Dec 28 2015

Fake Photos in 2015

children huggingDiana Rusk writing for BBC news has a good article about fake photos and videos that were spread in 2015. It is a sobering reminder of how much fake, misleading, and deliberately fraudulent information there is out there.

As I have often pointed out, the internet is a fantastic tool for communication, but is also a double-edge sword. If even a tiny percentage of the online public are generating false information, for whatever reason, that will create a steady stream of misinformation. We will never be rid of it.

Think about this, estimates are that about 1% of the population are psychopaths. That is 3 million psychopaths in the US alone. Some are in prison, but many are in the general population and have access to the internet. Online they can wreak havoc with impunity. In fact there is some preliminary information that there is a huge overlap between being an internet troll and a psychopath. 

I’m not saying that true psychopaths are causing all the misinformation online, there are many sources, but they are one source you may not have thought about.

Sometimes a fake or misleading photo or meme can go viral precisely because it is crafted – it captures the emotion of an event, or a pervasive fear, too perfectly, in fact. Misinformation may have an edge, therefore, in being spread around.

Types of Misinformation

The Rusk article gives good examples of various types of misinformation. One type is a real photo that is simply presented in the wrong context. Iconic photos that capture a certain emotion, like the two children huddling together during a disaster, will be trotted out every time an appropriate situation occurs, and falsely attributed.

Sometimes photos or videos are deliberately faked just for the sake of doing so, or to reinforce an ideological position. The software for photo manipulation is very accessible. There are even apps that can generate some quick fake photos, such as fake signs.

Two somewhat innocent sources are also in the mix. There are many satirical sites that generate fake news. Perhaps the most popular is The Onion, but there are many less known sites, or sites that skirt the border between satire and just fakery.

I love The Onion, it is often extremely funny and spot on. Satire is a great way to reveal the insanity in a position. However, even the well-known Onion can sometimes be spread as real news. The more obscure sites, especially those that are not as funny or obvious in their satire, are often mistaken for real news.

There are also viral marketing campaigns, created to promote a product, event, movie, or cause. Even when well-meaning, and not just shilling for a company, these campaigns can also add to the total burden of misinformation online.

What To Do?

If anything, it seems likely that misinformation will increase online. There is no real way to police it, and the downsides to any such attempt would likely not be worth it.

Fortunately, the resources exist to help any individual sort through the nonsense, but you have to make a conscious effort.

It is difficult to be eternally vigilant, but every should have at least a basic skeptical filter in place when accessing any information. Here are some red flags that should trigger a raised eyebrow:

1 – The item plays perfectly into a specific ideological position. Be especially careful when that position is one that you take.

2 – The item seems well-crafted. This could be a mark of a viral marketing campaign.

3 – Source attribution is vague or non-existent.

4 – Details given about the subject of the item are vague or non-existent.

5 – It just seems too good to be true, too on-the-nose.

When you have reason to be suspicious of a news item, photo, or video (which should be every time) get into the habit of checking out the information to verify it, especially before you share it and become part of the problem yourself. I can often debunk an item in less than 10 seconds. Here are some quick resources:

1 – Google: Don’t neglect a basic Google search. Just search on the item and see what comes up. If everything you see is just repeating the same report, then add other search terms such as, “Fraud,” “Skeptical,” or “Hoax.”

2 – Snopes: This is still one of the best resources online for quickly finding out if an item is legitimate. They have done all the leg work for you, and their site is very reliable.

3 – Topic Specific Sites: There are many other sites that also function as Snopes, or are focused on a specific topic. UrbanLegends is a great site. is great for political claims. I’m sure many other suggestions will appear in the comments.

4 – Reverse Image Search: These websites, including one by Google, allow you to upload a photo and search to see if it exists online. This is a great way to find manipulated or recycled photos.

5 – Skeptical Sites: Popular skeptical websites also spend a great deal of time and effort analyzing and exposing fraudulent or misleading claims, as well as discussing how to critically analyze claims for yourself.

6 – Websites of universities and professional organizations: Information on professional sites does tend to be more reliable than random sources. However, one word of caution here. Often ideological groups will disguise themselves as professional organizations so that they can promote their ideology. Don’t let the names fool you. Rely upon well-known organizations with an established reputation. Even then, such organizations can sometimes have blindspots.


Constant reminders that the internet is a flowing river of false and misleading information helps maintain vigilance. The important thing to remember is simply not to trust anything until you have spent at least a few seconds verifying it.

Assume everything you see or read of fake, until you have put it through at least a basic filter. Treat the internet like a used-car salesman.

Certainly do not share or spread information that you have not reasonably verified.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Fake Photos in 2015”

  1. carbonUniton 28 Dec 2015 at 10:43 am

    Not a new problem. Here’s the 1800’s version:

    The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge, is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information, by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber, in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed.
    – Edgar Allan Poe

    (submitted as SGU skeptical quote)

  2. Clemanceon 28 Dec 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks for this reminder. “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” has been such a lifesaver for me. It has taught me so much. I was well on my way to being a critical thinker and atheist before I found your podcast but you have helped me a great deal on my journey to reality. You do good work.

  3. Ivan Groznyon 28 Dec 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Fact check is a useful source only if you are a political liberal and feel good reading liberal interpretations masquerading as “fact checking”.

  4. Ivan Groznyon 28 Dec 2015 at 3:13 pm

    “Satellites have been taking measurements since 1979. The various satellite data sets of the temperature in the troposphere (the lowest atmospheric layer) — including from NOAA, from a research company called Remote Sensing Systems and from a research group at the University of Alabama in Huntsville — disagree. But the UAH data set is the only one to show a lack of warming. Though there is some disagreement on the best ways to adjust and interpret satellite data, studies have indicated that correcting the UAH data in certain ways (specifically, removing a particular source of satellite error known as diurnal drift) would yield similar results to other data sets, indicating more warming.:

    this is from Fact check website and it is false from beginning to end. UAH data show shorter period of no warming than the other data set Remote Sensing Systems (run by scientists who are not sceptical to the IPCC line). but, overall the two data sets disagree very little. And both of them are in good agreement with weather balloon data (unliek the surface data which are constantly adjusted upwards and are inconsistent with both weather balloons and stateites) NO study had ever shown that UAH is not adequately corrected for diurnal drift (or more precisely, it was discovered in 2005 and the correctiosn are made 10 years ago). Whatever “correction” one may propose to get the pesky satelites in line with the narrative, those adjustments need to to apply both to RSS and UAH.

    Sometimes, ideologically motivated “mainstream ” websites are worse and more dangerous sources of misinformation than usual crackpot outlets.

  5. steve12on 28 Dec 2015 at 4:00 pm

    “Sometimes, ideologically motivated “mainstream ” websites

    dude – who’s more ideologically motivated than you!!!! Seriously!?


  6. Fair Persuasionon 28 Dec 2015 at 4:16 pm

    So if trolls mimic psychopathic traits, what do we call their meme readers?

  7. steve12on 28 Dec 2015 at 4:17 pm

    “UAH data show shorter period of no warming than the other data set Remote Sensing Systems ”

    Like a dog with a bone…

    Do you have some links of actual scientists interpreting this data? Or are we to just trust you?

    Can’t imagine where’d I go wrong trusting a politico’s opinion on cleaning highly specialized scientific data sets….

  8. MaryMon 28 Dec 2015 at 4:17 pm

    That woman who quit doing the “Fake on the Internet this Week” column actually said it was more than just satirical site confusion.

    The first is that there’s been sort of this industrialization of the hoax news industry, meaning that a lot of news sites now exist that do nothing but publish fake news for the traffic and the ad revenue.

    They are doing it for eyeballs. I would say some of the conspiracy-monger sites are doing this too. Big Hoax and Big Conspiracy-site are sadly profitable.

  9. Ivan Groznyon 28 Dec 2015 at 4:42 pm

    steve 12,

    Whether I am ideologically motivated or not is besides the point. I am not claiming such a thingk, as opposed to Fact Check.

    As for the satellite data, you can see for yourself.

    here is the RSS data 1996-2015 showing 0.05 C of warming, or about 0.03 C per decade.

    here is UAH data for the same period showing almost 0.25 C of warming or 0.16 c per decade.

    Exactly the opposite of what Fact Check is claiming.

  10. Steve Crosson 28 Dec 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Ivan Grozny,

    You might want to honestly examine your own beliefs to see if perhaps they are tainted by “ideology”.

    When the vast majority of qualified climate scientists and world governments in general (including those headed by “conservative” parties) all agree that AGW is an extremely serious issue, there is a pretty good chance they are right.

    When almost everyone looks at the same evidence and comes to the same or very similar conclusions, then you better have a LOT of high quality countervailing evidence to overturn the consensus. Cherry-picked, out of context “anomalies”, ( which are often misunderstood by non-specialists anyway), are NOT high quality evidence for your (extremely) minority point of view.

    To be taken seriously, you must provide legitimate, convincing evidence that the majority of current evidence is completely wrong or at least explain how it is being interpreted incorrectly by almost everyone else but you and a handful of others.

    In addition, you absolutely must provide a PLAUSIBLE explanation why everyone else is so wrong. If we have learned anything in the last few hundred years that the scientific method has been embraced, we’ve learned that when most of the scientists interpret the evidence the same way, they are almost always correct.

    Even if it were possible to have a secret, global conspiracy, there is no conceivable way that all of the different governments of the world with different political ideologies and different motivations could possibly agree on one goal. And if they did, they couldn’t keep it secret. All it would take is one whistleblower looking for a multi-million dollar book deal for offering “proof” of a conspiracy. In reality, there would be dozens or even hundreds of claimants if there was even a hint of any collusion of any kind.

    And don’t try to claim that there is some kind of strong incentive for scientists to “toe the company line”. If you knew anything at all about how science actually works, you would know that just the opposite is true. No one gets a Nobel Prize for simply agreeing with the consensus. Likewise, research money is never allocated simply to maintain the status quo. Rather, research is almost always directed towards learning something new, or at a minimum, to try to honestly determine if “we really know what we think we know”. In any event, fame and fortune are far more likely to come to those whose research “upsets the applecart” rather than simply strengthening the consensus.

  11. steve12on 28 Dec 2015 at 5:23 pm

    “Whether I am ideologically motivated or not is besides the point.”

    Beside which point? It’s not beside the point I was making: that you’re a hypocrite for constantly complaining about ideologues while being one yourself.

    As for that data, I think you linked the same data twice.

    Also, I’ll have to do a LOT of work to figure out if that data is appropriate to the question at hand because I am NOT an expert. Is this data in the type of condition that experts in the field recognize as valid? Does it require some kind of processing or interpretation that is missing? This sort of just graphin’ the data without understanding it is dangerous, I know that.

    I’ll give you an example. If I gave you raw EEG or fMRI data from my field, I would give you about a 0% chance of making sense of it. In the case of the simpler data type (EEG), it takes years to know how to simply clean, signal average, and interpret this data for simple analyses. And each of these steps has a littany of papers dedicated to just it. More complex analyses require even more.

    So I have 0 confidence in my own ability to really understand the data you’re throwing around here. What goes into cleaning this data? When using any type of imaging imaging, raw is almost always indecipherable. But here? Are the different types of imaging susceptible to different types of artifact? Etc., etc.

    Maybe there’s a link that speaks to the readiness of this data for this type of non-expert exploration?

  12. Steve Crosson 28 Dec 2015 at 6:54 pm


    With all due respect, I think you are letting Ivan Grozny off the hook way, way, way too easily. The burden of proof to try to understand or explain his single anomaly is not your responsibility. There are almost always outliers in any data set, and while it may be useful to understand why, unless there are a LOT of outliers (enough to where they are no longer outliers but simply part of a collection of jumbled data) they really don’t have much impact on the end results or final interpretation of the data.

    Most of the anomalies pointed to by the so-called AGW “skeptics” are simply their own inability to understand what is really going on or how to properly interpret the data. But even if a few data points seem to contradict the main hypothesis, that doesn’t necessarily mean the hypothesis is wrong.

    It is possible that we may need to refine the hypothesis if the anomalous data is replicated, but it is also possible that the data is simply wrong. Mistakes do happen, but which is more likely? That a few mistakes were made from thousands of studies? Or that thousands of mistakes were made and only a few were correct?

    And that is the real situation with AGW. Many, many different lines of evidence have all converged to the same result. AGW is real and fully supported by a wide range of independent experts and complementary lines of evidence.

    As I said earlier, there is absolutely no reason to take Ivan seriously unless he can provide enough legitimate evidence to call into question a significant portion of the huge amount available research.

  13. Steve Crosson 28 Dec 2015 at 7:07 pm


    Besides, even if you spent days learning everything there was to know about Ivan’s example, and then explained his error to him very carefully and completely, based on his past comments, he would simply rationalize it away.

  14. Pete Aon 28 Dec 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Dr Novella, Thank you very much indeed for addressing my deep concerns about this issue.

    Kindest regards, and best wishes for 2016,

  15. Teaseron 28 Dec 2015 at 11:32 pm

    This article reminded me of when I used to listen to The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour podcast and that turned out to be just a bizarre stunt.

    Be careful out there! The internet is full of weirdos!

  16. BillyJoe7on 28 Dec 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Steve Cross,

    “Besides, even if you spent days learning everything there was to know about Ivan’s example, and then explained his error to him very carefully and completely, based on his past comments, he would simply rationalize it away”

    Or simply go away until he has another opportunity to spread his misinformation about climate change.
    (Remember the recent article by NASA about Antarctic ice – he simply spread the misinformation about that article and then disappeared when context and explanation was given)

  17. BillyJoe7on 28 Dec 2015 at 11:52 pm

    BTW, I was not misled by any of those photos – because I didn’t see any of them until I read that article about a week ago

  18. BillyJoe7on 28 Dec 2015 at 11:58 pm

    Ivan: “Whatever “correction” one may propose to get the pesky satelites in line with the narrative”

    Give it a rest.

  19. Charonon 29 Dec 2015 at 1:29 am

    No, no, Ivan has a point. After all, reality has a well-known liberal bias. So for the sake of balance, we must consider both reality and fantasy on equal footing.

  20. edwardBeon 29 Dec 2015 at 9:07 am

    Perhaps we are seeing an example of the connection between psychopaths and trolls?

  21. steve12on 29 Dec 2015 at 9:29 am

    Steve Cross:

    “Besides, even if you spent days learning everything there was to know about Ivan’s example, and then explained his error to him very carefully and completely, based on his past comments, he would simply rationalize it away.”

    Yeah, this is exactly right. He’s a politico and his only interest in science is to use if for his politics.

    I do plan to return when I have some time and play around just because I like to play with data. Maybe this will generate questions about the current interpretations, but the idea that I can supplant them is…insane.

    I’m also curious about what the ‘condition’ of the data is. Is this data appropriately processed and ready to be meaningfully plotted? I guess I’ve got some work to do – glad he posted it for that reason!

  22. Ivan Groznyon 29 Dec 2015 at 11:35 am

    Dear all,

    your constant repetition of the liberal talking points about the “dangers of climate change” and similar BS will not change the fact that the “fact-checkers” got it exactly backwards when it comes to the satellite temperature data. And that this illustrates rather beautifully my point that the mainstream sources could be extremely unreliable, when it comes to “hot” political issues. That’s the topic, and you are trolling.

    Steve Cross,
    “outliers” when it comes to temperature data are heavily manipulated surface data. They essentially erased the cooling 1940-1975 which was more than 0.5 C in previous versions of GISS and HAdCrut data, and increased the warming 1975-2015. NASA doubled the rate of global warming since 2005 by “adjustments”.

    Satellites and weather balloons are in good agreement. Actually and ironically, it was only UAH, compiled by “sceptics” Spencer and Christy that had shown greater warming than RSS and four weather balloons sets.

  23. steve12on 29 Dec 2015 at 11:48 am

    “your constant repetition of the liberal talking points about the “dangers of climate change” ”

    Who discussed this here once, let alone repetitively?

    As per usual with people who aren’t interested in science beyond politics, he’s “filled in” our argument for us with HIS political foes’ talking points.

    Though the humor for me is always when people like Ivan start accusing others of being ideologues! HA!

  24. BillyJoe7on 30 Dec 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Just to correct this piece of misinformation:

    Ivan Grozny:
    “It was only UAH, compiled by “sceptics” Spencer and Christy that had shown greater warming than RSS…”

    From here:

    Each record is plotted as the monthly average and straight lines are fit through each data set from January 1982 to December 2009. The slope of these lines are 0.187°C/decade, 0.163°C/decade, and 0.239°C/decade for the surface, UAH, and RSS respectively

    UAH: 0.163 degrees/decade
    RSS: 0.239 degrees/decade

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