Seeing no longer believing: the manipulation of online images

October 25, 2020

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Seeing no longer believing: the manipulation of online images

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 the flooded Queensland city of Townsville—all  manipulated images posted as truth.

Image editing software is so ubiquitous and easy to use, according to researchers, it has the power to re-imagine history.

And often deadline-driven journalists lack the tools to tell the difference, especially when the images come through from social media.

A manipulated image shared widely on social media during the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires.

A new study on this subject, Visual mis/disinformation in journalism and public communications, was 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.

What the researchers say: “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 the lead author.

“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 researchers 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,” they said.

“Being able to detect fraudulent edits masquerading as reality is critically important,” said the lead author. “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.”

He 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.”

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.

So, what? I have been following the development of software which can be used to create entirely false images and video for a few years on TR.

The researchers are absolutely right that these techniques can be used to undermine our democracy—especially in the hands of a ruthless would-be authoritarian leader—of which there are quite a few in the world today. The war against disinformation is one that has lasted for 10,000 years and probably will continue for another 10,000—as long as one small group of people (kings, presidents, priests, plutocrats, fanatics of all kinds) want to exert power over the majority of us.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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