How to verify a photo online
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You just received a photo on WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter. The image makes you angry, sad or joyful and the caption encourages you to share it as widely as possible. But you're a little cautious, because the story seems too good to be true. You are right to be careful. Here are a few tips for verifying images and tracing a photo’s origin all by yourself.
There's nothing like a compelling photo to capture someone’s attention on social media. Full of emotion, a photo can compel a reader to linger over an article, to click on a link and to share content widely. Journalists know this and spend time choosing just the right photo to illustrate their articles.
Unfortunately, people who spread 'fake news' also understand the power of a photo. To generate a maximum number of clicks (and thus money), some people manipulate or misappropriate photos that have nothing to do with the topic in question... just to get your attention.
Identifying altered images
Thanks to editing software like Photoshop, it is now easy to manipulate images to tell the story you want.
For example, you can alter the weather to make snow fall on the Egyptian pyramids, even though the current temperature in Egypt is close to 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
The photo on the right is an untouched photo of the pyramids in Egypt. The photo on the left is a digitally altered version, which has been circulating online since 2013. Learn more about this hoax by checking out our article (in French) on the topic.
Graphic analysis tools can be key
You can also make people believe that someone famous has died by pasting the person’s face on a photo of a corpse. That’s what happened when people starting circulating a photo that was said to be proof that the leader of the Islamic State terrorist organisation, Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi, was dead.
The photo on the left shows an Albanian man who died in Syria in August 2013. The image on the right has been digitally altered so that the body has the face of the leader of the Islamic State group. To find out more, check out our article on the topic.
Online tools like 'Forensically' can help you identify digitally altered images. Forensically analyses photos for clues that they’ve been edited or altered. Unfortunately, this tool isn’t perfect and doesn’t always identify altered images. For example, Forensically didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about the digitally altered image showing snow on the pyramids. However, it did pick up the fact that there was something wrong with the photo said to show Al-Baghdadi.
Here are the results we got after uploading the photo-shopped image into Forensically (using the “Noise Analysis” tool)
In the altered photo on the right, you can see that there’s a difference between the face, which is very dark and lacks details, and the rest of the body. Even though this doesn’t prove that the photo has been altered, it gives us reason to be suspicious - and to investigate further, such as by searching for images using different key words.
Identify old images that are being used out of context
There are a lot of digitally altered images circulating online. That said, it still requires some technical skill to alter an image. However, there is a much more simple way to trick people using photos: you can find an old image and alter the caption, making the photo tell whatever story you want.
Let’s look at an example. This photo shows a woman threatening a police officer who is pointing a pistol at a man on the ground. The caption claims that this photo shows a mother in the Dominican Republic trying to protect her son from a police officer. The story is touching, the photo is great quality and it is a great shot. In fact, it is perhaps too great of a shot - and that makes us suspicious.
Here’s how to verify a photo using a technique called a reverse image search.
1) Start by copying the address of the photo by right-clicking on it (or by pressing it for a long time on your smartphone.)
2) Then go to Google images and paste in the address.
3) Click on “search by image” and check out the results
The second article that Google pulls up indicated that the photo is actually an image from a movie. If you go to the film website IMDb and look for the movie in question, you can confirm it. (Check out the image below.)
Find out more about this hoax by reading our article on the topic.
… but, be careful, because even Google makes mistakes
Google Images was the first online tool that people used widely to carry out reverse image searches. However, it isn’t perfect and it doesn’t always find the origin of an image. And, sometimes, it can even provide false information.
Take the example of the photo below. FRANCE 24 blurred this image because it shows charred bodies being examined by workers from the Red Cross. The photo is often misappropriated by social media users who claim, for instance, that it shows Christians massacred by Boko Haram.
If you do a reverse image search on Google, this is what it pulls up:
According to Google, the photo was taken during a massacre in Duékoué, Ivory Coast, which occurred during the crisis that swept the country between 2010-2011.
However, if you continue searching, you’ll see that, in reality, this photo has nothing to do with the massacre in Duékoué. It was actually taken in July 2010 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when a fuel truck exploded.
So why does Google get it wrong? Simply because the Google algorithm looks for the most probable context for an image by seeking out articles that use this photo. However, this photo has been too widely misappropriated; it has been used by too many articles or websites that claimed it was a photo of Duékoué. Because of the high frequency of these articles, it has morphed into the truth for Google.
Other tools to do a reverse image search
If Google doesn’t give you a satisfactory response, then it’s time to try your luck with other tools so you can do a double or even triple verification of a suspicious image.
Check out a few other sites below:
- Yandex, a Russian search engine that works pretty well
- Tin Eye, an independent verification tool that is one of the oldest
- Baidu, the Chinese search engine for images
Finally, keep in mind that no tool is perfect and none used alone will allow you to defiintively identify the origin of an image. If you have doubts about a particular image, sometimes it’s better just not to share. You don't want to get it wrong and share a hoax or false information.