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Most People’s Ability to Spot Manipulated Photos is Dismally Low, Study Finds

Posted July 18, 2017

A new study published this Monday (17 July 2017) in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications had found that most people are, frankly, terrible at noticing photos that have been digitally “doctored” to achieve a desired, sometimes misleading, effect.

In the age of fake news, findings indicating our inability to spot altered images and tell real news articles apart from sponsored content does not bode well for the future of rational public debate and democratic procedure.

A digitally altered photo from the study paper – can you spot what’s wrong? Image courtesy of Sophie Nightingale, Cognitive Research, 2017.

The study itself had 707 volunteers looking at a series of pictures without knowing that half of them were altered in some way. As it turned out, the participants were able to tell original pictures from “faked” ones a mere 60 percent of the time and identify what was specifically wrong with the picture only 45 percent of the time.

“This has serious implications,” said study lead author Sophie Nightingale in a statement, “because of the high-level of images, and possible fake images, that people are exposed to on a daily basis through social networking sites, the Internet and the media.”

According to the authors, the findings of their study are particularly concerning because photos are often used as evidence in courts. “Jurors and members of the court assume these [fake] images to be real,” said study co-author Dr. Kimberley Wade, “though a manipulated image could go undetected with devastating consequences.”

In a second, related study, Nightingale and her colleagues asked 659 participants to indicate the altered region of a photo, which they were told was manipulated. This time, the volunteers did significantly better – 89 percent were able to complete the task successfully.

While this may seem encouraging, the implication is that people are only decent-to-good at noticing a problem when they know in advance that one exists, but not in cases where they have to rely on their own judgment regarding the veracity of the content they consume, which is to say – most of the time.

As the authors note, images have a powerful impact on our memories, making the skill of distinguishing between what is real and what is fake of especially high importance to what we believe and remember.


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