[WHOA...] Is That Picture Real?

Category: Photography

Social media of all kinds - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. - are 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.

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 Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, January, 2015.

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.”

giant fake squid

And then there are the hoaxsters, 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.)

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

Step 1: 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.

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

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.

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 will 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.

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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This article was posted by on 9 Aug 2016


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Most recent comments on "[WHOA...] Is That Picture Real?"

Posted by:

Elizabeth Perilloux
09 Aug 2016

Really great information for those of us who had no idea there was a way to verify photos. Unfortunately I have probably been guilty of forwarding a false representation on Facebook and for that I am ashamed. Will use these tools in the future before I foolishly passed on misinformation that may even be a blatant lie. Thank you again for your oversight and sharing of all you've learned about computers and software and fraud.


Posted by:

Elizabeth Perilloux
09 Aug 2016

Really great information for those of us who had no idea there was a way to verify photos. Unfortunately I have probably been guilty of forwarding a false representation on Facebook and for that I am ashamed. Will use these tools in the future before I foolishly passed on misinformation that may even be a blatant lie. Thank you again for your oversight and sharing of all you've learned about computers and software and fraud.


Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
09 Aug 2016

Good article, but be wary of blindly accepting Snopes for anything even REMOTELY political. Barbara Mikkelson at Snopes is pretty left-wing, and her biases are pretty clear. For example, on the first day of the 2016 Democrat convention, there were NO American flags on the stage. After something of an uproar on Drudge, the DNC added several American flags on Day 2- but Snopes ran the photo of the flags on stage and proclaimed that the photos were taken on day 1, and then proclaimed the statement "false".


Posted by:

MikieB
09 Aug 2016

So is that picture real, and if so, what is it?


Posted by:

Maureen I
09 Aug 2016

Thanks Bob! I teach digital literacy and would like to use this information in my classes. Of course you will get credit! I remember right after 9/11 a ubiquitous photo of a young man in a ski cap supposedly standing on the observation deck of the WTC with a plane headed his way. But the deck wasn't open at the time of the attack, and it was way too warm for anyone to be wearing a ski cap that day.


Posted by:

Michael
09 Aug 2016

Thanks for the info on where to send my FB friends when they post these photos. Got one the other day about honoring Vietnam vets, but the photo was of the Tropic Thunder cast!


Posted by:

JohnK
09 Aug 2016

So, is that REALLY a picture of Bob Rankin at the top of the page? OR, is it a male model? OR, might he actually be the monster on the beach? (sorry, Bob)


Posted by:

David
09 Aug 2016

That works for most posts, but I love to take a screen shot using Snagit which drops all the meta data from the image. Fortunately I only use my powers for good, or at least a good laugh.


Posted by:

Earl_J
09 Aug 2016

Right on, Bob. . .
You always provide the best educational material for most things digital... thank you very much for sharing all you know... (wink)

For those of you a bit suspicious about snopes.com,
try truthorfiction.com to see if it will fit your needs. I compare them both on touchy issues OR when my first search returns nothing.

It is nice to have two, OR more, sites like this to verify important stories and research suspicious images...

Thanks again for your never-ending generosity and bottomless knowledge of all things digital...

Until that time... Earl J.


Posted by:

Robert Sloat
09 Aug 2016

Also useful for rumor testing are snopes.com and truthorfiction.com.


Posted by:

Granville Alley
09 Aug 2016

The false attribution of quotes to famous people is every bit as pernicious and perhaps more common. I get several of these a week from some of my friends who are less than scrupulous about forwarding the "interesting" things they get sent to them. Despite my demonstrating repeatedly the falsity of many of these "quotes" to these same friends, if it fits their particular bias or point of view I continue to get them from these same people.

Skepticism is perhaps the most important tool you can bring to the internet.


Posted by:

Steve Hedge
09 Aug 2016

Very helpful, thanks. A picture (or video) does not always tell a thousand words.


Posted by:

GuitarRebel
09 Aug 2016

Bob, I've found the vast majority of people get offended if you try to even gently bring up the fact. They actually prefer to believe lies and distortions.


Posted by:

Ricky Raccoon
09 Aug 2016

Ken Mitchell, keep your erroneous right wing political posts to yourself. Not everyone here subscribes to conservative websites as their only news source.
Most of the false memes I see on a daily basis are political in nature.


Posted by:

HA
09 Aug 2016

Keep your truths to yourself?


Posted by:

Kangaroo Kid
10 Aug 2016

Well done Bob. I rarely pass on to people anything I receive via the Internet but your articles are an exception. I wonder if the negative comments about this article may come from people who this article exposes!


Posted by:

Jim robbins
05 Sep 2016

Pointing to Snopes.com as a reliable source for correct information is not a good idea. The site is run by a liberal blogger who has about as much credibility as the Easter Bunny. How this site ever gained any degree of credibility is really stretching it. He is just one (liberal) guy with an opinion – a liberal opinion and nothing more.


Posted by:

The Kangaroo Kid
10 Sep 2016

Hey Jim go easy on the Easter Bunny, he's a friend of mine!


Posted by:

Michael Nation
11 Dec 2016

Bob, I'm probably way too late for anyone to notice this post, but I tried your instructions to get EXIF data. On my Win 7 machine, using one of my digital photos, Properties => Advanced shows file attributes. However, Properties, then the Details tab, seems to be the correct path to EXIF info. Thanks for your sensible and useful information on this important topic!


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