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Photo Tampering 2012: The Year in Review

We just completed the final update to our Photo Tampering Gallery for 2012, so now seems like a good time to take a look at the past year and comment on any trends we’ve seen in the misuse of digital editing. 

Politics has long been an active domain for photo tampering, as evidenced by the fact that the earliest entries in the gallery are politically oriented, and in fact the “politics” tag is one of the most common tags in the gallery. The ubiquity of image editing tools is making politically-motivated photo tampering even more common, however. One trend that is jumping out is that more and more politicians and causes are using image manipulation to exaggerate their public support, either by cloning and expanding the size of the crowds supporting them or simply by misappropriating supporters of another cause. Examples in the gallery include a photo of a political event published by the Malaysian national news agency, Bernana, as well as a protest photo published by the Tunisian daily newspaper Le Maghreb. There was also a minor controversy about a rally photo sent out by the Mitt Romney presidential campaign via Instagram, but I chose not to include that in the gallery; it was unclear whether this was willful misrepresentation or just a really poorly executed multi-photo panorama.

When the sizes of the crowds aren’t being misrepresented, sometimes what’s being changed is the statement they’re making. One politician sought to hide his former Tea Party credentials by erasing Tea Party references from the signs held by his supporters. In another case, the National Review magazine replaced the “Forward” signs held by a crowd of Obama supporters with signs that said “Abortion”.

Specifically in Russia, public figures seem to be less concerned with manipulating the size and composition of their supporters than they are with hiding their own conspicuous consumption. Notably, there were two instances in 2012 in which expensive Breguet watches were removed from the wrist of a public figure after the photo was taken.

Concerns about unrealistic body images are another common theme in the gallery, and 2012 marks the first year that those concerns resulted in some significant responses. A grassroots campaign resulted in the announcement by Seventeen magazine in July that they would cease unrealistic retouching of models. More significantly, Israel actually passed a law in March dictating that advertisements that manipulate the appearance of models to appear thinner must contain a disclaimer. It’s too early to say whether this is a trend that will continue in the coming years, but it’s interesting to see some initial pullback in the retouching of fashion images.

Another interesting trend is the extent to which old photo manipulations resurface and take on a new life. After responding to an online hoax about one of their magazine covers in 2011, Tails magazine had to repost the same response again more than a year later when the same hoax photo spread through social media a second time. And the doctored Iran missile photo from 2008 resurfaced twice this year. Amusingly, in one instance the Iranian news agency Mehr inadvertently used a remixed version of the photo that featured the Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks. All of this illustrates the fact that nothing ever really dies on the Internet. 

The signature event of 2012 in the world of photo tampering, however, was probably Hurricane Sandy. As Sandy approached New York City, the media built up anticipation that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, with potentially significant flooding and destruction. Naturally, this anticipation created an eager audience of Facebook and Twitter followers looking for visual confirmation from people on the ground—one might say (perhaps with a groan) a perfect storm for photo fraud. Sure enough, social media channels were flooded with fake images of the storm, making it difficult for the press to determine what was real and what was not. No doubt, the experience of the press dealing with Hurricane Sandy will have an impact on how they filter and interpret social media for years to come.

Lastly, with a nod to the future, I should point out two notable frauds this year which were videos rather than photos. One video, apparently from a Russian dashboard camera, shows a person being hit by a car and doing a dramatic flip before landing in the road. The other depicts an eagle grabbing a baby in a public park and attempting to fly away with it. Both videos are relatively convincing at first glance, yet both contain clear signs of manipulation* upon careful inspection. Importantly, though, these video frauds show that as photo manipulation goes more mainstream, more ambitious hoaxsters will move on to more challenging domains—particularly as desktop video tools become more powerful. Today, the public is a bit less skeptical of videos than they are of photos, so in some respects it may be easier to fool people in that medium. Over time though, I think we can expect to see video tampering following the same path as photo tampering, with the accompanying rise in public skepticism as well.

[* Note: We’ve got an analysis of the baby-snatching eagle video at the link above. We’ll provide a similar analysis of the Russian dashboard camera video in our next blog post.]

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Reader Comments (1)

The camera is merely a tool and the photographic image is always open to manipulation, often before the shutter is pressed.

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames Billett

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