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.

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