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People can't detect fake images from real ones - can you?

People can't detect fake images from real ones - can you?
© Cyphix | Dreamstime

Some would say that we're living in strange times. With so many fake news stories populating the internet, it can be difficult to distinguish between what's real and what's fabricated. There were so many fake news stories showing up on Facebook and Google last November that both companies made policy changes to try and quell the issue.

It's not just fake news that we need to watch out for. Doctored images are everywhere online, but many people are not able to tell if they have been manipulated. This could pose serious problems in the future.

Are doctored images becoming a real threat?

I'm sure by now you've used or at least heard of Photoshop or another photo editor. These can be very helpful when you need to remove the red-eyes from your favorite selfie or touch up a blemish before posting a picture on Facebook. That all seems innocent enough, doesn't it?

Sure, if we're talking about touching up personal photos like those, it's harmless. But what if people are altering images for more devious purposes? With today's improved image-altering technology, it is easy to do. To make matters worse, people are not good at recognizing images that have been manipulated.

A recent study by Sophie Nightingale, a Ph.D. student in England, shows that only four in 10 participants could tell when an image was fake. That's only slightly better than if they were to randomly guess which photos were modified. And when a participant correctly identified an altered image, only 45 percent could identify what had been changed in the picture.

The study was conducted using several photos that were altered in a number of ways. Airbrushing a person's appearance, adding or deleting items in the scenery, and changing the lighting to make shadows appear in the wrong location are a few examples.

Over 700 people participated in the online test. They looked at 10 random images and were asked to identify which had been altered.

Here are a couple examples of images used in the study. Go to page 2 to see the altered versions:

Image: Unaltered photo used in study.

Image: Unaltered image used in study.

Imagine all the ways altered photos can be used. From advertisers misrepresenting products to doctored photos making their way into the judicial system.

One example happened not long ago. In the 2015 Paris terror attack, a Canadian man was falsely accused of being one of the terrorists. A doctored picture of him that made it look like he was wearing a suicide bomb vest went viral.

The photo was actually published on the cover of a Spanish newspaper. Fortunately, the image was determined to be fake and the newspaper later apologized.

Nightingale said she was interested in doing this study after working in a marketing job for five years. She said, "It wasn't just the models that got airbrushed, it was everything. I thought to myself, 'There's something a bit wrong here, isn't there?'"

After doing the study Nightingale said, "It's a bit worrying. Photos are incredibly powerful. They influence how we see the world. They can even influence our memory of things. If we can't tell the fake ones from the real ones, the fakes are going to be powerful, too."

The takeaway from this study is, don't expect every picture that you see online to be real. Look for clues that indicate it's been altered in some manner. However, as we said earlier, with tech getting better and better, it's more difficult than ever.

Click here if you want to take the study yourself.

Next page: See altered versions of the images
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