On the Internet, Seeing Isn’t Believing

You may see it, but don’t believe it.  It is not an exaggeration to say that most all pictures you see on the Internet have been doctored in some way.   Sure, many famous pictures have been played with in the past.  But now, with digital photography and the Internet’s insatiable appetite for viral photos and memes,  today’s most notable pictures have likely been altered notably.  The plethora of  free photo editing tools online have made it too easy to alter or create a fake photo.  

Sham Shark

It’s gotten so prevalent that recently an Indian couple tried to pass off doctored photos of them at the top of Mt. Everest!  It would be fine if we could dismiss these images as a fleeting joke, an amusing but harmless tidbit shared among our friends and followers, if it weren’t for the fact that our minds appear to have a curious but fundamental glitch. People tend to think of their memories as a transcript, a rough history of events from some early age until the very moment they are experiencing. But human memory is far more like a desert mirage than a transcript – as we recall the past we are really just making meaning out of the flickering patterns of sights, smells and sounds we think we remember.  These fake memories don’t just distort how we see our past, they affect our current and future behavior as well – from what we eat, to how we protest and vote. The problem is there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop it.

You’ve probably seen thousands of doctored photographs in your lifetime without you knowing it. From advertisements to political campaigns, altered and faked images surround us every day. Restaurants make their food look more appetising, magazines make their models skinnier and blemish free, colleges and politicians splice people into photographs to make their students and crowds look more diverse.   In political campaigns especially, faked images show up again and again.  (it’s no surprise that, of late, certain politicians have taken to simply making up fake facts as well as fake photos).   A recent example: almost immediately after news of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s HQ broke, dozens of fake images and false comments on them flooded every social media outlet. The message was always the same: “They are lying to you.” The intent was to sow FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt – about legitimate news reports, and to blame “the Jews,” “the Freemasons,” “the Illuminati,” or some other mysterious group that “really runs the world.”  And then there are clever hoaxsters (many of whom are paid marketers), who create outlandish images by using photo editing tools such as Photoshop. The “Giant Squid on Santa Monica Beach” photo is one such example. The Gallery of Fake Viral Images has many more examples of doctored and misrepresented photos that have been passed along by lazy or unthinking people. (See also the Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors from Snopes.)

The general rule of thumb for today’s readers is that when you see a photo (especially one online) you need to take three steps:

Step 1: Figure out when was the photo taken. Doctoring a real photo of a tragedy is a complicated and time-consuming process. It’s much simpler to take an older photo out of context and link it to a news story about the tragedy. If you can determine that an image was made before a tragedy, but it claims to depict the actual event, you can be sure it’s fake. One way to check a photo’s age is to look for prior use of it. Google’s reverse image search feature will find matches and near-matches to virtually any suspect image. If you use the Chrome browser, the simplest way to perform a reverse image search is to right-click the image you see on a website, and then click “Search Google for this image.” You can also search using the image URL, or drag and drop the image. See the reverse image search help page for instructions.  TinEye.com is a dedicated reverse-lookup image index. Just right-click on the suspect image, select “copy image address,” and paste that address into the search box at TinEye. If you find a suspect image in a context that puts it clearly before the date of the real event, consider it fraudulent. Videos are misrepresented in the same way, and can have even more powerful disinformation effects because video is more “credible” than still imagery. There is no reverse-lookup site for videos; the technical challenges are greater. Amnesty International has partnered with YouTube to create a YouTube DataViewer but its limitations make it unreliable because it only covers videos uploaded to YouTube.  Also, if a video is edited in any way, even by trimming off a few seconds, its metadata will no longer match the original and it won’t be found in a DataViewer search.

Step 2:  Check out the EXIF data.  Perhaps the most reliable information about a photo is stored in the photo itself. Called EXIF Image Data, this hidden text includes such valuable information as when a photo was taken; what kind of camera took it; and even the geolocation coordinates if it was taken with a smartphone that had “location services” enabled. You can right-click on the photo and click “Properties”, then “Advanced”, to take a look at the EXIF data. Jeffrey Freidl’s Image Metadata Viewer can even pin a photo to a map, if it includes geolocation data. EXIF data can be altered to deceive, but most of the people who spread disinformation this way are not that technically savvy. You will catch a lot of fake images by looking at EXIF data.

Step 3:  Consider the source.   Twitter’s Advanced Search enables you to rule out such frauds by restricting searches to the location where you know the event is or has occurred. Facebook can also tell you the location of a user.  Be very alert to who is posting the picture and be sure that they are credible.  

These steps are worth the trouble because the way we remember events has a lot to do with the photographs that go with them – from Dorothea Lange’s classic image of a mother during the Dust Bowl, to the single man standing up against tanks in Tiananmen Square. How about this image of Hurricane Sandy…..which by the way,  is a totally doctored photo:

Sandy storm

Too many of us will remember these fakes just as well as we remember real images. When asked in the future, we’ll recall those pictures, and swear they remember those things happening. That’s the most fascinating thing about memory, the way that it can be so flagrantly non-factual, but we have really high confidence in the accuracy of it.  That’s why, more than ever, you need to be on guard for pictures that may be too amazing to be true.   They probably are!

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