the picture that went all over the world is indeed their dog.

“This story shows how fake photos can go viral without the need for Photoshop, AI, or any high-tech tools,” NewsGuard enterprise editor Jack Brewster told CNN. “It also highlights how any photo, post, or comment can become the source of a viral false narrative, regardless of intent. In this case, a random Reddit post on a forum for cute puppy photos became the source of a viral false narrative that misled a major news site, local television stations, and dozens of prominent social media commentators.”

That spread of such false information can be especially problematic when the topic is controversial. “Oftentimes content emerges in a controversial news cycle that reinforces the narrative,” Ben Decker, the CEO of Memetica, a threat analysis company that tracks disinformation online, told CNN. “These types of emotive responses muddy the waters of truth, reinforcing true narratives with false context.”

Joan Donovan, an assistant professor of journalism and emerging media studies at Boston University, explained how online incentive structures reward peddlers of viral content. X, for example, now shares revenue with its users who create content that goes viral (though X says that content shouldn’t be false). Videos and images that pull on our heartstrings (like a cute puppy) are perfect fodder for virality.

“Who you trust is paramount because there are massive rewards (money and clout) for attention and amplification online. That incentivizes manipulators to twist or invent stories to make it seem like they got a scoop,” Donovan wrote in an email to CNN.

“[I] didn’t appreciate the misuse of my dog’s image because even though it is recorded that she [Noem] did in fact kill her dog, it doesn’t make it right to use an image of some cute dog on the internet to make people even more upset than they are now,” LukeWarm273 told NewsGuard.

LukeWarm273 confirmed Blue is alive and said he is a “good and protective dog.”

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