People Are Bad at Spotting Fake Photos

Recently, a fake photo of a baby girl with a sparkly piercing in a dimple on her cheek went viral and incited outrage from many who assumed the photo was real. Now, a new study shows why doctored images can fool so many: People really aren’t very good at telling real images from fake ones.

In the study, people who were shown a number of real and fake images spotted the fake photos about 60 percent of the time, which is only a little bit above the 50 percent accuracy rate that would be expected by chance. What’s more, when people were asked to specifically pinpoint what they thought was wrong with the photo, they correctly located the doctored portion of the photo only 45 percent of the time.

“Our study found that although people performed better than chance at detecting and locating image manipulations, they are far from perfect,” Sophie Nightingale, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Warwick in England and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This has serious implications because of the high level of images, and possibly fake images, that people are exposed to on a daily basis through social networking sites, the internet and the media,” Nightingale said.

For the study, the researchers started with 10 original photos depicting people in real-world scenes, like a man standing in a street or a biker posing by the Golden Gate Bridge. Then, the researchers doctored the images in various ways, creating a photo bank of 30 fake photos and 10 real ones. [Faux Real: A Gallery of Forgeries]

To doctor the photos, the researchers made some physically implausible changes — such as changing the direction of a shadow or distorting the angles of buildings — as well as physically plausible changes, such as airbrushing a person’s appearance.

On the left, an example of an original, undoctored photo used in the study. On the right, an example of a photo that has been manipulated in various ways, including…

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