In a digital world, it’s easier than ever to fool people. Sophisticated Photoshop jobs, social media, and viral news cycles mislead readers into mistaking shots from a Lebanese music video for real scenes of destruction from Aleppo, thinking that Vladimir Putin was the center of attention at the G-20 summit, or believing that Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe posed together for a photo shoot in the park.
While it would be nice to tell ourselves that we would never be duped by such fake images, the truth is, most people can’t distinguish between a manipulated photo and a real one. That’s the takeaway from a new study in Cognitive Research: Principle and Implications. As the team at Science reports, the participants were only able to pinpoint fake images two-thirds of the time.
First, psychologists from the University of Warwick asked more than 700 volunteers to look at real and fake images and identify the changes. The researchers used 10 color photographs sourced from Google searches, manipulating them through airbrushing, adding elements in, subtracting elements, and distorting shadows, and shearing trees. They applied each of these five manipulation techniques separately to a portion of the photos, eventually creating 30 manipulated photos and 10 real ones. All the participants saw one of each of the manipulation types in different photos.
The participants performed slightly above chance rates, identifying photos correctly as real only 58 percent of the time and spotting manipulations 66 percent of the time. Even when they did identify a manipulated photo, though, they didn’t necessarily know where it had been altered.
In a second study, the researchers did the same thing, but using photos study co-author Sophie J. Nightingale took with her Nikon camera, controlling for the fact that images found online could be manipulated before the researchers even downloaded them. They then had almost 660 people take an online survey testing their ability to spot fakes. They had to look at photos and label whether it was fake and if they could see where it was manipulated, whether it was fake but they didn’t know where it had been altered, or whether it was an original. At the end of the study, the subjects identified just 62 percent of the fake images correctly.
The results were the same regarding images that had been manipulated in both overtly unrealistic ways and photos that featured more plausible changes. One reason might be the way that our visual system simplifies information. As long as object geometries and shadows are roughly correct, our eyes accept them as accurate.
“It remains to be determined whether it is possible to train people to make use of physically implausible inconsistencies,” the researchers write. “Perhaps one possibility would entail ‘teaching' the visual system to make full use of physical properties of the world as opposed to automatically simplifying them.”
You can still take a 10-minute online survey for the project here and test your own manipulation awareness skills. (I had to take wild guesses on most of them.)
If this makes you weep for the future of the world, at least know that it’s a timeless problem. Manipulated, misleading images have been around since the earliest days of photography.