As a captivated nation watches a historic storm ravage the Texas coast, people around the country are sharing extraordinary images of Harvey and its aftermath.
Except some of them aren't real.
• There's the shark on a freeway in Houston (the doctored image has been online for years and made appearances during Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, but still managed to fool a Fox News reporter).
• There are the planes submerged on the tarmac in Houston (the photoshopped picture actually shows New York's LaGuardia Airport).
• And there's President Obama serving food to people evacuated from the Houston floods (which is a shot from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., where Obama and his family served Thanksgiving dinner in 2015).
On the Internet, things that seem unfathomable are legitimatized through reinforced attention. When enough people tweet a photo, it can seem real. Media experts say when false images go viral, feeling often trumps reason.
Why fake photos spread
Doctored photos aren't reserved for natural disasters. This month, a widely circulated image that appeared to capture a member of anti-fascist group Anitfa beating a police officer during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned out to be fake. After President Trump held a rally in Phoenix last week, his supporters shared an image of what was purportedly a massive crowd in the streets ahead of his speech, but the photo is actually an aerial shot from the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers parade.
Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said there are times when the nation is more susceptible to the spread of false images.
"I think emotion drives a huge part of this," he said. "There's going to be emotion involved in any kind of political campaign, any type of social debate or heated cultural issue, and also natural disasters are going to fall into that same category," he said.
Al Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute for media studies, said the reasons why people share fake photos fall into three buckets:
- Misinformation: Someone unintentionally shares bad information. The person sharing the image isn't necessarily malicious. They could be sharing a real photo with the wrong timing. During Hurricane Sandy, a photo of soldiers standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier went viral. It was a real photo, but it was not taken during Sandy.
- Disinformation: This is a lie. A person tries to intentionally mislead. Images are photoshopped or doctored and context is removed. It could be a prankster attempting to create chaos or a person trying to advance a political goal.
- Propaganda: Images intended to sell a product or idea.
When people fall for them
"I think natural disasters create a kind of perfect storm for viral rumors," said Peter Adams, senior vice president of educational programs at the News Literacy Project. "These are very emotional events. There is a lot fear in the immediate area. There's a lot of confusion and there's intense curiosity on the part of the rest of public to see what's happening on the ground."
It can be hard to spot the ruse. Some of that has to do with confirmation bias. If a person is told the storm's destruction is unprecedented, they'll look for images to confirm it, especially if the story becomes political.
"Climate change immediately came into the debate about [Harvey's] scale of destruction, so some people are going to go find certain images and content to support those ideas," Albright said.
People also don't always know what's possible. For some, the image of a shark swimming through Houston is unbelievable. For others, it's plausible.
"What's feasible is really an unknown for I think the average citizen," Adams said. "There are videos on Reddit of fish in people's basements ... so is it feasible that a shark would be swimming down the flooded highway, coming in from the Gulf? People aren't really sure."
When the phrase 'fake news' is 'weaponized'
Adams worries about conflating individuals who doctor photos for virality with journalists who make mistakes when reporting breaking news.
"Fake news actually does refer to a very specific kind of misinformation, that's entirely fabricated and designed to look like standard journalism," Adams said. "That meaning has been lost as the term has been politicized and weaponized ... and I think the public — especially when it comes to political news — doesn't know what to believe because they have pundits telling them that news organizations are engaging in some of the same tactics that fake news purveyors are, which absolutely isn't true."
So what might happen if the public grows overly wary of being inundated with false information?
"I worry that we will become a society of cynics who believe nothing," Tompkins said.
He isn't alone.
"I think being skeptical is not just great but necessary for citizens now in this information landscape," Adams said. "But that means asking more questions. ... Your skepticism is the beginning of a process, where you're trying to confirm the details and facts. Cynicism in my view is turning away from the possibility of knowing. If you believe nothing is knowable unless 'I see it myself, I don't trust anyone to tell me anything,' you're really ending inquiry. You're not finding out. You're not willing to believe anyone and that's ultimately very disempowering personally, but also for the country."
How to spot a fake photo
To curb the spread of false images, Albright and Adams say when you see something that seems unthinkable, think before sharing it.
"If you have a strong emotional reaction to something — whether it's a picture of a flooded airport or a natural disaster, or if it's something that outrages you or angers you politically — if you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction, stop, take a breath, try to have your rational mind kick back in and set your emotions aside and try to evaluate the truth," Adams said.
To avoid being duped, Adams encourages readers to follow reporters who cover misinformation. Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed News studies media inaccuracy and the site has a running list of false and inaccurate information coming out of Harvey.
And there are practical steps you can take, as well:
Using Google Chrome, right click on the image.
Click "search Google for an image." This will show results for similar images, sometimes even the same one. Usually, a fake photo will come up in old results.
Checking the veracity of an image means a person can more confidentially share a compelling photo.
One of the most evocative images from Harvey is of elderly residents trapped in waist-deep water in a nursing home near Houston. Many Twitter users said it was fake, and were reluctant to share it, but the photo was proven to be authentic.
La vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson Texas is almost underwater with nursing home patients pic.twitter.com/oCNkrgoRZY— Timothy J. McIntosh (@DividendsMGR) August 27, 2017
"It was so incredible," Albright said. "I don't know if I've ever seen an image like that."
Albright shared the photo from his Twitter account, but not immediately. He looked at the source of the tweet, a user named Timothy J. McIntosh, who, while not verified with the platform's authoritative blue checkmark, appeared to be what Albright deemed a credible source. McIntosh responded to users in the thread of the original tweet insisting the image was not fake. A user in the comment thread posted a photo of what she said was a home less than a mile away that appeared to be partially underwater. McIntosh followed up the original tweet with another imploring emergency services to head to La Vita Bella nursing home.
A reporter for The Daily News in Galveston interviewed McIntosh and local authorities, who confirmed the residents were rescued.
In the age of the Internet, readers not only consume news, they disseminate it. It's paramount, Albright said, that they act responsibly in that dual role.
"It's up to people," Albright said. "If something looks so unbelievable and it barely makes sense and you can't fathom how it can be possible but you still share it anyway, I think that's a problem."
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