What is it about a natural disaster that brings out the photo fakes? As Hurricane Sandy was heading towards the New Jersey coast on Monday morning, I saw the following photo in my Facebook news feed:
Pretty impressive and awe-inspiring shot, but, of course, it’s a fake. That cloud formation isn’t even a hurricane. It’s actually a thunderstorm supercell. Though a supercell has the same circular formation we associate with hurricanes from satellite footage, they actually look much more photogenic from the ground than do hurricanes. Thus, you’ll often see supercell photos making the rounds online during a hurricane.
In fact, this particular photo-composite wasn’t even created specifically for Hurricane Sandy. It first made the rounds after a tornado hit New York in 2010. In fact, as detailed on Snopes.com, the source photo of the supercell has been used in a variety of fraudulent weather photos over the years, including during Hurricane Katrina. I suppose that’s somewhat of a compliment to the power of Mike Hollingshead’s original photo, though I’m sure he’d prefer it not be redistributed in such a fraudulent manner.
There have in fact, been a slew of fake weather photos circulating this week. These days, it seems that no flood is complete without some photoshopped sharks traveling down a city street, so it was no surprise to see several photos of sharks frolicking around (formerly) inland New Jersey.
Viewers have gotten wise to the fakery, so it generally doesn’t take long before someone online speaks up and attempts to reintroduce the truth. The problem, though, is that people sometimes have trouble telling what’s real and what’s not. When a photo started circulating on Monday showing a New York building with its facade collapsed, revealing all of the apartments within, some people immediately started calling the dramatic shot a fake. In fact, though, it was true. In the face of this confusion, The Atlantic created its own “InstaSnopes” page to go through all of these storm photos and reveal which ones were real and which ones were fake.
I suspect someone could do a rich psychological and/or sociological study on this now-common phenomenon of circulating fake photos during a natural disaster. Though we may be worried about the damage created by a hurricane or other disaster, and concerned about people’s safety, there’s also undeniably an entertainment factor to viewing remarkable photos of Mother Nature’s majestic power. People eagerly check their social networks and online sites for the latest stories and visuals, and they’re also often eager to be the first among their circle to forward on the latest amazing shot. In this context, it can be hard for someone to resist the temptation to feed something false into the mix. In some cases, the perpetrator may be only aiming to prank a few friends, but the photo quickly spreads. In other cases, I’m sure people are actively trying to see how far their false photo can spread. What better way to measure one’s “footprint” in the world than to see how many people you can reach with a simple viral photo?
In most cases, these photos are ultimately just harmless entertainment, but they can spread misinformation when they’re not promptly corrected. And they do make the job that much harder for journalists and others whose task it is to inform people as accurately and as quickly as possible as the news unfolds.