How to verify a photo online and fight the spread of misinformation?

You have just received a photo on WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter. The image makes you angry, sad or happy, and the caption encourages you to share it as widely as possible. You’re a little careful though, because the story seems too good to be true. You are right to be careful. Here are a few tips for verifying images yourself and finding out the origin of a photo.

There’s nothing like a catchy photo to grab someone’s attention on social media. Filled with emotion, a photo can force a reader to stick with an article, click a link, and share content widely. Journalists know this and spend time choosing the right photo to illustrate their articles.

Unfortunately, people who spread “fake news” also understand the power of a photo. In order to get the maximum number of clicks (and therefore money), some people manipulate or abuse photos that have nothing to do with the subject in question… just to get your attention.

Identify old images used out of context

There are many digitally edited images circulating online. That said, it still requires some technical skill to modify an image. However, there is a much easier way to trick people with photos: you can find an old image and change the caption so that the photo tells any story you want.

The best reflex you can have when you see an image that you think has been taken out of context? Find an inverted image.

Let’s look at an example. This photo shows a woman threatening a police officer who points a gun at a man on the ground. The caption claims this photo shows a mother in the Dominican Republic trying to protect her son from a police officer. The story is moving, the photo is high quality and it’s a great shot. In fact, it might be too much of an opportunity — and that makes us suspicious.

Here’s how to verify a photo with reverse image search.

1) Start copying the address of the photo by right clicking on it (or long pressing it on your smartphone.)

To get the URL of an image, right click on it. © Observers

2) Then go to Google Images and paste in the address.

To search for a reverse image on Google Images, click the camera icon and paste the link to an image you want to search for.
To search for a reverse image on Google Images, click the camera icon and paste the link to an image you want to search for. © Observers

3) Click “search by image” and view the results

The results of a reverse image search on Google Images.
The results of a reverse image search on Google Images. © Observers

The first webpage in the Google results is from 2015. If you click on it, you can read that the photo is actually an image from a movie called “Cristo Rey”. To confirm that, we can search for the movie on the movie website IMDb. Sure enough, the image appears in the gallery of the movie page.

A screenshot from the movie website IMDb.
A screenshot from the movie website IMDb. © IMDb

Learn more about this hoax by reading our article on the subject.

… But be careful, because even Google makes mistakes

Google Images was the first online tool that many people used to search for reverse images. However, it is not perfect and it does not always find the origin of an image. Sometimes it can even give false information.

Take the example of the photo below. FRANCE 24 blurred this image because it shows charred bodies being examined by Red Cross workers. The photo is often obscured by social media users who, for example, claim that it depicts Christians massacred by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

How to verify a photo online and fight the spread of misinformation?

If you do a reverse image search on Google, it shows the following:

How to verify a photo online and fight the spread of misinformation?

According to Google, the photo was taken during a massacre in Duékoué, Ivory Coast, which took place during the crisis that ravaged the country between 2010-2011.

However, if you look further, you will see that in reality this photo has nothing to do with the Duékoué massacre. The photo was taken in July 2010 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when a tanker exploded.

So why is Google wrong? Simply because the Google algorithm finds the most likely context for an image by finding articles that contain the photo.

However, this photo has been widely obscured; it has been used by too many articles or websites claiming it was a photo of Duékoué. Due to the high frequency of these articles, it has turned into truth, at least for Google.

Other image search tools in reverse order

If Google doesn’t give you a satisfactory answer, it’s time to try your luck with other tools so you can double or even triple verify a suspicious image.

Check out a few other sites below:

Yandex, a Russian search engine

If you are looking for the source of an image that appears to be from Russia or Eastern Europe, Yandex is your best bet. The algorithm calls up web pages other than Google.

The reverse image search tool is also particularly good at identifying faces.

TinEye, an independent verification tool

TinEye is one of the oldest reverse image search tools. This allows you to use filters to find, for example, the oldest photo, the largest file size, or the most modified image.

While it may not be the most efficient search option for recent images that appear in the news, it does have features that can help you spot some Photoshopped photo manipulations.

Baidu, the Chinese image search engine

Baidu is a great place to start if you want to match a photo or video with something on the Chinese web.

Most results from other search engines do not show content from Chinese sites. But by focusing your search on Baidu, you can sometimes find articles or photos similar to the one you’re researching.

Here’s an example of how we used Baidu to analyze an image of children dressed up in costumes during the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

Plugins can help you perform a search with one click

There are two different plugins that you can install directly in your browser to make searching for an image easy.

You can download RevEye for Google Chrome or Firefox to simultaneously search with the four reverse image tools we mentioned above.

You can also use the InVid WeVerify plugin to do the same, just by right-clicking on the image.

Finally, keep in mind that no tool is perfect and no tool will allow you to definitively identify the origin of an image. When in doubt about a certain image, sometimes it’s better just not to share it. You don’t want to get it wrong and help spread a hoax.

And if you can’t verify an image yourself, don’t hesitate to contact us via Facebook or email and we’ll take a look!

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