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The Conversation

When you think of visual misinformation, maybe you think of deepfakes – videos that appear real but have actually been created using powerful video editing algorithms. The creators edit celebrities into pornographic movies, and they can put words into the mouths of people who never said them.

But the majority of visual misinformation that people are exposed to involves much simpler forms of deception. One common technique involves recycling legitimate old photographs and videos and presenting them as evidence of recent events.

For example, Turning Point USA, a conservative group with over 1.5 million followers on Facebook, posted a photo of a ransacked grocery store with the caption “YUP! #SocialismSucks.” In reality, the empty supermarket shelves have nothing to do with socialism; the photo was taken in Japan after a major earthquake in 2011.

In another instance, after a global warming protest in London’s Hyde Park in 2019, photos began circulating as proof that the protesters had left the area covered in trash. In reality, some of the photos were from Mumbai, India, and others came from a completely different event in the park.

I’m a cognitive psychologist who studies how people learn correct and incorrect information from the world around them. Psychological research demonstrates that these out-of-context photographs can be a particularly potent form of misinformation. And unlike deepfakes, they are incredibly simple to create.

Out of context and incorrect

Out-of-context photos are very common source of misinformation.

In the day after the January Iranian attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq, reporter Jane Lytvynenko at Buzzfeed documented numerous instances of old photos or videos being presented as evidence of the attack on social media. These included photos from a 2017 military strike by Iran in Syria, video of Russian training exercises from 2014 and even footage from a video game. In fact, out of the 22 false rumors documented in the article, 12 involve this kind of out-of-context photos or video.

This form of misinformation can be particularly dangerous because images are a powerful tool for swaying popular opinion and promoting false beliefs. Psychological research has shown that people are more likely to believe true and false trivia statements, such as “turtles are deaf,” when they’re presentedalongside an image. In addition, people are more likely to claim they’ve previously seen freshly made-up headlines when they’re accompanied by a photograph. Photos also increase the numbers of likes and shares that a post receives in a simulated social media environment, along with people’s beliefs that the post is true.

And pictures can alter what people remember from the news. In an experiment, one group of people read a news article about a hurricane accompanied by a photograph of a village after the storm. They were more likely to falsely remember that there were deaths and serious injuries compared to people who instead saw a photo of the village before the hurricane strike. This suggests that the false pictures of the Jan. 2020 Iranian attack may have affected people’s memory for details of the event.

Why they’re effective

There are a number of reasons photographs likely increase your belief in statements.

First, you’re used to photographs being used for photojournalism and serving as proof that an event happened.

Second, seeing a photograph can help you more quickly retrieve related information from memory. People tend to use this ease of retrieval as a signal that information is true. ...
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