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Tips for Better Thinking: Images Can Be Faked

Faked and decontextualized photos are a plague in and of themselves, but there are tricks to avoid getting tricked.

Faked photographs have been with us since the beginning of photography itself, but the wide availability of software and social media has made the creation and distribution of these visual fabrications so much easier. As we hunger for information during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be constantly aware that the shocking photos our friends share with us on the Internet are not always true, even when they seem to come from… CNN.

Last December, a photo was shared on social media that was seemingly a screengrab from a CNN televised newscast. It showed a messy and bloody hospital emergency room. The CNN logo was in the bottom right corner and the lower-third chyron could read: “Breaking News: Hospitals on lockdown as first COVID vaccine patients start eating other patients.” There we have it: CNN reporting that the COVID vaccine leads to cannibalism. Except this never happened.

The photo of the emergency room was real: it had been taken by a medical student and published alongside his opinion piece in The New York Times in 2019 about senseless deaths and gunshot victims. Someone grabbed this photo, added the CNN logo and chyron, and posted it to a website dedicated to funny images called iFunny. From there, it spread on social media platforms, often with no indication of its comedic intent.

Similarly, we saw a photo of a tank and soldiers in the streets of Toronto, to enforce, we were told, a COVID-related military order… except that the photo is from a 2016 contemporary art event.

These types of photos are part of an epidemic of misinformation that we are all exposed to online and which can have harmful consequences if we believe them. The trick to not fall for these faked and decontextualized photos is simple: we must think before we share.

As the News Literacy Project recommends, we can check for details that don’t make sense, like winter coats in a photo meant to be from Toronto in the summer. If you really want to put your detective hat on, you can save the photo and upload it to a website like Google Images or TinEye that will search for it on the Internet and show you where else it has been posted. If the photo is supposed to be COVID related but it first appeared online in 2015, you’ll know the photo has been repurposed. If you are using Chrome as your web browser, it’s even simpler: right-click on the photo you’re curious about and select “Search Google for Image.”

If the photo was not posted by a legitimate source but simply appears “as is” in a friend of a friend’s shared Facebook post, there are reasons to pause and be skeptical, especially if the photo triggers in us feelings of anger, disgust or incredulity. If it’s real news, you will find the story covered by a major news organization and available on their Facebook page, Twitter feed, or website.

Just like we need to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, we also need to stop the proliferation of misinformation. Not sharing an image whose provenance is uncertain is probably better than allowing falsehoods to reach more and more people. It’s the equivalent of sneezing into a tissue. Think before you share!


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