It was just before 6 a.m. in Dublin when Jason Michael McCann says he saw someone on Twitter share a photo of a shark swimming down a highway. McCann told BuzzFeed News he knew the image was fake, and that's why he put it in a tweet of his own and added a (misspelled) Hurricane Harvey hashtag.
"Of course I knew it was fake, it was part of the reason I shared the bloomin' thing," McCann said by phone. "What I had expected was to tweet that and have my 1,300 followers in Scotland to laugh at it. This was, of course, the intent."
Over the ensuing hours, the tweet became one of the most viral Hurricane Harvey messages on Twitter, racking up tens of thousands of retweets and likes. It's not the first time the fake street shark has surfaced during a hurricane. The photoshopped image previously made appearances during Irene, Sandy, and Matthew. It also pops up during floods and other kinds of storms.
McCann said he didn't realize his tweet had gone viral until BuzzFeed News contacted him via Facebook about it. Then he checked his profile.
"To be honest, the first thought that went through my head was, Fucking idiots," he said.
McCann is a Scottish academic living in Ireland. He said he recently took up journalism as a way to express his pro-Scottish independence views. He contributes to iScot Magazine, and recently launched a GoFundMe to help support his "pro-independence blogging."
"I became a journalist with independent Scottish media because I didn't trust the journalism I saw around me," he said.
And now he's gone viral for a fake image. Doesn't he see that as a problem?
"We are responsible for how we receive the information we’re getting. If people choose to be fooled by a shark swimming by a car, I don’t think it says a great deal about me," McCann said.
The fact that McCann describes himself as a journalist in his Twitter bio is one reason people are criticizing him.
But McCann doesn't have much sympathy for anyone who's upset. "I more or less sent a cat meme to the world, and if people have gotten upset about it, well, ok, yeah," he said.
"There was no deliberate malice in it. It was just me having a poke at reality. I would feel heart rendered or appalled at myself if I shared something with real consequences."
He added, "It’s an animal in water. It’s not even drowning — it belongs in water!"
McCann doesn't plan to delete the tweet.
"It would be actually ethically problematic, at least in my understanding, to delete it," he said, arguing that its popularity requires him to keep it online.
"You can't get a 20,000-retweet tweet and delete it. I might never be this famous again."
Now that he knows the tweet is so popular, McCann is planning to reply to the original and explain he didn't intend to fool anyone. And if people want to get angry at him, he can take it.
"I have pretty thick skin," he said, "somewhat like a shark."
Craig Silverman is Media Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Craig Silverman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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