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Why pictures taken out of context continues to mislead

(Illustration by iStock/axel2001) 3 mins read

Around March 2021, a picture of what appears to be a surgical ward with blood spills was spread on social media. The image was accompanied by unfounded reports postulating that the first batch of COVID-19 patients who took the vaccine had turned into cannibals and were eating other patients in the hospital. 

Different reactions followed from people. For those familiar with horror movies, the picture and the attached narrative is a near reality; while for others, their fear of the COVID-19 vaccine only climaxed. 

“I knew something wasn’t right about the COVID-19 vaccine, but now the world can see. People eat each other now. #eat2eat.” One user (@Tunde22) on Twitter commented on a tweet that featured the story.

Recirculated picture tied to a narrative 

But the story was far from that. In reality, the acclaimed picture was taken in the emergency unit of the Temple University Teaching Hospital minutes after the tragic death of a teenager who was shot and rushed into the unit for resuscitation.  

In fact, the New York Times captured the picture back in 2019 to depict the horrors of teenage shootings in America, but unfortunately, the true story never became  as popular as the false one tied to it. 

This kind of scenario happens almost every day, with pictures taken out of context getting used to paint a whole new narrative. While fact-checkers try their best to raise alarm, thousands of people around the world still fall for it. Nonetheless, these are perhaps why the circle continues to revolve. 

An interesting narrative tied to pictures is always compelling

“If a picture is doctored, most users can  easily  flag it up as misleading. But if it is an actual picture that is married to a well-constructed story, even the most skeptical users will easily fall for it.” Explained Lisa Fazio, a journalist with ‘the conversation.’ 

People already know that pictures tell a million stories, but fact-checkers know that some of these stories, told through pictures, could be false or even simply fabricated. Billions of pictures are now easily accessible on the internet. A simple Google image search can offer almost any picture one desires to use for any purpose. 

While a simple image reverse can reveal a lot about the actual source of a picture, most online users know little about the tool.  Sometimes, the story is too interesting to doubt,  as it is mostly fabricated to sync with an existing dogma that is most popularly held by a group of people. 

Pictures speak to the mind directly 

Pictures easily connect to the mind. It can arouse a sense of nostalgia, empathy, and even a vivid mental imagination that makes it easier to pose as the truth. 

Unfortunately, misinformants are aware of this reality and always ready to capitalize on it. As such, a perfect narrative tied to a picture can easily arouse the emotions of those who see it and fall for it afterwards.  

For instance, photos of an ailing teenager that was first shared by her parents to seek for public assistance was later recirculated with another bogus narrative to tap into the emotions of unsuspecting members of the public to exploit them. 

The recirculated picture of the ailing teenager tied to a bogus narrative

Pictures attract attention 

Lastly, pictures are  attention grabbers and they always make a lasting impression on one’s mind. In fact, a study conducted by Adobe in 2015 found that Facebook posts that contained images received more than three times the interactions than posts made with just text. 

While some of the pictures taken out of context capitalize on people’s curiosity, a good number of them pop up around current and popular narratives, making it almost unignorable. In most cases, they even escalate and incite existing societal problems. 

What you can do

Yet all hope is not lost, as there are many ways one can handle pictures with bogus narratives. 

Pictures taken out of context may be influential enough to carry all the above-mentioned points. However, a deeply rooted sense of skepticism can be useful here. Ask questions around the circulating picture and narrative, search for it online and see if it has appeared somewhere. This can be achievable through the simple use of a reverse image search.  While the term may sound technical, most search engines like Google, Yandex, Tineye offer the reverse image search. 

A genuine picture doesn’t require an attached narrative to tell what it is about. So whenever you come across a picture with a lengthy and uncanny narrative, all you need to do is stay skeptical and conduct a reverse image search. 

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