Can You Spot A Fake Photo? Study Finds Odds Not So Good

COVENTRY, England — If you’re worried about your Facebook friends sharing fake news, you might want to consider your odds of being duped by fake images too. A significant percentage of people aren’t able to identify Photoshopped pictures when placed next to a similar unaltered image, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK recruited 659 individuals, aged 13 to 70, for a study on the general populace’s ability to detect manipulated images. Shown an original image and a doctored image, participants were asked a simple question: “Do you think this photograph has been digitally altered?”

Original photo of man standing in street. (Courtesy University of Warwick)
Digitally-altered image of man standing in street. (Courtesy University of Warwick)

Only 58 percent of unedited pictures were correctly identified as being originals, while 65 percent of doctored images were accurately identified.

To be sure, many digital changes were plausible (e.g., the removal of an item or the minor touching up of cosmetic details), but some changes were rather impractical (e.g., a shadow appearing in a physically-impossible manner).

“When people look at newspapers or magazines, or go on the internet, they’re going to be exposed to fake images, yet our research has shown that people are quite unlikely to distinguish between the real and the fake,” says lead researcher Sophie Nightingale in a university news release.

The researchers noted that randomized chance would have garnered right answers half of the time, meaning that humans didn’t perform much better than they would have blindfolded.

In many cases, participants reported an alteration in a photo, but weren’t able to specifically identify how it was doctored.

Ultimately, the researchers say that this study shows how humans are relatively limited in their ability to spot manipulations in real-world scenes. This may have implications in that many of us look at photos at face value, which has frequently overlooked consequences.

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For example, an airbrushed model may cause viewers to have lowered self-image, leading to mental health issues, such as depression.

Obviously, in the courtrooms and media, doctored images can deceive the general public, which has grave implications.

However, there may still be hope for humankind’s image detection capabilities.

Fake images often contain tell-tale signs that they have been manipulated, and we’re conducting new research to see whether people can make use of these signs to help identify forgeries,” says lead researcher Sophie Nightingale.

The study’s findings were published last week in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

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