10 debunks that shaped the history of the Observers

Some images from stories that we've debunked over the years!
Some images from stories that we've debunked over the years!

The Observers team has a long history of verifying photos and videos that circulate online – and debunking fakes. Over the past decade, we’ve been looking into photos that have been flagged by our readers and viewers. We take a look back at 10 different times we debunked false information with the help of our Observers.

For the past 10 years, social media has been an incredibly important tool for our newsroom. However, these public networks are also full of misinformation. Each week our team of journalists works with our Observers to identify misappropriated or altered images that have been circulating online. We investigate to identify the real sources of the images and why they were misappropriated. Then we break it all down in articles on our site and episodes on our weekly TV show.

1. Ivory Coast, 2011: Fake images circulate during the post-election crisis

Back in 2011, people weren’t talking about “fake news” yet. At the time, the idea of verifying amateur images online wasn’t getting much traction in international press.

And yet altered and misappropriated images had already started circulating. Case in point: the videos that were shared on social media during the post-election crisis in Ivory Coast. A bloody feud erupted between followers of opposition challenger Alassane Ouattara and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who both claimed they had won the presidential election. Several Ivorians sent our team an extremely violent video that they had seen circulating online. The footage showed men being beaten, then burned alive. 

The video was posted on YouTube and widely shared by people who claimed that it was evidence that Ouattara’s supporters had committed a “genocide” in certain villages.  

During our investigation we discovered that the video was two years old … and hadn’t even been filmed in Ivory Coast. 

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

2. Syria, July 2014: A Syrian child saves a little girl?

In July 2016, a video titled, "A young Syrian hero rescues a little girl” went viral. The haunting images showed a child helping a little girl who had come under sniper fire.

The video looked like a lot of other amateur footage that has emerged from the Syrian conflict: shaky filming against a backdrop of a city in ruins, the sounds of sniper fire and voices off-screen.

But the footage turned out to be an excerpt from a short film – a drama filmed by a Norwegian director in Malta. The director later said he wanted to make a film that was as realistic as possible that people would believe was real, to make audiences understand the realities faced by children in conflict zones.

However, once it was revealed that the video was staged, many people reacted with anger and indignation to the director’s ploy. Human Rights Watch denounced his method, saying that it undermined trust in journalism and information-gathering about war crimes. The organisation further said that the creation of such fictional footage would make it easier for "war criminals to refute images of abuses” and claim they were fake.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

3. Saudi Arabia/Iran, September 2015: A bulldozer used to collect bodies in Mecca?

On September 25, 2015, a deadly stampede took place near the Muslim holy site of Mecca. Among the victims were more than 400 Iranian nationals. The tragedy ignited a media war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

While Iranian newspapers were accusing Saudi authorities of incompetence in dealing with the tragedy, people on social media started sharing a photo that purported to show the Saudi government using “bulldozers to pick up the bodies of victims” after the stampede.

In reality, this photo was taken after another stampede, in 2004, and the photo is of such poor quality that it is impossible to know for certain if the bulldozer is picking up bodies or something else entirely.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

4. Ukraine, July 2014: Supporters of pro-Russian rebels use art for their own ends

In July 2014, as the conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine dragged on, another war was beginning – this one online.

Supporters of the pro-Russian separatist militias took to social media to condemn the Ukrainian military operations carried out against their side. Many also shared photos claiming to show civilians, especially children, who had been affected by the conflict. One widely shared photo showed a small, haggard-looking little girl, covered in mud and holding a dog in her arms. In reality, the photo was taken by an artist and photographer in 2010 in Australia.

When contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, one of the people who shared this image admitted that he knew the true origins of the photo but decided to misappropriate it because he thought sharing powerful images would force people to talk about what was happening in Ukraine.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

5. France, January 2015: Conspiracy theorists run wild after the Charlie Hebdo attack

After the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and the Hyper-Cacher market in Paris between the 7th and 9th of January in 2015, conspiracy theories started spreading wildly across the internet. Most of them claimed that those in power were hiding the real facts from the public.

Many conspiracy theorists focused on amateur images taken of the car, a black Citroën C3, which was used by the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack. They focused on the colour of the wing mirrors, which appeared different in different shots, claiming this was proof that aspects of the attack were staged.

The top photo was taken right before the attackers killed a police officer outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. In that image, the wing mirrors seem to be a light colour. The second photo shows the car a bit later, after the brothers had abandoned it. In that photo, the wing mirrors look black.

Several different social media users claimed that the photos showed two different cars and not just one as the media reported. In reality, the wing mirrors were chrome-coloured, which means they looked different depending on reflected light. These next two photos show the car parked in the same place, but photographed from two different angles. 

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

6. Europe: Migrants, the target of attacks from far-right websites

Tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in Europe over the past few years after fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as other countries. In 2015, a number of small far-right groups used the migrant crisis to spread fear, hate and false information, with the aim of convincing Europeans that they shouldn’t welcome these people fleeing the destruction in their homelands.

In just that year we found eight examples of this type of deliberate misinformation. One video, filmed on the border between Macedonia and Greece, was shared on the French website RiposteLaique – a site known for its ties to the French extreme right. The video was presented as proof that migrants were refusing to eat non-halal food. The video is real – but the migrants refusing the food were actually taking part in a protest against the police, who had forced them to spend the whole night in the rain.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

7. Israel, February 2016: A woman takes out her harassers – but it’s a publicity stunt

In February 2016, one video generated quite a buzz on social media. CCTV footage from an Israeli bar showed a young woman taking out three men who were harassing her.

The images were initially posted online by the girl herself, 19-year-old Gili Ganani, who is also a black belt in the martial art of Krav Maga. Her post was picked up by another Facebook user who added a caption in English. The post took off – and reached over 8 million views. But the video was actually a publicity stunt for Ganani’s Krav Maga teacher, whom she thanks at the end of the video. In a post published the next day, Ganani admitted that the "attack" had been staged. This is just one of many examples of hidden adverts circulating across social media: Creating videos that go viral are a tempting way for companies to reach a huge audience.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

8. Africa, April 2017: Rice made from plastic?

This was one of our biggest and most curious debunks this year. The rumour started circulating in April 2017 on African social media that rice made from plastic was being passed off as real rice and being sold throughout the continent. This conspiracy theory actually began in Asia. We dug into the history of "plastic rice" and explained why this odd conspiracy theory keeps cropping up in Africa …

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

9. France: Fake news during French presidential elections

During the run-up to the French presidential election, the FRANCE 24 Observers team worked with CrossCheck, a collaborative fact-checking platform uniting various French media. The goal of CrossCheck was to fight against the spread of false information and fake news. Our team brought our expertise in verifying images to the table.

In one example, National Front figure Marion Maréchal-Le-Pen – the niece of party leader and former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen – was caught retweeting a fake article that claimed French President Emmanuel Macron's political campaign was being financed by Saudi Arabia. But Maréchal-Le-Pen was duped just like so many others. The article that she shared didn't actually come from Belgian newspaper Le Soir but from a clone of that website. Read the article below to find out how to avoid getting caught in the same trap.

>> Read the article by clicking on the photo below

10. Myanmar, August 2017: Fake images complicate the work of NGOs trying to help Rohingya

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was contacted this year by a number of our readers who were concerned about the situation of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar (Burma). More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled their homes for Bangladesh to escape violence perpetrated by the Burmese authorities. The UN has called the situation an example of “ethnic cleansing”.

But some images that allegedly showed the plight of the Rohingya weren’t what they appeared to be: They had not been taken in Burma or were older, out-of-date photos. Most of these misleading photos came from two French-language, pro-Turkish government Facebook pages: Turquie en force and La Renaissance turque.

>> Read our article by clicking on the photo below

This is just a small selection of the debunking work we’ve done over the years. You can find more of our investigative work in our section entitled, "Debunked".

And don’t forget to re-read and share our guide to verifying images on social media so you can sort fact from fiction for yourself.