I Couldn’t Spot a Fake Photo from a Real One, and That’s a Problem


Jul 24, 2017


A new viral study is doing the rounds, and for good reason: It tells us that we’re not as good as spotting a fake photo are we think we are. At least, it told me that. When I took the study’s test, I ended up with a 60% success rate in identifying the manipulated photos.

As it turns out, I’m perfectly average. (Here I am, making my parents proud!) The study found people can detect a digitally manipulated photo of a real-world scene only 60% of the time — and even then, they can identify what is wrong with the image (for example, airbrushing, use of filters, ‘photoshopped’ additions or subtractions to a scene, etc.) only 45% of the time.

In an era of fake news, this is alarming for obvious reasons; one co-author of the study pointed specifically to the danger of not detecting a doctored photo in legal proceedings. But when it comes to parenting, the study’s findings cause a particular, if more obscure, worry: That this susceptibility to image manipulation will be ‘hereditary.’ Parenting tips on topics ranging from how to raise kids to be good online citizens and to how to instill good body image tend to include one key piece of expert advice, as this publication has reported: Point out altered and enhanced photos wherever possible, so kids understand impossible depictions and standards and become healthily skeptical. But how can we do that if we can’t spot them ourselves?

It’s a good question, said Sophie Nightingale, PhD student and lead author from the University of Warwick, when I asked her. She pointed to other research that shows “difficult-to-achieve, if not impossible, standards for beauty and thinness can lead to psychological problems, as well as put people at risk of engaging in dangerous eating and exercise behaviour. What’s more, other research indicates that some of the strategies that have been adopted to try and prevent people being negatively affected by these images—for instance adding warning labels to images to inform people that the image has been altered—aren’t necessarily very effective.”

A fake photo from the study that I, a completely average person, did not spot. (Credit: Sophie Nightingale, Cognitive Research, 2017)

Of course, it’s possible that The Youngs — who inexplicably gravitate to image-based social media that facilitate photo manipulation — could be less inclined to trust images at face value. Or, they could be so steeped in digitally enhanced imagery that they can no longer tell the different. Nightengale said she and her team are now running a larger-scale study, as a follow-up to the recent research published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, that explores whether age plays a role in our ability to spot doctored photos.

Until then, I (and my fellow Average Janes and any humdrum progeny) are not destined to wallow in our uncertainty. Nightengale suggests rather than worry whether we can point out to kids specific images that have undergone manipulation, we should practice another tenet of healthy online behaviour: consider the source. Nightengale offers these parenting tips:

“In the meantime, being a little more vigilant and thinking about whether images have come from a trusted source or not might be a good approach,” she said. “In fact, it’s possible that even showing kids just how easy it is to manipulate images might help – once they know how it works this awareness might make them less susceptible to negative consequences. There are also reputable sites, for instance snopes.com, that vet viral images.”

Curious about whether you can spot a fake photo? Take the study’s test for yourself. (Warning: It may inspire feelings of profound mediocrity.)



Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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