Out-of-context photos are a powerful form of low-tech misinformation

<img class = "caas-img has preview" alt = "Have a healthy skepticism when finding images online. tommaso79 / Stock via Getty Images Plus"Src =" https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/jRnUm9FXcTT.5nJfKH9yAw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ5My45ODk1ODMzMzMzMgM5M0M0M0M – ~ B / aD0xMDA5O3c9MTQ0MDtzbT0xO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u / https: //media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/ab9b1f8c4f0718cf43c6f437c959fa9d
Have a healthy skepticism when finding images online. tommaso79 / Stock via Getty Images Plus

When you think of visual misinformation, you might think of deepfakes – videos that look real, but were created using powerful video editing algorithms. The creators edit celebrities in porn moviesand they can put words in your mouth from people who never said them.

But most of the visual misinformation that people are exposed to involves much simpler ways to deceive. A common technique involves recycling legitimate old photos and videos and presenting them as evidence of recent events.


For example, Turning Point USA, a conservative group with more than 1.5 million followers on Facebook, posted a photo of a looted grocery store with the caption “YUP! #SocialismSucks. ”In reality, empty supermarket shelves have nothing to do with socialism; the picture was taken Japan after a major earthquake in 2011.

In another example, after a protest for global warming in London's Hyde Park in 2019, the photos began to circulate as proof that the protesters had left the area covered in garbage. In reality, some of the photos were from Mumbai, India, and others came from a different event in the park.

I am one cognitive psychologist who studies how people learn correct and incorrect information about the world around them. Psychological research has shown that out-of-context photographs can be a particularly potent form of misinformation. And, unlike deepfakes, they are incredibly simple to create.


Out of context and incorrect

Out-of-context photos are very common sources of misinformation.

The day after the January Iranian attack on US military bases in Iraq, reporter Jane Lytvynenko on Documented Buzzfeed countless instances of old photos or videos being presented as evidence of the attack on social media. This included photos of a 2017 Iranian military attack on Syria, video of 2014 Russian training exercises and even video game footage. In fact, of the 22 false rumors documented in the article, 12 involve this type of photo or video out of context.


This form of misinformation can be particularly dangerous because images are a powerful tool for influencing popular opinion and promoting false beliefs. Psychological research has shown that people are more likely to believe true and false statements, such as "turtles are deaf" when they are presented next to an image. In addition, people are more likely to claim that they’ve seen newly made headlines when they’re accompanied by a photograph. Photos also increase the number of likes and shares that a post receives on a simulated social media environment, along with people's beliefs that the post is true.

And images can alter what people remember from the news. In an experiment, a group of people read a news article about a hurricane accompanied by a photograph of a village after the storm. They are more likely to falsely remember that there were deaths and serious injuries compared to people who saw a picture of the village before the hurricane struck. This suggests that the fake images of the Iranian attack in January 2020 may have affected people's memory for details of the event.

Why they are effective

There are several reasons why photographs are likely to increase your belief in statements.

First, you are used to photographs used for photojournalism and serve as proof that an event has happened.

Second, viewing a photograph can help you retrieve related information from memory more quickly. People tend to use this recovery facility as a signal that the information is true.

Photographs also make it easy to imagine an event happening, which can make it feel more true.

Finally, the photos simply capture your attention. AN Adobe Study 2015 found that posts that included images received more than three times Facebook interactions than those posted with text only.

Adding information so you know what you're seeing

Journalists, researchers and technologists started to work on this problem.

Recently, the News Provenance Project, a collaboration between the New York Times and IBM, launched a concept proof strategy on how images can be labeled to include more information about age, where they were taken and original editor. This simple check can help prevent old images from being used to support false information about recent events.

In addition, social media companies like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter can start tagging photos with information about when they were first published on the platform.

Until these types of solutions are implemented, readers are left to their own devices. One of the best techniques to protect yourself from wrong information, especially during a breaking news event, is to use reverse image search. In the Google Chrome browser, it's as simple as right-clicking on a photo and choosing "Search image on Google". You will see a list of all the other places where the photo appeared online.

As consumers and users of social media, we have a responsibility to ensure that the information we share is accurate and informative. By keeping an eye on photographs out of context, you can help keep information uninformed.

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This article is republished in The conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.

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Lisa Fazio received funding from Facebook and the Knight Foundation for their research on disinformation.

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