Too good to be true? How to verify online images

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Online images can have a powerful effect on how people view the world. They can be used as propaganda, make or break careers, influence opinion and cause people to commit drastic actions. So it’s important to be sure that such images are real. WikiTribune spoke to some image verification experts about spotting the fakes, and has created this guide.

Fake images go back further than you might think. For as long as there has been photography, there have been examples of fake imagery. The earliest cases of photograph manipulation stretch back to the 1860s. But since the invention of computers and the dawn of the internet, false imagery has become almost ubiquitous.

In 2010, Malaysian politician Jeffrey Wong Su En released a doctored photo of himself being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and in 2012, fake images of presidential candidate Mitt Romney with children wearing T-shirts spelling out “MONEY” went viral during his campaign.

The key to finding out whether an image is authentic is finding its original source. The fake image below, adapted from a 2002 Associated Press photo of George Bush visiting a school, has since been debunked by Snopes.

fake image of george bush reading book upside down on 9 11
Fake image of George Bush reading book upside down while visiting George Sanchez Charter School with the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry (CC BY SA 3.0)

1 Find the image

The easiest way to verify an image is to do a Google image reverse search (this tool works best for images from articles and blog posts) by copying and pasting the URL here.

By changing the search parameters to oldest, or typing in specific words associated with the event depicted you might be able to find the image on a reputable news or picture agency website. Once this happens you can assume it’s genuine.

2 Can’t find the image?

Try narrowing your search by date. If you can’t find the picture you are looking for try doing an image reverse search with TinEye or Yandex (better for non English websites). For images you find on Reddit, use Karma Decay.

If you still can’t find the photograph try horizontally flipping it with a photo editor. Or use Flipapicture. When people create a fake picture they often start with a genuine image and then horizontally flip it before manipulation, so it’s harder to find in reverse image searches.

3 My image has a different caption which alters the context

The original caption of an image can be different to subsequent versions but the meaning shouldn’t change. Be skeptical of accounts posting an image multiple times with exactly the same caption.

Someone may deliberately write an entirely new caption to alter the image’s meaning and use it to produce a made-up story. This is how many fake news stories start. Check out the example on Snopes on how a photograph of Donald Trump lying on the floor, after participating in a wrestling match, has been used for various fake stories, such as him having a heart attack or being assassinated.

4 My image isn’t the same as the original

If you have found the image on a news or picture agency, but your version looks slightly different, then it may have been edited. Keep refining your search and putting in different search terms. Eventually you should find when the original image was first altered.

After the Charlottesville protests in the U.S. in August 2017, an image of an anti-fascist protester hitting a police officer was circulated on social media. In fact, this photograph was taken eight years ago, during riots in Athens, Greece, in December 2009. After the violence in Charlottesville, it was digitally manipulated and an anti-fascist logo was added to one member.

You can also see whether something has been digitally altered by using Izitru. Users with more technical experience should try FotoForensics.

5 What about videos?

If you want to investigate a video you can take individual stills and run them through an image reverse search. Yet this is both time consuming and there holds no guarantee that the particular pictures will be found. Youtube Dataviewer, by human rights group Amnesty International, extracts four thumbnails from any YouTube video and allows you to carry out a reverse image search much faster.

4 screenshots from youtube dataviewer
Four screenshots taken from a video on Youtube Dataviewer (CC BY SA 3.0)

This guide was produced after WikiTribune interviewed Dan Evon, an image verifier expert at Snopes and Henk Van Ess, a fact-checking and image expert. Check out Van Ess’s Medium post, “Inside the trenches of an information war” for more detailed advice on verifying images.

Usefull Twitter accounts debunking fake images:

Hoax of Fame

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