A picture is worth a thousand words, but when the picture is doctored – it’s a thousand words long lie. And when these fake photos hit the news and ads, it becomes a problem. Sophie J. Nightingale of the University of Warwick ran a study to test how well people can detect doctored images. And the results are not encouraging. It appears that many people can’t spot a doctored image, even when the manipulations are obvious.
The study tested 700 men and women who were supposed to tell whether the photos had been digitally altered. The results show that they could say the photo was manipulated 60% of the time. And out of those who made the correct guess, 45% of them could point out to what was altered.
The changes included some of the most common manipulation techniques, such as airbrushing, addition or subtraction of elements, geometrical or shadow inconsistency, or the combination of techniques. The subjects would see both the altered and the original images – but never side by side.
Now, I assume the results would have been different if the subjects had seen both versions of the photos. Still, in terms of fake news and false advertising, we also never get to see the original images for comparison. So in the light of this, I believe the results are relevant. If you want to test yourself, Washington Post has created a quiz from some of the photos presented in the study.
For example, can you remember the photoshopped image of a Canadian Sikh that shows him as a terrorist? It’s a fake image (and a pretty bad Photoshop job), yet millions of people bought it. La Razón even printed his photo saying he was “one of the terrorists” of the Paris attack. Other than fake news, many advertisement campaigns also use heavily altered photos. “Before” and “after” photos for weight loss products are the first thing that comes to mind. And these are only some of the examples.
Unfortunately, doctored images are used to tell a fake story, create fake news and ads all around the world. This is why the research results are discouraging. Of course, sometimes the alterations are so well done, that it’s no wonder we can’t figure them out. But precisely because of this, we should rely on critical thinking and source checking instead of immediately trusting the photo.