The popular photo manipulation software Photoshop celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Photoshop and other tools like it have made it incredibly easy to manipulate digital photos. That in turn makes it easier to create photographic hoaxes – including ghosts, cryptids, UFOs and other targets of skeptical investigations.
It is not surprising that photo hoaxes are quite common these days and are constantly passed around on social media. Thus skeptics need good tools for debunking them.
Over 70 thousand people shared a story about a totally fake Sarah Palin quote! Over 5 million people shared a hoax story that Macaulay Culkin had died! It gets depressing hearing how many people get fooled by these hoaxes, doesn’t it?
The problem is, the numbers in those reports are wrong! Often, wildly wrong. They’re exaggerations caused by the confusing way that Facebook reports engagement.
Now, the underlying problem is real – social media hoaxes and rumors are bigger than ever. As a result debunking these things has become a popular pastime, well beyond the circle of organized skepticism.
On Virtual Skeptics this week I talked about the flip side of this website’s normal topic – tools to create misinformation instead of tools to debunk it. Of course any tool designed to work with real information can be used to distort as well.
We saw that this week when a news hoax was perpetrated via CNN’s “iReport” site – a place for citizens to submit journalism. It was a poorly written prediction of apocalypse for the year 2041 which credible sources like Phil Plait quickly debunked. Many sites including Doubtful News chided CNN for taking 22 hours to notice and take down the bogus story.
But there are also online tools designed specifically for creating hoaxes like this. They are usually intended for playing pranks on friends and the like. A new one emerged this week, which was my topic on Virtual Skeptics. Since my segment is very short (just over 6 minutes) I thought I would go ahead and embed it here so you can see what was discussed. Video and supporting links after the jump…
Back in August I wrote about how Google Image Search and other reverse image search engines are a valuable tool to debunk viral hoaxes. Last week yet another example popped up that shows just how easy these types of debunks can be.
The new example involves social media posts about animal rights and animal testing. Photos of suffering animals are always compelling, and often go viral. While most people sympathize with the animals pictured, there is a secondary lesson here – don’t forget to apply skepticism to viral content even when the message confirms your own beliefs and pet causes.
I’m an animal fan myself – we have both a dog and a cat in our household. The purpose of this post is not to criticize animal rights activists, but show how to verify photos. So lets see how it’s done.
Warning: If you are particularly sensitive to pictures of animals in medical situations, you might not want to see the photo in this post. Try reading my previous post on this topic instead.
I must confess I’ve been remiss in not blogging about this particular topic earlier. Investigating anomalous photos has always been a skeptic mainstay – for over a century and a half in fact. Ghost photos of one type or another have existed practically since the invention of photography. Those have been subsequently joined by photos of cryptids, UFOs and other alleged anomalous phenomena.
Now that practically everyone has a camera in their pocket all the time (in the form of a mobile phone) photos of this type pop up constantly – along with opportunities to investigate them. And so we need as many skeptics as possible to have some skills in investigating the latest local ghost or UFO photo. There are just too many of them to send them all to Joe Nickell or Richard Wiseman.
Because photos are ubiquitous, and doctoring photos using software is so incredibly easy, tools for detecting photo manipulation (like FourMatch and Tungstene) are becoming more common. But software like that can be quite expensive – out of the range of the average skeptic.
But today I’m writing about something far, far simpler. In fact, it’s an incredibly easy way to detect obvious hoaxes based on stolen or misrepresented photos. It should be in every skeptic’s toolkit, along with a trick for using it that I’ve never seen suggested before.