Is This Photo Real or Fake?

We're really bad judges, according to a new study.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jul 18 2017, 12:00am

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Following the recent G20 leaders' summit in Hamburg, Germany, a photo started making the rounds online of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the thick of a lively discussion among world leaders:

Image: Screengrab/Twitter

Putin supporters liked that it made their leader look like the center of attention. Only, the photo was fake, and this was quickly verified by eagle-eyed journalists who cross-checked the image with photos of the same moment from other angles. Without that dead giveaway, it's fairly convincing and, according to a new study published Monday, it's most likely people wouldn't have been able to spot the con. In the midst of so much fake news furor, it's a disturbing finding that emphasizes how easily we can be duped.

"We're not that much better than if we were to close our eyes and just guess if an image is fake," Sophie Nightingale, a PhD student at the University of Warwick and lead author of the study, told me.

To test out how sharp our BS-detectors are, Nightingale and her colleagues created an experiment where they purposely altered random images in a variety of ways, from airbrushing out wrinkles, to smudging a treeline, to moving a shadow in a way that's not in step with the image's lighting. (You can try a version of the test yourself here.)

They then ran two trials with more than 1,300 online participants in total. Each participant was shown 10 photos, which were a random mix of altered and unaltered, and were asked to determine whether or not the photo had been changed. They found that, on average, people were only able to spot the fakes 66 percent of the time—that's only slightly better than 50 percent, which are the odds they'd get it right if they just flat-out guessed.

"We interpreted that as not [a] particularly good [ability]," Nightingale told me.

The researchers also asked participants to point out where the image had been altered and found that, even when we can figure out there's something wrong, we're not very adept at pinpointing what that is. On average, people only located the manipulation 45 percent of the time.

I did the newer version of the test online and scored 80 percent (woo), but thought some manipulations were a lot easier to spot than others (spoiler: if you're going to try the test, do it now before scrolling further).

Image: Nightingale et al/Cognitive Research
Image: Nightingale et al/Cognitive Research

The first image has been manipulated to mess with the top of the trees in a physically implausible way—Nightingale said this sometimes happens by accident when photo hoaxsters are rushing—while the second just included some light airbrushing, a manipulation we all but take for granted these days.

Nightingale had a few theories for why we're not great at this particular challenge. She said people are so inundated with photos, we don't typically spend a long time studying a single image. She also said that because, historically, photos were difficult to manipulate, we have a long cultural history of thinking that photos=truth and it's hard to shake that off, even when we know people can mess with images much more easily now.

New technology is enabling people to produce uncannily realistic fake images and videos, including literally putting words in someone's mouth. If we're not even able to detect fairly obvious Photoshop jobs, it's unsettling to think about how we'll navigate through the "fake news" era.

Oh, and that photo at the top? It's fake. Could you tell?

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