False news isn't just limited to stories or articles—images are also used by bad actors seeking to mislead or deceive others. While there are no simple solutions, there are some simple steps that you can take, to make sure that you aren't being fooled by fakes.

False news isn't just limited to stories or articles—mis- and disinformation can also surface in the form of images that contain questionable information, have been taken out of context, or are completely falsified.

Images are also used by bad actors seeking to mislead or deceive others. Recently, rapid advances have been made in 'deep fake' technology—machine learning algorithms that are able to generate and combine video and audio content to a standard that is hyper-realistic and almost impossible to detect. As this technology continues to develop and proliferate, it will become increasingly accessible, meaning that almost anybody will be able to create fakes that are next to impossible to spot.

While there are no simple solutions to deep fake technology, there are steps that you can take to mitigate the risk of consuming false or misleading images. Here are a few quick questions to ask of the photos that you see, to make sure that you aren't being fooled by fakes.

Is it the original?

Make sure that the photo you're looking at is the first of its kind, that it hasn't been digitally manipulated, and that the date it was captured is consistent with the date of the event that it depicts.

The easiest way to do this is by using a reverse image search. This is a type of search that uses an image (rather than key words) to find relevant results—these could be   earlier copies of the same image, or versions that have been edited. TinEye and Google both offer a reverse image search function.

Google News Initiative provides a helpful guide to the reverse image search function. 

It's not uncommon to find the same hoax images popping up over and over again, especially during natural disasters or political events. Check to see if you can find the same image elsewhere on the web, and make sure that the image that you're looking at comes from the right time period—if you see a photo claiming to show the damage from a flood that happened two days ago, but then do a search and find the same image posted two years ago, it's safe to assume that it isn't an original.

Has it been tampered with?

It's also possible that you'll encounter images that have been digitally manipulated somehow—it could be that an important object was removed, or something was shown which, in fact, didn't really happen. Editing software like Photoshop makes it easy for anyone to alter images and then upload them to the web,  but there are a few basic flaws that can betray a fake.

Have a look at any straight lines in the image (joinery or buildings are good examples of this)—if lines are broken or skew where they should be straight, or the borders don't match up, there's a good chance that the image has been doctored.

If you spot any blurred edges, or patches where the quality seems different to the rest of the image, this can also indicate manipulation. Finally, compare the shadows. Misaligned shadows, or their presence under some objects but not others are an easy way to spot and edited photo.

Fotoforensics is a digital forensics tool that has been created by researchers and professional investigators, and uses photo analysis algorithms to determine whether an image is authentic or whether it has been created by computer graphics software. The site allows you to upload an image and apply a range of tests to see whether or not it's real. They also offer several tutorials which will help you to get started using these tools.

Do some digging

With all verification efforts, context is critical. While it can seem like a lot of work, asking yourself a few key questions about the source of the image is perhaps the most important thing you can do to make sure that you aren't being duped.

Who captured the photo?

Is this the same person who uploaded the photo? If so, what can you tell about the user from their previous social media posts—does the account seem normal to you, and does the user seem relatively reliable?

When and where was it taken?

See if you can find the approximate date, time and location of the image. Sometimes this will be displayed alongside the image on social media sites and search engines, but be aware that these tags aren't 100% foolproof.

Tools like Findexif and Exif Viewer allow you to view the metadata of the image, which can give you information about the date and time it was captured, the GPS coordinates and details about the camera that was used. While this metadata can also be adapted or removed, it is normally a more accurate way of determining contextual details.

If you want to dig even deeper, you can use Google Street View and Google Earth to view satellite imagery of the location where the image was supposedly captured. Try to find reference points in your image, to compare with the satellite images. These reference points could be signs on buildings, billboards, traffic lights, car license plates and natural or manmade landmarks (like mountains or churches). If the reference points are the same, it's likely that the location of the image is accurate.

Verifying date and time can be a little tricker, but you can use WolframAlpha—a scientific search engine that allows you to search for the weather reports at specific locations and times, which you can cross reference with the weather conditions in the image.  If a photograph of a thunderstorm was meant to be taken at 2pm on a Saturday, but your search results tell you that the weather in that location, at that time, was actually sunny and mild, it's likely that the image doesn't show what it claims to.

WolframAlpha allows you to search for historic weather conditions; these can be used to corroborate the context of an image. (Screen capture). 

Challenge the source

The final step once you've answered these questions is to try to use the information that you've gathered to challenge the source itself.

Ask yourself if the image seems credible. Would it have been possible for someone to capture this particular image at the time that they said they did? Does anything look strange or out of place?

If the image claims to depict a particular event, is there any other coverage of the same event by media outlets or organisations, and have they published similar images?

Does the photo seem strange, or too good to be true? As a final verification step, it can be helpful to check Snopes.com, to see if there are any hoaxes or pieces of misinformation linked to the image.


This article's header image is by ShareGrid from Unsplash.