How Fake Photos Are Messing With Our Perception of Reality

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast back in October, the photograph above was widely circulated by people who believed that it showed the storm bearing down NYC. It doesn’t. The image is actually a composite photograph that combines an ordinary photo of the Statue of Liberty with a well-known image by weather photographer Mike Hollingshead.

The original photo by Mike Hollingshead that was turned into a fake viral image.

You may be thinking, “So what? It’s just a harmless prank that’ll give people a laugh, right?”

Well, yes and no. It turns out that fake Photoshopped photographs may be messing with your brain a lot more than you’d like to think.

Rose Eveleth over at the BBC has published a fascinating piece on how fake photos can affect both our memories and our behavior. She writes,

For decades, researchers have been exploring just how unreliable our own memories are. Not only is memory fickle when we access it, but it’s also quite easily subverted and rewritten. Combine this susceptibility with modern image-editing software at our fingertips like Photoshop, and it’s a recipe for disaster. In a world where we can witness news and world events as they unfold, fake images surround us, and our minds accept these pictures as real, and remember them later. These fake memories don’t just distort how we see our past, they affect our current and future behaviour too – from what we eat, to how we protest and vote. The problem is there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop it.

What’s crazy is how easy it is to manipulate people’s memories. When participants in one study were shown fake childhood photos of themselves riding in hot-air balloons with their families (when they hadn’t actually), 50% of them began “remembering” going on the ride that never happened.

The photograph on the left is a ‘shopped version of the AP photo by Gerald Herbert on the right. How much did photos like this sway public perception? It’s a difficult question to answer.

Unfortunately for us humans, it’s apparently impossible to guard our brains from this trickery. Eveleth continues,

In the end, there’s not much anyone can really do to guard against being duped by these images, says [scientist Kimberly] Wade. Her lab has done studies in which subjects are told that they’re about to see both fake and real images. Even with the warning, people will still remember the fake photographs as real. “Warnings don’t seem to have much of an effect,” she says, “that’s how powerful some of these fake photo manipulations can be.”

While phony weather photos and fabricated leisure memories may not be a very big deal, this issue becomes much more significant when you consider other areas that it affects: politics and policies, for example.

How fake images change our memory and behaviour [BBC via DPReview]

  • Bill Wilson

    Mitt R-Money. That’s funny.

  • John Goldsmith

    I’m not concerned about fake photos. Even depictions based on reality cannot be recalled accurately. When the police investigate a crime and ask for eyewitness accounts, are these accurate? I think the answer is: not nearly enough.

    Yes, our minds are fickle. They dupe us in all sorts of ways because our brains are extremely good at making associations to things that were not originally connected in any real way whether the sensory input came from either sight, sound, or smell.

    What is real? In regards to that NY storm photo above: the fake photograph itself is very real – even if the actual scene was not. As Garry Winogrand said: “A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space.” Our brains are not smart enough to make that distinction. It’s easier to just accept these as reality even if our consciousness does not.

    Except in an editorial context, photographs usually don’t come with any context. So even those situations that appear real, they are not. Unfortunately, many people will find a way to support the ideas they already subscribe too, political or otherwise. The problem, if there is one, is NOT manipulated pictures. Rather, it’s that we are too lazy to inquire a pictures true meaning.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    Gee, talk to feminists about this, they’ve been dealing with airbrushed concepts of beauty for decades.

    This also echoes Orwell’s 1984 where history was regularly doctored in order to fit current political convenience.

    Think of when you’ve seen fires, accidents or explosions on the news, thanks to the massive fireballs we’re used to from Hollywood these very real events often look underwhelming.

  • Mark Goldberg

    How defeatist.

  • John Goldsmith


  • suǝddıʃıɥԀ ǝʞıW

    On a certain level, you’re right. But the problem is not fake photo’s of storms or other manipulated propoganda. That just serves a temporary goal. I worry more about what Kay mentions: doctored photo’s used in advertising, glossy magazines and such. This research explains why (mostly) women let themself be mutilated by plastic surgeons to look like people that don’t exist. They perceive it as the ‘true’ and ‘ideal’ images and really believe those doctored glamour pictures are reality. Now we’re in a vicious circle where the images become true (through the surgery) and the doctored images become more bizarre. I wonder where we end up. And why.

  • John Goldsmith

    Sure, photos that look real and give heightened expectations of reality are a danger. I don’t disagree with the BBC article. What you are saying about beauty, for example, goes along with my point in that each and every single photograph one looks at should be viewed in the context that it is a picture and pictures are not reality. They never have been and they never will be. They are always constructed. The only person who knows the truth, if there even is one, is the photographer and/or digital artist.

  • tiredofit123

    Both of the example photos above were passed around on Facebook as real; the “R-Money” in particular attracted a lot of attention and political commentary, so the fake photos do have a strong influence.

  • gunman

    When I first saw that storm photo.. I knew it was a manipulated image.

  • gunmanxxx

    How could someone think of going into the water knowing that a big storm was coming??? and the water is kind of clam.


    As always, Peta Pixel presents interesting, eye-catching, thoughtful articles to read and consider over time in photography.

    In Soviet Russian history, it would be revealed that Joseph Stalin always ordered photographs to be doctored before becoming official Soviet archives. When it came to his political enemies, or even those he mildly despised, being pictured in the same photographic frame as he, such individuals were erased from the photographs, leading the rest of the Soviet Union to believe in the “official” photos. Even as recent as Egyptian (former) president Hosni Mubarak would have himself doctored in photographs so the Egyptian people believed he was stand-front and center of other world leaders.

  • studio 17b

    I think the implications for photojournalism are massive.

  • studio 17b

    I have a big issue with this thought of yours. Imagine Nick Ut’s photo of a naked little girl running away from napalm. Now imagine if that photo was fake, and the girl had been added in. See the difference? But you’re saying it doesn’t matter, because the original photo is real, anyway. That’s kinda, you know, BS.

  • brad

    There is one solution left to us to guard our minds from this, and we’re using it: mistrust everything.

    We don’t know when we’re being duped, so we start to always assume we are. We will be left with a society that trusts nothing and no-one, that leads to universal cynicism and apathy. I’m not convinced that that’s beneficial for humanity. But I can’t see a natural solution either.

    However, there may be a pendulum swing with certain publications, and with some countries’ laws that are insisting on more realistic images. I’d give a big thumbs-up to that.

  • Franklin Weise

    I was wondering why nobody else mentioned 1984. It shows how fragile our memories are, and how easily they can be changed.

  • Matt

    Good one ;p

  • Vin Weathermon

    In my 54 years I have never known anyone who believed that photos represented reality when it comes to advertising or movies. “Airbrush” in Playboy was a given, and nobody has changed that perception. Politics are typically “acting” in my opinion anyway (whether depicted positively or not.) Gullible people are everywhere…but it hardly matters what form of fakery will dupe them…I don’t think the majority of people will make life or death decisions based on a photograph they know little about. Or am I giving us Americans too much credit??

    Photos or not in the news, I’m conditioned to “see/hear” but “not believe” what is fed to me as truth. I assume there is a nugget of truth in every lie, and vice versa. Most people I talk to have the same general understanding. So why is this article a big deal?

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