April Fools’ Day is riddled with hoaxes. Some are obvious, where others are detectable only to a well-trained eye.
As a journalist, getting duped can have serious consequences. Without due diligence, it can cost you readers, revenue, or even your job.
Truthfully, we are all susceptible. With advanced technology and increased savvy by the everyday schemer, fake photos and misleading information are getting more difficult to discern.
It’s especially challenging when the source in question is one we trust, or the topic feels all too real. Take this recent story about the Vatican. Or, these seemingly legit hurricane photos and tips for victims.
Don’t be the next reporter to get fooled by the fakery. Here are a few tips to help you quickly debunk that bad photo.
How to Spot a Hoax Photo
There are four key questions you should ask yourself.
What’s your gut say? If your very first thought is “that can’t be real,” it’s very possible that you’re right. Perhaps the image is advertised as one thing, but is really another. Or, maybe it grabs your attention because it feels unnatural (example). Listen to your instincts to help determine what it is you’re really looking at.
Is there a source? Credible publications have strict guidelines about what photographs they accept and how much editing (if any) they allow, so that the picture does not deceive its viewers. It is important for media to communicate the full story accurately and this includes the images used in the story, too. Reputable outlets often site a photographic source, such as an individual or agency to further show authenticity. No source means further digging is required.
What’s up with the lighting? A good indicator that something has been photoshopped: when the background has one type of lighting and the subject has another. For example, check out the photo in this article by The Onion. The subject is very bright and has high contrast, while the background is dark and muted with a strong blue hue.
Is it eerily familiar? If something resembles a photo you’ve seen before, take a closer look. It could be that this new version is doctored (see this original vs. fake), or is 100 percent real, but misleading readers by being used in a completely different storyline.
Tools You Can Use
There is no one-button solution that will tell you if a picture is real or digitally altered. But, in most cases, you can properly evaluate your image in a few simple steps. Here are some of the methods we like to use.
1. Reverse search the image.
Searching an image can provide you with a lot of information about how a photo is being used online. Through a simple upload, you can find clues about where the photo originated, examine where else it was published, and compare to similar images to spot alterations.
To start, go to Google Images and drag and drop your image into the search field. Or, click the camera icon to upload a photo directly or insert the photo’s URL. If the image in question is already online, and you use Chrome, simply right click the image in your browser window, and select “search Google for image.” This will immediately take you to any matching results, where you can start digging for clues.
2. Explore the metadata.
A photo’s metadata can tell you a lot. It can tell you the date and time a photo was taken, the device used, shutter speed, exposure compensation, F number, ISO number, auxiliary lenses that were used, resolution, and even GPS information that shows you exactly where the image was taken.
Similar to a reverse search for images, free tools like Metapicz, EXIFdata.com and Jeffrey’s Exif Viewer provide a simple process for verifying photos. EXIF, as a note, stands for Exchangeable Image File and refers to the data that gets embedded into an image.
Pro tip: Anything uploaded to Twitter and Facebook will have its metadata automatically stripped, which the companies say is for users’ privacy.
3. Investigate the forensics.
Beyond a photo’s metadata and online footprint, FotoForensics digs in deep to show where an image might have been altered. The site runs error level analysis (ELA) to find parts of a picture that were added to it after editing. While this isn’t the end-all-be-all solution we all hope for, it does help simplify the evaluation process.
TinEye is another useful site that provides image search and recognition, and other forensic tools. After a simple upload, you can sort and filter by how much an image has been modified and laser in on differences with its Compare feature.
Pro tip: If you’re a photographer, you can stay vigilant about protecting your original work by uploading your images to EXIF.co. This tool uses smart watermarks that force users to embed your image, rather than download or screenshot for their own use.
4. Lean on your resources.
You know Snopes.com. It’s one of the most widely-recognized fact-checking resources “by journalists, folklorists, and laypersons alike,” says the site. Traditionally, you think of Snopes for checking out myths, rumors, and misinformation. But, you also can use the site to see if widely circulating photos already have been deemed real or fake — like this popular, but fake, photograph from the Aug. 2017 eclipse. Or this photo of the Parkland school shooter, which was deemed real.
There are also quite a few Twitter handles that do the heavy lifting for you. For example, @PicPedant tracks down fake and stolen photos. The handle also calls out uncredited imagery and alerts the appropriate rights holders. Similarly, @FakeAstropix helps identify fake, misidentified, and uncredited pictures — but specific to astronomy.
5. Don’t forget video.
Similar to photos, videos and their thumbnails can be manipulated, too. Luckily, videos also hold a ton of data behind the scenes.
Amnesty International’s YouTube Dataviewer is a simple but powerful tool that allows you to extract metadata from videos hosted on YouTube. The tool extracts the upload time of the video in question, and its related thumbnails, while also showing you any other copies of the video posted to the site. This helps you track down and view the first instance of the video on YouTube.
Pro tip: Video thumbnails should be searched through reverse image search, too, to see where else the video might appear online.
It’s easy to know what to do once a photo is deemed real or fake. You either use it or you don’t. But, what if you’re still not sure?
The best advice: Do your legwork and ask a lot of questions. Check with your peers and push back on any sources that provided the image. The more you push, the more signals you’ll likely get that help you land on a decision. If questions remain, err on the side of caution. Don’t use the image until you’re 100 percent sure it’s safe to use.
Still feeling unprepared? Try the Verification Handbook, authored by leading journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC, Digital First Media and other verification experts. It provides actionable advice and best practices for how to verify and use information, photos, and videos during emergency coverage.
Want to test your ability to recognize a doctored photo? Try Adobe’s Real or Photoshop Challenge.
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Former journalist Anna Jasinski and photo expert Kim Garrison both work at Cision.