How fake viral photos manipulate your emotions

By Jeremy Wilson

Last week a moving photo titled “In Syria, sleeping between his parents” was posted on the popular social news site reddit. Its depiction of a child sleeping between the graves of his recently-deceased parents struck a strong emotional chord that propelled it to the front page of the site.

The comments under the picture revealed the different ways it was affecting its viewers. Many felt it was an important reminder that the horrors of war should be brought to our attention.

“It’s pictures like this one that bring home to me how little concepts like ‘patriotism’ or ‘credibility’ have to do with the reality of war.”

The picture had been lifted from the photographer, Abdul Aziz Al-Otaibi’s Instagram account

“You know what? Pictures and videos of raw, unedited war footage should be playing on our nightly news for everyone to see and be subjected to. Maybe then people will see how shitty it is.”

And others felt that it was a good reminder to check their privilege.

“Reminds me of when Louis CK talks about how privileged the West is. We get to decide when we want to show our kids how shitty the world is. Like this kid, he doesn’t get to decide.”

The only problem was that the piles of stones were just that, piles of stones. The picture was staged as part of a Saudi Arabian photographer’s art project and the “orphan” it depicted is his nephew. The picture had been lifted from the photographer, Abdul Aziz Al-Otaibi’s Instagram account, a quick visit to which shows his nephew in a happier pose.

But the picture’s appearance on reddit is only half the story. The Twitter account of American Muslim convert @americanbadu published the picture along with the fake Syria attribution and with 187 thousand followers the results were predictable. Over the next 24 hours the picture went viral on social media.

Al-Otaibi contacted @americanbadu via Direct Message asking him to correct his description of the photo. @americanbadu’s replied as only a religious fanatic can.

“Why don’t you just let go and claim it is a picture from Syria and gain a reward from God. You are exaggerating.”

Fake pictures designed to fool the public are nothing new

From the dawn of email, fake images and stories have swirled around the internet. Social media has only served to expedite the process, with pictures depicting things as diverse as war and beautiful landscapes being altered and circulated every day. Millions of eyeballs can be tweaked by simply altering the attribution on a photo.

Fake pictures designed to fool the public are nothing new. In 1917 two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths made some cardboard cutouts of fairies and took photos of them at the bottom of their garden. The pictures ended up being used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to illustrate an article in The Strand Magazine in which he tried to convince the public of his belief in fairies.

How could the author of Sherlock Holmes have been fooled? The explanation offered by one of the girls who took the photo some 60 years later is just as relevant today as it was back then, “they wanted to be taken in”.

Old school Photoshop

Shoddy depictions of what people want to believe have become a staple for fake viral images. There were countless reasons why the famous image of “Tourist Guy” posing for a snap on top of the twin towers on 9/11 couldn’t be real and yet people wanted to believe such an incredible picture could have been taken.

The ‘Tourist Guy’

It’s a phenomenon that’s starting to happen every time there’s a natural disaster. People know that extraordinary pictures are possible and they want to see these extraordinary pictures, so they don’t question when they see the picture they want to see. Hurricane Sandy saw this happen on a spectacular scale.

picture 7

A more underhand way of manipulating images is, as in the case of Al-Otaibi’s photo, misattributing an image. Tell people what they want the image to be and they will believe it.

This visualisation of the usage of Twitter (blue) and Flickr (orange) is beautiful but the subject matter is kind of dull. Turn it into a “nighttime photo” and you have a winner.

The rumour debunking site Snopes is one of the most popular sites on the internet and most users will have found themselves browsing its objective verdicts on mislabelled, manipulated and misused viral content. The hallmarks of fake content are there for all to see: lack of specific information regarding names, dates and location. We know the realities, so how do we still swallow the unsourced stories behind pictures like that of the Syrian orphan?

It’s the same motifs that have propagated legends for centuries that drives this continued cycle of fake content. We are compelled by things that tease our emotions: fear, awe, tragedy and humour and we often choose to sate these emotions at the expense of reality. Perhaps it’s all harmless when it comes to fairies and fake clouds, but when opinions that could shape future wars are at stake, we must do better.