Debunked: The false photos and videos that made their mark on 2020

In 2020, the FRANCE 24 Observers team verified hundreds of false or misleading images that were sent to us by social media users or found by our staff. Here is a look back at some of the videos and photos – misleading, taken out of context or downright fake – that we debunked in the past 12 months.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team has verified and debunked numerous false images this year. We compiled some of the most striking.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team has verified and debunked numerous false images this year. We compiled some of the most striking. © Observers

Iranian military leader’s death sparks slew of misleading images

Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite military unit the Quds Force, was killed by a United States-ordered air raid in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 3. What followed was an influx of false or misattributed images that purported to show the attack or Iranians’ reactions. One video that claimed to show a missile at the time of the raid was viewed over 700,000 times. However, using satellite imagery and official photos of the scene, our team was able to show that the video did not, in fact, show the moment of the killing.

Others shared a photo online showing graffiti that said, “Well done, Trump”, alleging that it appeared after Soleimani’s death. Although it was authentic, the graffiti was nothing new – it had appeared on social media as early as 2018, and was therefore unrelated to this particular event.

Read more on the Observers >> Fake news spreads online after Soleimani killing


A Black FBI agent arrested by mistake?

The year 2020 was marked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black American, when he was arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. His death triggered a wave of protests in the United States.

In this context, a video claiming to show the mistaken arrest of a Black FBI agent by white police officers went viral in early June. The footage shows two policemen – later joined by three others – apprehending a Black man and handcuffing him. The arrested man keeps telling the police officers that they have mistaken him for someone else. The police eventually released him.

According to the posts sharing the video, the police officers had in fact accidentally detained an FBI agent and realised this when he showed them his badge. This is not the case. The scene actually took place one year earlier, in June 2019, in the city of Rochester in the same state of Minnesota. And the man was not an FBI agent. However, his detainment was a case of mistaken identity. 

Read on the Observers >> Minnesota police did NOT accidentally arrest a Black FBI agent... But the man was mistakenly detained


False narratives and doctored videos follow Beirut blast

The double explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4 killed more than 200 people and injured nearly 7,000. Just days after the tragedy in the heart of the Lebanese capital, internet users posted videos attempting to prove that the detonation was caused by war missiles. Other posts claimed that the shape of the cloud following the explosion indicated that it was a nuclear attack. These claims, however, were quickly debunked by specialists.

This false information drew on the confusion of Lebanese authorities, who were still wavering on the origin of the explosion: Lebanese President Michel Aoun had himself raised the hypothesis of a bomb or missile, while the Lebanese government claimed that the explosion had been triggered by the burning of a stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. 

Read on the Observers >> Misinformation spreads after Lebanon blast: Missile, drone, nuclear warhead?


False images of Australian wildfire impacts

The massive fires that ravaged Australia for several weeks in January 2020 killed more than 20 people and nearly 500 million animals.

On social networks, impressive images were spread, such as those of a family taking refuge under a jetty, a kangaroo saved from the fires by a woman, or a little girl holding a koala in her arms. But these photos were all taken out of context or Photoshopped.

For example, the caption on the above image of a woman saving a kangaroo from the fires is false. This original video was actually posted on Instagram on January 1 by the editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine after she visited a kangaroo sanctuary in Australia. 

Read on the Observers >> Rescued koalas and kangaroos: five fake images from Australia's fires


Widespread election fraud during the US election?

The run-up to the November 3 US presidential elections were fraught with misinformation, from claims of organised election fraud by the eventual winner and President-elect Joe Biden to misleading images claiming that hundreds of mail-in ballots were thrown in dumpsters. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the vote-by-mail option was a popular choice. States such as New Jersey, Vermont and California opened up absentee or mail-in voting more than a month before Election Day.

As the deadline approached, images of discarded ballots in a California dumpster were spread on social networks by pro-Donald Trump voters, in order to support the notion that some votes were not being counted. But this claim was contradicted by Sonoma County officials. These were old, empty envelopes, dating from the November 2018 election, thrown into recycling garbage cans, as the law allows.

Read on the Observers >> Debunked: Viral photographs do not show a thousand mail-in ballots in California dumpster


Fake images of Uighur persecution

From the end of 2019 to early January 2020, numerous videos supposedly showing cases of torture, ill-treatment and arrests of China’s Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region circulated on social networks. But many of these posts shared false claims.

For example, a video shared on Instagram showed three men, filmed on the ground, almost naked, being whipped. The German account that published it implied in the caption that the video portrayed Uighurs in China.

Screengrab of a video posted by @das_erwachen on Instagram on December 10. The publication has since been deleted.
Screengrab of a video posted by @das_erwachen on Instagram on December 10. The publication has since been deleted. © Instagram

In reality, this video dates from 2017 and was filmed in Indonesia. It is difficult to know exactly what happened, but according to several Indonesian media outlets, the footage shows the beating of three teenagers suspected of theft.

According to the United Nations, nearly one million Uighurs are detained in detention camps in the Xinjiang region. Alfred Erkin, a pro-Uighur activist, explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team that these false images could discredit the community's struggle. 

Read on the Observers >> How fake images of Uighur persecution are hurting their cause