The adage “one picture tells a thousand stories” not only highlights the simplicity of pictures in conveying information but also the influence it has on those who come across it. This could be argued, but definitely not by a professional journalist who is certainly thinking of the perfect picture to tell his next story. So at least, journalists, specifically photojournalists will go along with this idea.
Nonetheless, it is not only journalists who get to share pictures. Every day, floods of pictures grace different social media platforms, heralding billions of stories that could be true or otherwise; and significantly this is where the problem all starts. Some of these pictures are altered and suited into a topical issue.
It would be fine if we could dismiss these images as a fleeting joke, an amusing but harmless tidbit shared among our friends and followers if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are targeted at misleading unsuspecting members of the society into believing a narrative that is totally false.
The rise of manipulated images is as old as photography itself. While the prevalence of pictures available online makes it easier to access and doctor them now, fake news merchants needed scissors, paste, and patience to create a manipulated picture back in the day.
Josef Stalin’s Soviet regime regularly retouched photos to remove those who had fallen out of favour, such as the unfortunate commissar on the right. (Courtesy: Fourandsix.com)
Doctored photos rely on topical issues
Whether it is hours behind a computer screen or a cut and paste with scissors to manipulate an image, the effort fake news huskers put in perfecting their craft always shows in the believability it garners amongst members of the society.
“Photos play a key role in making fake news stories go viral by bolstering the emotional tenor of the lie. They elicit an emotional response, which makes it far more likely that someone will click the link, then share it. That emotion may be anger, outrage or joy,” says Mandy Jenkins, the head of news at social content provider Storyful.
If you are thinking about how it goes viral, Mandy added that: “It triggers something in the readers that says, ‘I have to share this with everyone I know who likes the things I like.’”
While it may be true that manipulated Photos play a key role in making fake news stories go viral by bolstering the emotional tenor of the lie. These manipulated photos themselves usually capitalized on topical issues to thrive.
Misinformants publishing and promoting fake news routinely take these photos out of context, digitally alter them and attach them each to an ongoing topical issue so it can easily mislead those who come across it. “The images usually look legitimate enough to support the ‘realistic’ nature of the current event,” says David Berkowitz of the social media company Sysomos. He added that “If a doctored picture is too far-fetched, or tied to an unpopular event it won’t spread beyond the fringe, and the goal when someone is pushing fake news is to make it go mainstream.”
How doctored images misled many: the case of Nnamdi Kanu and Jacob Zuma
David’s statement paints the typical case of Nnamdi Kanu’s issue with the Nigerian government. After his arrest and people became curious about how it all happened, multiple doctored pictures emerged, suggesting that the Nigerian government lured Nnamdi into arrest using a woman. This narrative, though found to be ridiculously fake and blatantly misleading, was massively shared across different social media platforms.
A major Nigerian Daily, Vanguard Newspaper, even released a story headlined “How lady lured Nnamdi Kanu from London to a South American country,” suggesting that “There are indications that IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested in a South American country after he was tricked by a Nigerian Lady working undercover with Nigerian security agencies.”
On Nairaland, an interactive informational website with over 3 million users, the same story was featured in line with the purported narrative the doctored image was spreading.
Users on the platform who showed a general belief in the story shared their views in total agreement with the false rated story.
Another user added that “If this is true, I hope those young folks who still think that everyone in government is clueless has learnt a lesson. In this age of technology, you can run but can’t hide. God bless Nigeria.”
A comment by a user on Nairaland
Other subsequent comments that followed consents that “Fear women It must be stupid of Nnamdi Kanu to fall in for this if this story is true.” “There may be some truth here that guy too like woman. What a sad moment for all Igbos.” In Nairaland, this false story attached to the doctored photo garnered over 6, 000 interactions and across all social media it was featured, the story amassed over 28, 000 interactions.
This reality sinks in line with David’s earlier statement that “If a doctored photo is too far-fetched, or tied to an unpopular event it won’t spread beyond the fringe, and the goal when someone is pushing fake news is to make it go mainstream.” Here, it went mainstream and even when it was verified to be false and doctored, neither of the news outlets took down the content.
This revelation expounds on the fact that such altered images simply capitalize on trending issues to reinforce people’s pre-existing prejudices and as evidently captured above, it is usually effective because people tend to believe that a photograph represents reality. Susan Sontag who wrote in ‘On Photography’ stressed that “Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it, especially if we know well the existing story around it.” Kiku Adatto, author of Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op. also added that “You lend a false narrative legitimacy by the presence of photographs married to a popular event.”
Kiku’s assertion can practically be seen in the recent doctored photo that featured Former South African President Jacob Zuma in Prison. Zuma’s prison sentence over contempt of court has aroused tension in South Africa, causing loss of lives and properties. While the matter continued to top world news headlines, the doctored image was shared alongside a narrative showcasing Zuma in prison uniforms alongside other inmates in what was alleged to be the Former president “queuing for food with fellow inmates in South African prison”. It quickly garnered attention and was shared countless times on social media platforms.
Not surprisingly though, the false story, alongside the doctored picture will appear on ‘Omokoshaban’ a News website with the headline “Former South African President Jacob Zuma Waiting in Queue Patiently for Meal in Jail (Photo)”
On Facebook, the story enjoyed traction and garnered multiple comments that seem to go along the lines of belief and a reference end point to African politicians who embezzled government funds.
Like the similar case of Nnamdi Kanu, this false story also garnered over 9,000 interactions on the internet within days of its appearance. This reality indicates the fact that as ridiculous and obvious as doctored images may appear to be, a good number of people will still likely be misled by it.
Nonetheless, as controversial and complicated as doctored images can be, conducting a simple reverse image of it can reveal more than it tells. Most of these altered images used to mislead people are picked from the internet and reverse google search will simply lead you to the source.