by Raymond Joseph- GIJN
The Cover photo photograph of a weasel clinging to the back of a flying woodpecker went viral on social media. While it had all the hallmarks of a manipulated image, a Google Reverse Image Search revealed that it was real, and part of a series by amateur photographer Martin Le-May. Image: Screenshot
GIJN has updated our popular step-by-step guide on verifying images to check whether the photo you find on social media is the real thing.
Given how common fake images have become online, it’s fortunate that there are a number of simple-to-use free tools — including TinEye, Google Reverse Image Search, Photo Sherlock, and Fake Image Detector — that you can use to check the source of a picture, and whether it has been manipulated.
There are more ways to sow misinformation or disinformation than merely sharing a fake image. Digitally manipulating a photograph is another method used to mislead people, often to push a political agenda.
For instance, when Belgium’s Médecins Sans Frontieres erected a billboard in Liberia sometime in 2006 or 2007, it aimed to tell rape survivors where they could seek treatment. Recently, an edited, disturbing photo of that billboard circulated on social media, falsely suggesting, as noted in this AFP Fact Check, that Black people could murder White people in South Africa without consequences — and with the support of the African National Congress-run government.
It wasn’t the first time the image has been altered. Snopes first wrote about the same billboard in 2016. In this disturbing version, the victim on the billboard was a blonde, white woman who was supposedly being assaulted by Black men. The implication this time: Finland’s Green League political party was promoting a dangerous, pro-immigrant agenda that would leave white women under attack by foreigners. The same altered billboard image was also shared online by anti-immigrant groups in Sweden — the victim’s race also changed to white, and it included wording similar to that on the manipulated Finnish billboard.
So, we have one sign with four different messages. But if you look beyond the actual sign, at the background, it is clear that all share several things in common. The same man in the foreground, the same vehicles in the background, and the same pole carrying electrical cabling on the right of the billboard are visible in all four different billboards. But how do you begin to verify which is the original?
The images above — some disturbing — all come from the same photo of a billboard, originally erected as part of an anti-sexual abuse campaign in Liberia by Médecins Sans Frontieres. Clockwise from upper left: the original photo of the billboard in Liberia; altered image circulated on WhatsApp in sub-Saharan Africa; altered images with racist, anti-immigrant messages in Sweden and Finland. Images: Screenshots
Sometimes verifying a photo, video, or post on social media can be as simple as an online search. You may well find that a credible fact-checking organization has already done the job for you.
Tip: Start with using a basic Google search for keywords you’d like to check and add “fact-check.”
TinEye, a free and powerful reverse image search tool, helps find other instances online where the same, or a similar, picture has been published.
It’s my favorite go-to tool because, unlike other reverse image search tools, it has additional searches for the “most changed,” “oldest,” and “newest” iterations of a photograph. Using “most changed” and searching through the results for the original Liberian rape billboard turns up the various versions of the billboard, which you can compare with the one you’re investigating.
“Oldest” often helps identify when a photo was first used. If the first or other uses predate the one you’re checking on, it means that something is wrong.
It’s important to remember that TinEye, like other reverse image search tools, can only find photos posted online. So if a picture was taken by someone and posted on, for example, a WhatsApp group only, and never shared online, you won’t get a hit.
How to Search with TinEye
The key information to look for when doing a reverse image search is when a photo was first used, in what context it was used, the source of the photo, and whether the source is credible.
A few years ago, a photograph of a weasel clinging to the back of a flying woodpecker went viral on social media, with many people making their own memes of the amazing image. It seemed too good to be true, and had all the hallmarks of a manipulated, fake image. But a Google Reverse Image Search revealed that it was absolutely true, and part of a series snapped by an amateur photographer. One of the hits from the search was a BBC interview with the photographer himself, explaining how he shot this incredible once-in-a-lifetime photo.
Tip: The same search, using TinEye’s “most changed” function, would work well for this.
How to Use Google Reverse Image Search
Tip: If using Google Chrome as your default mobile browser, long-press on a photo on a website and a dropdown menu will appear. Select “search with Google Lens” to do a reverse image search. (Older versions may say “search Google for this image.”)
I particularly like the Photo Sherlock app because, apart from being free, it allows you to do a reverse image search using three different search engines: Google, Yandex, and Bing. It also has the option to check the provenance of a poster or a photograph in a magazine or newspaper. First, download the app to your mobile phone, for Android or iPhone.
How to Use Photo Sherlock
Once you open Photo Sherlock, you will have the option to:
This app operates at two levels when checking the provenance and veracity of an image. The first is what its creators call “error level analysis” — essentially, it examines an image’s compression ratio to see whether part of it has been tampered with. The other is metadata, the “behind-the-scenes” data that’s automatically embedded when you snap a photo.
Tip: This tool only works for Android, but Veracity is a good tool for iPhone users. It’s available for free from the Apple app store, so it’s safe to use.
How to Use Fake Image Detector
Along with the skills you’ve honed as a reporter, here are some questions to ask when faced with an image that may or may not be genuine:
A key question for us all, whether we’re studying an image as a reporter or an ordinary citizen, is: Do you know the intent of the person who shot the photo? Does the photo make you sad or angry, or evoke other strong feelings? Manipulated or out-of-context photos are often intended to play on peoples’ emotions.
The bottom line? If you’re not sure, don’t share. You can be part of the solution to “fake news,” or part of the problem.
Here are a few more reverse image search tools worth checking out: