Fake News and Fake Photos

Category: Reference

Social media of all kinds - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. - is rife with disinformation spread by people with ulterior motives. It’s a huge problem; you never know if what you’re looking at is real or fake. Many users react emotionally to provocative fake photos and posts, sharing and commenting on them, perpetuating the false impressions and outright lies. Read on for my tips on spotting a fake photo...

Verifying Authenticity Of Photos

In a recent study, I read that lots of people pass along these bogus items on social media without bothering to venture beyond the photo or the headline. You don’t want to be one of those people, right?

Doctored photos are a favorite tool of propagandists. There are many free photo editing tools online, making it dead simple to alter or create a fake photo. As an example of this sort of disinformation campaign, we can turn to the widely circulated photo apparently showing a Seattle Seahawks football player burning an American flag, while his teammates cheered him on.

The player in the photo was one of those who "took a knee" during the playing of the national anthem at NFL football games, and the image was modified in an attempt to besmirch him. The original photo, which showed Michael Bennett doing a victory dance in the locker room, was taken almost two years earlier. But the doctored photo was shared on social media tens of thousands of times.

giant fake squid

The same thing happens when people with a political axe to grind create fake photos. One recent example shows President Trump rescuing cats after the flooding in Houston. There were also fake photos of former president Obama, supposedly kissing the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

And then there are the hoaxsters, who create fake or outlandish images by using photo editing tools such as Photoshop. The "Giant Squid on Santa Monica Beach" photo (shown here) 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.)

You don’t want to be one of those people, and you don’t want to be their unwitting tool by falling for and spreading their manure.

Unfortunately, a lot of people fall for it and spread it even further. If they had the knowledge and had taken the time, they could have discerned that the photos they shared were entirely bogus. Here is how you can do it, and avoid being a pawn of hoaxsters and propagandists.

How to Identify Fake Photos

Check when the photo was 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.

This BBC article has some tips on identifying the signs that can reveal a fake photo. Checking the reflections, and even the color of a person's ears in a photo can be telling.

Videos can also be misrepresented, 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. Researchers at the University of Washington have created a tool that uses artificial intelligence to create fake videos. In this example, the software is used to put words into a synthetic Barack Obama’s mouth.

Amnesty International has partnered with YouTube to create a YouTube DataViewer but its limitations make it unreliable. First, it only covers videos uploaded to YouTube; contrary to appearances, that does not include every video ever made. Second, 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.

Take a Look Under the Hood

Sometimes 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.

If you find that a heartbreaking photo of a little girl covered in mud and holding an equally sad puppy was actually taken in Australia, you can be sure it is not a photo of a Bosnian war orphan. EXIF data can be altered to deceive, but most of the people who spread disinformation this way are not that technically savvy. You can catch a lot of fake images by looking at EXIF data.

Also, consider the source of an image. If someone in New Jersey is feverishly posting outrage-inducing photos “in real time” of an incident taking place in Germany, it just doesn’t make any sense. As Judge Judy loves to say, “If it doesn’t make sense it probably isn’t true.”

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.

Finally, you can Google it, or use Snopes to check out things that seem odd or salacious. If you don't like Snopes, use another myth-busting site such as Hoax-Slayer or TruthOrFiction.

Bottom line, don't believe everything you see online. You can avoid looking foolish, or playing into the hands of ill-intentioned scoundrels by doing a few seconds of research before passing along a photo or story.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Fake News and Fake Photos"

Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
06 Dec 2017

A simpler way to determine the authenticity of a photo on Facebook; If it's on Fakebook, it's fake. You should presume, as your default option, that the picture is falsified. Only when it has been confirmed by people that you trust to be authentic, should you accept it.

This assumption has never yet steered me wrong.

Posted by:

Alan Hotchy
06 Dec 2017

tinyeye is also an excelent rescource to find fake photo's

Posted by:

06 Dec 2017

Another thing to remember (you may even want to write this down): if it is on CNN, it is fake news!

Posted by:

Kenneth Heikkila
06 Dec 2017

Ken and Michael.......sad

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
06 Dec 2017

Your http://www.hoax-slayer.com/ link in your article above is broken.

Posted by:

Lia Molero
06 Dec 2017

Thank you Bob!

Posted by:

06 Dec 2017

Fortunately, all of my friends have stopped sending "email forwards" of outlandish images, stories and the like. I guess they got tired of me verifying the content and then responding back to them, as well as everyone else on the original email, with the debunking information. Of course, several of them have likely just taken to Facebook to spread the goo.

As for social media, while I do participate lightly on one or two topic-centered sites, I don't much do Facebook. I have an account, but only to (very) occasionally check grandchild photos. Otherwise, it's pretty much a cesspool. I am bizarrely surprised and perplexed by the junk people post.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2017

@Michael based on your statement am guessing you rely on Fox news for your "facts" and "real news"

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
06 Dec 2017

Thanks Bob for the useful information. I had friends, who would send me stories off the internet, and the first thing I would do, is research the story, to see if it was true. If it wasn't, I would tell the person who sent me the story. Yes, I made some enemies, but I did not care. True friends understand, so this saved me a lot of heartache and frustration.

Posted by:

Murray White
07 Dec 2017

Unfortunately, Bob, generally the folks that either publish or follow the fake photos also have no interest in learning that the subject matter is not fake if it is in accordance to their "beliefs" as generally, their minds are made up so don't confuse them with facts.

Like DM I often would simply do a quick Snopes inquiry and send the link to the person forwarding misguided information but often it would be ignored or if stopped for a time would begin again because the fake information fit his particular agenda. SAD!!!

Posted by:

08 Dec 2017

Hi Bob,

Timely and useful article.

I always think back to the movie "Wag The Dog" starring Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman when fake news is discussed. Worth watching.


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