Photo Fakery and the Challenge of Verification

Another week, another fake photo making the rounds in social media and raising outrage and/or hilarity. This time it is a photo of a gold toilet said to have belonged to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Problem is, the photo has been around since at least 2012, and while the Ukrainian president may indeed be guilty of accumulating outrageous luxuries, there’s no evidence that the gold toilet belongs to him or anyone else in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a number of Sochi Olympics photos went viral that were also fake or not attributable to Sochi. And you may remember this photo of the Egyptian pyramids blanketed with snow (for the first time in 112 years!) making the rounds in December.

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Pretty cool looking, but guess what? Fake.*

Hoaxes, rumours, misinformation, and fake stories and images have long found a welcoming home on the Internet, but with the rise of social media they get shared and disseminated even more quickly than before, sometimes by people who should know better. Sometimes verifying a piece of information is as simple as checking snopes.com or doing a Google search. Other times, however, it may take a bit more work to dig under the surface and confirm the veracity of a story or photo. This Storyful article is a good start for learning about some ways to verify images, such as checking the Exif data and cross-referencing with other sources like satellite images.

Storyful and a number of other news and non-governmental organizations such as the BBC and Amnesty International have released a free ebook called The Verification Handbook to help with identifying rumour and misinformation. While the book is geared toward verifying user-generated content in disaster and emergency situations, the tools and guidelines presented provide an excellent resource for all types of digital verification and investigations. And as the book’s editor Craig Silverman (of Regret the Errorstates, “We’re all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what’s happening.” Learning how to judge the accuracy and credibility of information is one of the essential skills of the social media age.

For some great examples of how a skeptical and investigative mindset can be applied to photos and videos, watch this TED talk by Storyful’s former managing director:

*Fake and staged photos have a long history, going all the back to the early years of photography. For a fascinating story about how Errol Morris uncovered what may be the first faked photo, check out this Radiolab episode.
Photo source: Snopes.com

What House of Cards Teaches Us About the Value of Good Research

House of CardsWarning: some spoilers ahead!

I’ve been watching House of Cards, and like a lot of people, I’m morbidly fascinated by Frank and Claire Underwood’s evil machinations as they connive and kill their way to becoming the most powerful couple in the free (ha!) world. One thing that has struck me is how absolutely crucial good research is to their success.

The journalists in the show, of course, do a lot of digging as they try to uncover the truth behind Peter Russo’s death, but it’s the investigative research that Doug Stamper, Frank’s trusty assistant/dirty-work-doer, does that underlies major plot points and propels Frank’s career aspirations forward.

We see this in action as early as Chapter 2 in Season 1: Stamper uncovers an anti-Israel editorial that ran in the college newspaper that Michael Kern, the proposed candidate for Secretary of State, edited. When the story gets picked up by the media, the ensuing controversy for Kern seals the nomination for Frank’s preferred candidate.

Another point at which research helps Frank outmaneuver others is in Chapter 12, when Doug’s sleuthing reveals that, contrary to what President Walker had claimed, he and the billionaire Raymond Tusk are actually close friends. He discovers this by digging up the travel schedules of each man and identifying a number of instances where both men were in the same city at the same time (the president’s schedule would be publicly available, but I’m not sure how he could’ve gotten Tusk’s schedule; we’ll overlook that unexplained detail…). With this knowledge, Frank is able to remain in control in his interactions with Tusk, who, as he discovers later, is playing him.

Doug Stamper may be inscrutable and a bit creepy, but he’s a damn fine researcher. He has that magical combination of qualities that makes a good researcher: he’s smart, focussed, diligent, and detail-oriented, but also able to think outside the box and connect the dots. Frank’s success depends as much on Doug’s ability to dig up valuable gems that he can use to his advantage as it does on anything else. I’m only a couple of episodes into Season 2, but no doubt there will be other examples of Doug’s indispensable research.

Good research can make the difference between a successful leader and an also-ran. Good research provides knowledge, and knowledge is indeed power.

Photo source: House of Cards’ Facebook page