Fake News—and Fake Photos

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Computer screen with photo editing software and a photo being edited

We can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper today without hearing about fake news, and we can’t participate in social media without encountering it at almost every turn. As a result, writing teachers are spending more and more time on critical reading skills, on analysis, on fact checking, on what Howard Rheingold (and others) calls “crap detection.”


As we do so, we need—increasingly—to call attention to fake images as well. We’ve known this, of course, for a long time: two decades ago, photographer Kenneth Brower sounded the alarm in a three-part series in The Atlantic on “Photography in the Age of Falsification,” noting that


The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies that have transformed—some say contaminated—the photography landscape.


Brower was concerned about the veracity and integrity of nature photography, and his long essay catalogs dozens of examples of what he calls “photofakery.” But the “emerging digital technologies” he worried about in 1998 have spawned a new generation of tools that make such manipulation almost effortless—and often very hard to detect. In a recent article in the Washington Post, William Wan says “We are a society drowning in doctored pictures. Strategically touched-up profiles on dating websites. Magazine covers adorned with pixel-shaved jaws and digitally enhanced busts. Twitter feeds ablaze with images manipulated for maximum outrage.”


According to cognitive psychologist Sophie J. Nightingale, we may be drowning in doctored photos, but chances are we don’t even know it. In one research study, Nightingale asked 700 men and women to look at photos and label those they believed were faked in some way. Only 45 percent of the participants could pinpoint changes, which included “airbrushing the sweat and wrinkles off a person’s face, adding and deleting items in the background, changing the light so that shadows fell on the wrong side.”


This finding is particularly worrying because we know all too well the power that images hold and how susceptible viewers are to that power. As an example, Wan points to the 2015 terrorist attack that killed 130 people in Paris: “a Canadian Sikh was falsely accused of being one of the attackers after a photo went viral, doctored to make him look like he was wearing a suicide bomb vest.”

If you read Wan’s article, “Many people can’t tell when photos are fake. Can you?” yourself,  you can click on a link  to take a version of Nightingale’s test to see if you can detect the faked photos.


In the meantime, we need to work closely with students on critical reading of images. If you have good tips on how to do so, please chime in here—and be sure to post your results of the fake photos quiz!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2707653 by alexx-ego, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.