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I tweeted a photo of the Trump rally crowd — and then things got crazy

The boast from President Trump was bold, brash — and dubious.

Onstage in Harrisburg last Saturday, he told a throng of supporters that the fire marshal had "a lot of people standing outside" and that "we really maxed out. We broke the all-time record for this arena."

Except, staring us in the face, in the upper reaches of the New Holland Arena at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, were rows of empty seats.

I snapped a photo and tweeted Trump's claim, along with the image. I blasted out some follow-up thoughts and another picture of more open seats, but didn't think much of it as I listened, tweeted, and tapped out a story for a fast-approaching deadline.

But through the unpredictable Twitter alchemy of timing and chance, that initial post -- 27 words plus a photo -- would quickly become the most-viewed piece of journalism in my nearly 16-year career.

Over the next few days, it hammered home the surreal and chaotic way so many of us consume and react to news on social media.

By the time I got to a late dinner, my Twitter feed was overwhelmed with more attacks and mentions than I could track.

As of Friday, 2.4 million had seen the tweet, more than 30,000 had liked it, and more than 19,000 had retweeted it.

The Huffington Post and the British tabloid the Sun turned the tweets into stories.

People who dislike Trump shared them as evidence of his lies. Trump supporters shared them as an indictment of the Fake News media (me).

I want an audience for my work but quickly became uncomfortable with it all.

When I write a story, I usually talk to experts, write and revise, calibrate my language, give weight to the most critical facts, and have an editor check it over.

In our story on Trump's speech, my colleague Aubrey Whelan and I gave his crowd boast and the empty seats all of two sentences. It was a small illustration of how casually the president throws out questionable information that sounds good, even when he could easily -- and truthfully -- have made the same point about his crowd without hyperbole. (And as he accused the media of dishonesty.)

On Twitter, it quickly became the only thing millions of strangers knew about me or our reporting. (Even though hours earlier I had also tweeted a picture of the huge line of supporters excited to see Trump.)

I had written about 9/11, presidential and Senate races, and Holocaust survivors. Covered the Eagles for two seasons and the NFL playoffs. Explained national tax and health-policy debates.

None of that got attention like these two lines spun out in a moment.

Civility, logic, and reason quickly hit the eject button.

Trump critics condemned all the people in the picture as racists. One wrote, "Full or not, we can be sure the average IQ was well below 100."

One Trump supporter, who in his bio calls himself a "Proud Father, Proud American," called me "a moron who can't fill a condom!" (Points for creativity.)

Others accused me -- incorrectly -- of reusing a photo from earlier in the event, before Trump was speaking. (I had tweeted an earlier picture, but the ones that caught fire were new, taken at 8:01 and 8:26 p.m., as Trump spoke. He came on around 7:50.)

When an AP reporter noted that the line outside the arena had dissipated by 7 p.m. -- and shared a photo of the entrance as Trump spoke -- some Twitter sleuths asserted the sky looked too dark. It must have been taken after the speech, they claimed.

"Do you consider yourself a real journalist?" someone tweeted at me, "Because I was there and the place was PACKED." The seats in my photos, she said, "are the nosebleeds. Thousands on the floor." Her tweet was liked more than 10,000 times and retweeted more than 3,000.

My favorite reaction was from someone who wrote that the photo "is one of the reasons why I voted for and will always stand by TRUMP. Cause of idiots like john "boy" tamari." (Translation: Visual evidence questioning a politician's claims make me trust that politician more.)

It was a sharp contrast from my in-person interviews with Trump supporters hours earlier, who had been welcoming and generous with their time.

But a legitimate question came in: Maybe there was such a large crowd on the floor that the arena had reached its capacity and those seats were left open for safety reasons.

The possibility gnawed at me as the tweet kept spreading, completely out of my control. My shoulders and jaw tensed all Sunday. On Monday I tuned into White House spokesman Sean Spicer's press briefing, wondering if my tweets would be lambasted.

They weren't. And later I found out that I could, indeed, believe my own eyes.

I asked a spokeswoman at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which runs the Farm Show Complex, about the crowd count. She said nearly everyone who wanted to attend made it into the arena except for a "few stragglers" who arrived too late. For security reasons, no one is typically allowed in once the president arrives, the Harrisburg fire chief wrote in an email.

Could it have been a record attendance anyway?

The arena had no data that could confirm or deny it, meaning that the president's claim was at best completely unverifiable. The arena did not have ticket counts for similar events that used both the seats and the floor, the spokeswoman said.

Trump did draw roughly 9,500 people, according to both the Agriculture Department and the city's Bureau of Fire. The arena, with seats and floor space counted, can hold 11,431. That capacity was reduced somewhat by the stage and press area taking up parts of the floor, but Trump, even with a big audience, didn't quite max it out. Fire marshals had not stopped people from entering.

"The open seats that you saw could have been occupied by folks if they chose to come into the arena," fire chief Brian Enterline emailed.

It took a few days to settle this, and when I did I tweeted out most of the facts.

But by that time, few people paid any attention. Instead, as of Friday the Twitter arguments continued about the crowd and the pictures and Trump.

Sad!

You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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