We can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper today without hearing about fake news, and we can’t participate in social media without encountering it at almost every turn. As a result, writing teachers are spending more and more time on critical reading skills, on analysis, on fact checking, on what Howard Rheingold (and others) calls “crap detection.”
As we do so, we need—increasingly—to call attention to fake images as well. We’ve known this, of course, for a long time: two decades ago, photographer Kenneth Brower sounded the alarm in a three-part series in The Atlantic on “Photography in the Age of Falsification,” noting that
The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies that have transformed—some say contaminated—the photography landscape.
Brower was concerned about the veracity and integrity of nature photography, and his long essay catalogs dozens of examples of what he calls “photofakery.” But the “emerging digital technologies” he worried about in 1998 have spawned a new generation of tools that make such manipulation almost effortless—and often very hard to detect. In a recent article in the Washington Post, William Wan says “We are a society drowning in doctored pictures. Strategically touched-up profiles on dating websites. Magazine covers adorned with pixel-shaved jaws and digitally enhanced busts. Twitter feeds ablaze with images manipulated for maximum outrage.”
According to cognitive psychologist Sophie J. Nightingale, we may be drowning in doctored photos, but chances are we don’t even know it. In one research study, Nightingale asked 700 men and women to look at photos and label those they believed were faked in some way. Only 45 percent of the participants could pinpoint changes, which included “airbrushing the sweat and wrinkles off a person’s face, adding and deleting items in the background, changing the light so that shadows fell on the wrong side.”
This finding is particularly worrying because we know all too well the power that images hold and how susceptible viewers are to that power. As an example, Wan points to the 2015 terrorist attack that killed 130 people in Paris: “a Canadian Sikh was falsely accused of being one of the attackers after a photo went viral, doctored to make him look like he was wearing a suicide bomb vest.”
If you read Wan’s article, “Many people can’t tell when photos are fake. Can you?” yourself, you can click on a link to take a version of Nightingale’s test to see if you can detect the faked photos.
In the meantime, we need to work closely with students on critical reading of images. If you have good tips on how to do so, please chime in here—and be sure to post your results of the fake photos quiz!