Categories: Technology

Seeing Is No Longer Believing: The Manipulation of Online Images

Manipulated Image Australian Bushfires

A manipulated image shared widely on social media during the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. Credit: Dr. T.J. Thomson, QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre

Online images are not always what they seem, especially on social media.

A peace sign from Martin Luther King, Jr, becomes a rude gesture; President Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd scenes inflated; dolphins in Venice’s Grand Canal; and crocodiles on the streets of flooded Townsville – all manipulated images posted as truth.

Image editing software is so ubiquitous and easy to use, according to researchers from QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre, it has the power to re-imagine history. And, they say, deadline-driven journalists lack the tools to tell the difference, especially when the images come through from social media.

Their study, Visual mis/disinformation in journalism and public communications, has been published in Journalism Practice. It was driven by the increased prevalence of fake news and how social media platforms and news organizations are struggling to identify and combat visual mis/disinformation presented to their audiences.

“When Donald Trump’s staff posted an image to his official Facebook page in 2019, journalists were able to spot the photoshopped edits to the president’s skin and physique because an unedited version exists on the White House’s official Flickr feed,” said lead author Dr. T.J. Thomson.

“But what about when unedited versions aren’t available online and journalists can’t rely on simple reverse-image searches to verify whether an image is real or has been manipulated?

“When it is possible to alter past and present images, by methods like cloning, splicing, cropping, re-touching or re-sampling, we face the danger of a re-written history – a very Orwellian scenario.”

Examples highlighted in the report include photos shared by news outlets last year of crocodiles on Townsville streets during a flood which were later shown to be images of alligators in Florida from 2014. It also quotes a Reuters employee on their discovery that a harrowing video shared during Cyclone Idai, which devastated parts of Africa in 2019, had been shot in Libya five years earlier.

An image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s reaction to the US Senate’s passing of the civil rights bill in 1964, was manipulated to make it appear that he was flipping the bird to the camera. This edited version was shared widely on Twitter, Reddit, and white supremacist website The Daily Stormer.

The original photo of US President Donald Trump (left) and the edited version of him (right) that he shared on his official Instagram and Facebook accounts. Credit: Dr. T.J. Thomson, QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre

Dr. Thomson, Associate Professor Daniel Angus, Dr. Paula Dootson, Dr. Edward Hurcombe, and Adam Smith have mapped journalists’ current social media verification techniques and suggest which tools are most effective for which circumstances.

“Detection of false images is made harder by the number of visuals created daily — in excess of 3.2 billion photos and 720,000 hours of video – along with the speed at which they are produced, published, and shared,” said Dr. Thomson.

“Other considerations include the digital and visual literacy of those who see them. Yet being able to detect fraudulent edits masquerading as reality is critically important.

“While journalists who create visual media are not immune to ethical breaches, the practice of incorporating more user-generated and crowd-sourced visual content into news reports is growing. Verification on social media will have to increase commensurately if we wish to improve trust in institutions and strengthen our democracy.”

Dr. Thomson said a recent quantitative study performed by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) found a very low usage of social media verification tools in newsrooms.

“The ICFJ surveyed over 2,700 journalists and newsroom managers in more than 130 countries and found only 11% of those surveyed used social media verification tools,” he said.

“The lack of user-friendly forensic tools available and low levels of digital media literacy, combined, are chief barriers to those seeking to stem the tide of visual mis/disinformation online.”

Associate Professor Angus said the study demonstrated an urgent need for better tools, developed with journalists, to provide greater clarity around the provenance and authenticity of images and other media.

“Despite knowing little about the provenance and veracity of the visual content they encounter, journalists have to quickly determine whether to re-publish or amplify this content,” he said.

“The many examples of misattributed, doctored, and faked imagery attest to the importance of accuracy, transparency, and trust in the arena of public discourse. People generally vote and make decisions based on information they receive via friends and family, politicians, organisations, and journalists.”

The researchers cite current manual detection strategies – using a reverse image search, examining image metadata, examining light and shadows; and using image editing software – but say more tools need to be developed, including more advanced machine learning methods, to verify visuals on social media.

Reference: “Visual Mis/disinformation in Journalism and Public Communications: Current Verification Practices, Challenges, and Future Opportunities” by T.J. Thomson, Daniel Angus, Paula Dootson, Edward Hurcombe and Adam Smith, 19 October 2020, Journalism Practice.
DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2020.1832139


View Comments

  • That picture of Trump is just brighter than the orginal. It something like that can happen just because it has been screen captured, saved and resaved a million times or someone just brightened it because they're device has a dark screen or they prefer it that way. It in no way rewrites history.....

  • Lincoln airbrushed his photos to look better. The important thing is 226,000 Americans have been murdered by the republicans and trump.

      • In a few years, after all the blatant lies and BS rhetoric spewed by the ConManDuhhh-N-Cheat fail the test of time, he and his ignorant cult will be the punchline of endless jokes and the focal point of much deserved ridicule. History will also not be kind. The future will be completely dumbfounded that he found so many ignorant people to believe ALL of his constant, obvious lying and cheating.
        It must be an all day job deflecting the 100's of reports truthfully calling out his complete and utter incompetence, by his very own family and staff. He did after all, suggest injecting people with bleach as a ridiculously uninformed and dangerous way to combat covid. If you believed him that he was joking, you are deep in the cult koolaid. I!

        Not only could he shoot someone on 5th Ave and not lose a vote, he could shoot members of his own cult and not one of the those shot would change their simple mind.

        As I said...
        History will NOT be kind!

    • He didn't murder anyone. It's you weirdos who will make up anything because you are full of hate. You'd rather put a guy there with dimencia just because you nuts are sheep.

  • The Trump photo with flag May not have been photoshopped. Why? Professional cameras and even smart phones can take dozens of shots a second in “multi-shot mode” or “burst mode”. It s possible that the two pictures are NOT the same image. You need to consider that when analyzing pictures

  • @BobinPa Exactly what I was thinking. That's not a digital edit, it looks like a totally separate photo taken from another angle altogether. Every edit the point out is caused by a change of protective, that easily fits the change in the background.

  • Wow did someone just say that trump murdered 226k americans? Im surprised someone with your superior intelligence has made it this far in life. With all that knowledge packed into your skull im amazed your head hasn't exploded..
    P.s. 45 out 50 U.S. governors did not force infected covid 19 patients into nursing homes..... But 5 did! So dont forget to thank Cuomo, wolf, Newsom and whitmer for over 50% of those deaths!

  • I just find it interesting that the article talks about President Trump's crowds being artificially inflated, yet it does not also mention Trump's Inauguration crowds being made to look so puny by the media by using video and pictures taken really early in the morning. I realise that was about timing (and lying by saying that's all the people he got) and not altering the photos (as far as I know) but
    no one mentions that Hillary Clinton's crowds were made to look pumped up as well. So even mainstream tech articles are biased. I mean if you hate Trump, then hate Trump, but don't write about things not being as they seem while at the same time contributing to things not being as they seem.

  • Another thing. This article, in referring to the altered picture of Trump, says, "This edited version was shared widely on Twitter, Reddit, and white supremacist website The Daily Stormer". So.....what is the point?That because his picture appeared on a white supremacist website that ......? (I looked at it and it seems like a white supremacist website to me) But.....what's the point?.... OH!! I see! Therefore Trump must be a white supremacist!! This is called guilt by association boys and girls. Another little trick seen on mainstream media. Make Trump look like a white supremeicist by associating him or something about him in some way with white supremacy, even when he has no choice about where his pictures show up.YOU FAILED logic 101: a group of white supremacists put a picture of Trump on their website. THEREFORE! Trump is a white supremicist!!!!

    • Annod, did you even attempt to read the article before posting??? It clearly stated the edited picture of MLK flipping the bird was on white supremacists websites. BUT since you brought up Trump being racist, it's because of his actions and words! There is tons of recorded footage and recordings of his speech that you can go over. But that would require you to actually do some research instead of just parroting what you hear out of Trump's mouth and OAN news.

      • Please tell us, what words and actions are racist? I mean I hope you're not saying that without any evidence

      • Yes, I read the article. That was not the version I remembered. Either it was changed or something is wrong with my head lately or I was extremely tired because I could have sworn it was as I referred to it as.
        But no, I do do my own research. And I don't know what OAN news is.

Queensland University of Technology

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