DeepfakesIdentifying a fake picture online is harder than you might think

By Mona Kasra

Published 24 June 2019

Research has shown that manipulated images can distort viewers’ memory and even influence their decision-making. So the harm that can be done by fake images is real and significant. Our findings suggest that to reduce the potential harm of fake images, the most effective strategy is to offer more people experiences with online media and digital image editing – including by investing in education. Then they’ll know more about how to evaluate online images and be less likely to fall for a fake.

Fake skeleton could easily be interpreted as real // Source:

It can be hard to tell whether a picture is real. Consider, as the participants in our recent research did, these two images and see whether you think neither, either or both of them has been doctored.

You might have based your assessment of the images on the visual information alone, or perhaps factored in your evaluation of how reputable the source is, or the number of people who liked and shared the images.

My collaborators and I recently studied how people evaluate the credibility of images that accompany online stories and what elements figure into that evaluation. We found that you’re far less likely to fall for fake images if you’re more experienced with the internet, digital photography and online media platforms – if you have what scholars call “digital media literacy.”

Who is duped by fakes?
Were you duped? Both of the images are fake.

We wanted to find out how much each of several factors contributed to the accuracy of people’s judgment about online images. We hypothesized that the trustworthiness of the original source might be an element, as might the credibility of any secondary source, such as people who shared or reposted it. We also anticipated that the viewer’s existing attitude about the depicted issue might influence them: If they disagreed with something about what the image showed, they might be more likely to deem it a fake and, conversely, more likely to believe it if they agreed with what they saw.

In addition, we wanted to see how much it mattered whether a person was familiar with the tools and techniques that allow people to manipulate images and generate fake ones. Those methods have advanced much more quickly in recent years than technologies that can detect digital manipulation.