Rattlesnakes, Facebook and fake news

The rattlesnake was uncoiled, curled in an elongated ’S’ on the edge of an asphalt road. The grass and dirt, and a distinctive white scrap of something at the side of the road, offered some sense of scale, but none was needed. Rattlers always look lethal, regardless of size.
The message I received along with this digital image was urgent, describing a “very large” diamondback that had been seen that morning near a campground at the county sports complex. The snake was still alive, had disappeared into the weeds, and posed a potential threat to anyone in the area – particularly the dozens of children who lived in a nearby apartment complex and could often be seen playing in the park.
The request was not unusual. “Please post this on The Record’s Facebook page to alert the public.” After verifying the source, I published the image along with a brief report of time, location, and name of photographer, warning anyone in the area to be aware.
I had no idea at the time how venomous that viper would soon prove to be.
An hour or so passed before a friend sent a note, accompanied by the same photo, advising that it had been circulating around NextDoor neighborhood watch pages in Amarillo for days. 
As a child, I often explored the pasture across the street from our house, where I’d been warned to watch for prickly pear cactus and rattlesnakes. I climbed the mesas outside of town, always acutely aware of the season and temperature. Rattlers love sunny days, as I did. I knew the danger.
But I had never been bitten before. As I studied the photo I’d received, and compared it to the one I’d just posted, I felt the sharp sting of fangs, and the sudden, sickening awareness that I’d let down my guard.
I pulled the post, which had quickly accumulated comments and shares, and picked up the phone. The county employee who delivered the message to our office had been sent by the county judge. The county judge had received an email from the city manager. The city manager was advised by his code enforcement officer, whose friend had sent an email message with the photo and the story of his near-brush with danger. 
When I called him, the photographer was adamant. “I’ll come to your office and show you,” he insisted. Neither he, nor the snake, has reappeared.
A brief, apologetic post on our Facebook page noted that the photo was apparently a hoax. Within minutes, the photographer’s family had registered outrage. We were guilty of slander, heartlessness, cruelty, publishing fake news, and the ultimate offense: acting “high and mighty.”  We had called their loved one a liar, they wrote, thus ensuring that all who read their messages would believe either a) that we had called him a liar; b) that he was a liar; or c) both.
Meanwhile, my friend – who was following the rapidly expanding contretemps – was researching the photo’s origin. He tracked it back to one shot by Ben Stephenson, uploaded to Flickr (ahh, the good ol’ days) in June 2005, and published with attribution 13 years later in the Texas Standard.
The article was headlined, “What should you do if you see a rattlesnake?” It is a subject on which I now consider myself an authority. 
I was presented with the option of responding, or not. I could have posted the two photos side-by-side, thus offering proof-positive that the image could not possibly have been taken in Canadian earlier that morning. I could have re-published the time-stamped Flickr page or the Texas Standard report. I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles, been placed under oath and deposed in a court of law, crossed my heart and hoped to die.
None of it would matter, as I knew from experience.
The disappearance and death of Canadian High School student Thomas Brown in Thanksgiving 2016 is still an unsolved mystery, now in the hands of the Texas Attorney General’s Criminal Investigations Division. The remains of his body were recovered, and their identity confirmed, in January 2019. None of the four law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation have classified it a homicide or indicated the cause of death.
A group of friends, self-named Moms4Tom, strategically placed large banners around Canadian just before our Fourth of July celebration. “There is a killer among us,” they warned ominously. 
That may, indeed, be true, though it is certainly not based on any evidence that has been presented, yet. I pointed that out in a report published the following week, and posted on social media, hoping it would encourage the Facebook bottom feeders to reconsider that broad assumption.
The message I got in return, though, was loud and clear. “We don’t need to read facts. We have a right to our opinion, and we believe Tom’s mom.”
Or as the rattlesnake photographer’s family told me: “We don’t want to see the information you have.  We know he didn’t lie.”
What should you do if you see a rattlesnake? 
Run. Run like hell.