The police response in Ferguson yesterday shocked the nation. We saw video of cops shooting rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators, a journalist hassled out of McDonald’s and police gassing an Al Jazeera crew and dismantling their equipment.
Several photos stood out: One depicted a policeman spraying mace into a little girl’s eyes. Another a protester hit with a gas canister. A third showed an officer pointing his rifle into a car’s open window. In game circles, an article about how Ferguson affected videogames stoked anger at its insensitive focus.
Here’s the problem though–these last four had nothing to do with Ferguson. The photos were taken months or years earlier, over a thousand miles away. The article (from my publication, The Escapist) didn’t exist. These hoaxes are part of a growing trend in social media fakes–photoshopped or misidentified images intended to provoke outrage or fool users as a prank.
They’re not limited to Ferguson, either. I’ve detected fake photos during the World Cup, Occupy Protests and several other major news events. They’re a part of the news landscape now.
As social media like Twitter and Facebook start beating our traditional media to reporting on unfolding events, users need to start being more savvy about what they share. Not only does sharing fake images misrepresent the situation and cause confusion or anger in the public, sharing and commenting on media without fact-checking it can do lasting damage to a journalist’s reputation.
So here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to spotting a fake on social media. Generally, investigating and debunking a photo takes under two minutes, and some methods under 60 seconds.
1) Be Naturally Skeptical
First of all, consider the source. Does this photo come from a respected source like a journalist or a news outlet? If not, does it seem like this person is on the ground or knows what’s going on? Does it tally with other accounts?
For example, the photo above circulated a lot yesterday, claiming to show a protester hit by a gas canister in Ferguson. The photo does show a protester who’d been hit by a gas canister, but this was taken at the Occupy Oakland protests in 2011. It caused a pretty big stir at the time because the protester, Scott Olsen, was an Iraq veteran.
Anyone who’d seen footage or pictures of the Ferguson protests should’ve been immediately suspicious of this photo. Why? First of all, anyone who saw photos from Ferguson could tell you that the protesters were mostly African-American, but everyone in this picture is white. Second, there’d been no indication from reporters on the scene that there were casualties from gas canisters–something they’d have reported immediately. Third, the black hoodies were a hallmark of OWS.
Don’t assume anything’s true. If it smells even a little wrong or sensationalist to you, check it. Think before you Tweet.
2) If Unsure, Use Google Image Search
When I was debunking Ferguson photos, a lot of people just assumed I have exceptional visual recall–but actually I was just using Google Image Search.
For example, when I saw the photo above of a cop macing a child, it didn’t read right to me. The cop’s uniform and police cruiser looked different than the ones I’d seen in photos. It was taken in daylight when the Ferguson crackdown happened after dark. And finally, the police in Ferguson flat-out weren’t getting that close to the demonstrators.
To check it, I opened up another tab to Google Image Search and typed in, “cop macing child.” There was a matching picture on the first page of results. When I clicked on the photo, it led to a page debunking the photo as a hoax–turns out this one’s a favorite and has been around for years. When I followed through on the links, I found the original news report from Brazilian outlet O Globo.
Yes, not only was this photo from 2011, but it was taken at a protest in Brazil. Finding the real source took around 60 seconds–not exactly strenuous. Trade secret: hoaxers are lazy, they take from the first page of results every time.
There’s also a shortcut for this tactic: If you install the Google Image tool in Chrome, you can search for pictures through dragging and dropping them into Google Image search or pasting a URL, which is useful for pictures that aren’t easily described, if you’re not good with search terms or you’re in a hurry.
3) Make Sure Any Text You Share Contains The Proper Context
Sometimes it’s not the image itself that’s wrong, it’s the comment framing it. While editorializing on a situation is one of the things social media does well, make sure the text passes muster and corresponds what the picture shows. Even a genuine photo can mislead people if it’s framed in an incorrect or biased manner.
Take this photo for example. It made the rounds yesterday as an example of militarized police, and while it carried the hashtag #Ferguson it didn’t explicitly claim to be from Ferguson–an inherently misleading difference (clever girl). While this snapshot does show worrying things about police use of weapons–he shouldn’t be pointing that rifle directly at the driver–this didn’t happen during a protest, or even take place in Missouri at all. This photo shows a checkpoint the California Highway Patrol set up after a man shot four police officers in a Sacramento suburb–making the rifle a little more understandable. (If you look closely you can see the officer’s CHiP patch.) While it expresses a valid point, the way it’s framed tricks the viewer into thinking police checkpoints are happening in Ferguson as we speak.
But there are more harmful examples too. Remember the Reddit attempt to find the Boston Marathon bombers that ended up plastering an innocent man’s picture all over Twitter? Or Anonymous claiming they’d found Mike Brown’s killer yesterday? All real photos with erroneous or deceptive text. If the evidence on a claim seems thin, it’s better to wait until it’s corroborated before passing it on.
4) Spotting Photoshops
Most social media fakes aren’t photoshop jobs, since it’s less work for a hoaxer to find an existing photo and misrepresent it. However, since today someone decided to smear The Escapist with a photoshop, I’m including it.
Learning to spot photoshops can be difficult and should be a post in itself. I’ll instead link you to this short LifeHacker guide and add this: your best bet is to look for edges that don’t line up well (see the awful unmatched blockiness in the Escapist fake below), suspicious blending, lighting that isn’t right or shadows that should be there but aren’t. Most photoshop fakes are fast and sloppy alterations–but the best way is still to use Google Image search to find the original and see if it was doctored.
5) A Note On Article Screenshots
One recent trend has been for people to take screenshots of an article’s headline and then post it to Twitter, decrying that a site would publish an article on such an offensive topic. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but the main one is that by giving people a screenshot rather than a link, it can either misrepresent the content (i.e. spur people to judge the article without actually reading it) or in the case of the crude photoshop above, spread around a piece that the website never published.
When you see an article being flogged around the fleet like this, your first step should be to find and read that article.
“But I don’t want to give them traffic!” you say. But I would counter that until you know that the article exists and the actual content it contains, you probably shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what it says and definitely shouldn’t share it. (Indeed, hoaxers count on you sharing without reading.) Sure, you can argue that an individual headline–at least when it’s real–can be off-putting, but making that argument implicitly states that you’ve judged the material based on your preconceptions rather than what it actually says. “This article is awful,” is a different statement than, “This article is ok, but I don’t like the headline or the header picture.”
If you search for an article and don’t find it–or find a similar article under the different title–don’t automatically assume that the website retracted or altered it (as I saw several people do today on Twitter with the fraudulent Escapist piece). If you’re suspicious, contact one of the editors on Twitter and ask if the screenshot’s genuine and if the piece was removed–editors are generally fairly upfront about that sort of thing and it takes roughly five seconds.
This is particularly crucial if you’re a journalist, since you risk burning bridges by posting fake or misleading screenshots. Check your facts. Do at least the minimum amount of research to make an informed decision. Don’t take attacking a publication lightly.
6) What To Do If You Share a Fake
If you do share a fake–and it happens to all of us–minimizing the damage takes seconds.
- Delete the post or tweet.
- Immediately post a retraction apologizing and explaining the photo was fake.
- If you wrote a blog post highlighting or editorializing on the photo, take it down or–if it’s only one part of a larger blog post–edit the post and include a highly visible note at the top explaining the mistake and apologizing.
- Apologize to anyone you may have disparaged and say you’ll be more careful in the future. This is especially important if you’re a journalist and badmouthed another publication–this is a small industry and editors will remember.
- If any of your followers shared the photo with a lot of people, you may want to tell them individually that it was fake. Think of it like a virus, you want to contain the spread.
Social media is an incredible opportunity to share information without gatekeepers, but with that opportunity comes greater responsibility about what we spread across the internet. If you want to fire CNN and get your news on Twitter, you need to be your own fact-checker. Thankfully, a little skepticism, a few simple tools and a cool head will go a long way toward keeping your feeds hoax-free.