Except that the photo at issue is of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, someone Obama never met. Had he done so, it would have been significant news, nearly as significant as President Trump’s various meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Casual observers would be forgiven for not knowing all of this, much less who the person standing next to Obama happened to be. Most Americans couldn’t identify the current prime minister of India in a New York Times survey; the odds they would recognize the president of Iran seem low.
Again, though, there are obvious problems with the photo that should jump out quickly. There’s that odd, smeared star on the left-most American flag (identified as A in the graphic above). There’s Rouhani’s oddly short forearm (B). And then that big blotch of color between the two presidents (C), a weird pinkish-brown blob of unexpected uniformity.
Each of those glitches reflects where the original image — a 2011 photo of Obama with then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — was modified. The truncated star was obscured by Singh’s turban. The blotch of color is an attempt to remove the circle from the middle of the Indian flag behind the leaders. The weird forearm is a function of the slightly different postures and sizes of the Indian and Iranian leaders.
Compared with the original, the difference is obvious. What it takes, of course, is looking.
Tools exist to determine whether a photo has been altered. It’s often more art than science, involving a range of probability more than a certain final answer. University of California at Berkeley professor Hany Farid has written a book about detecting fake images and shared quick tips with The Washington Post.
- Reverse image search. Save the photo to your computer and then drop it into Google Image Search. You’ll quickly see where it might have appeared before, useful if an image purports to be over a breaking news event. Or it might show sites that have debunked it.
- Check fact-checking sites. This can be a useful tool by itself. Images of political significance have a habit of floating around for a while, deployed for various purposes. The fake Obama-Rouhani image, for example, has been around since at least 2015 — when it appeared in a video created by a political action committee supporting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
- Know what’s hard to fake. In an article for Fast Company, Farid noted that some things, like complicated physical interactions, are harder to fake than photos of people standing side by side. Backgrounds are also often tricky; it’s hard to remove something from an image while accurately re-creating what the scene behind them would have looked like. (It’s not a coincidence that both the physical interaction and background of the “Rouhani” photo were clues that it was fake.)
But, again, you have to care that you’re passing along a fake photo. Gosar didn’t. Presented with the image’s inaccuracy by a reporter from the Intercept, Gosar replied via tweet that “no one said this wasn’t photoshopped.”
“No one said the president of Iran was dead. No one said Obama met with Rouhani in person,” Gosar wrote to the “dim witted reporter.” “The point remains to all but the dimmest: Obama coddled, appeased, nurtured and protected the worlds No. 1 sponsor of terror.”
As an argument, that may be evaluated on the merits. It is clearly the case, though, that Gosar had no qualms about sharing an edited image. He recognizes, in fact, that the photo is a lure for the point he wanted to make: Obama is bad.
That brings us to a more important point, one that demands a large-type introduction.
The Big Problem with social media
There exists a concept in social psychology called the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” You’ve probably heard of it; it’s a remarkable lens through which to consider a lot of what happens in American culture, including, specifically, politics and social media.
The idea is this: People who don’t know much about a subject necessarily don’t know how little they know. How could they? So after learning a little bit about the topic, there’s a sudden confidence that arises. Now knowing more than nothing and not knowing how little of the subject they know, people can feel as though they have some expertise. And then they offer it, even while dismissing actual experts.
“Their deficits leave them with a double burden,” David Dunning wrote in 2011 about the effect, named in part after his research. “Not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes, but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.”
The effect is often depicted in a graph like this. You learn a bit and feel more confident talking about it — and that increases and increases until, in a flash, you realize that there’s a lot more to it than you thought. Call it the “oh, wait” moment. Confidence plunges, slowly rebuilding as you learn more, and learn more about what you don’t know. This affects all of us, myself included.
Dunning’s effect is apparent on Twitter all the time. Here’s an example from this week, in which the “oh, wait” moment comes at the hands of an actual expert.
One value proposition for social media (and the Internet more broadly) is that this sort of Marshall-McLuhan-in-“Annie-Hall” moment can happen. People can inform themselves about reality, challenge themselves by accessing the vast scope of human knowledge and even be confronted directly by those in positions of expertise.
In reality, though, the effect of social media is often to create a chorus of people who are at the similar, overconfident point in the Dunning-Kruger curve. Another value of the Internet is in its ability to create ad hoc like-minded communities, but that also means it can convene like-minded groups of wrong-minded opinions. It’s awfully hard to feel chastened or uninformed when there are any number of other people who vocally share your view. (Why, one could fill hours on a major cable-news network simply by filling panels with people on the dashed-line part of the graph above!)
The Internet facilitates ignorance as readily as it does knowledge. It allows us to build reinforcements around our errors. It allows us to share a fake image and wave away concerns because the target of the image is a shared enemy for your in-group. Or, simply, to accept a faked image as real because you’re either unaware of obvious signs of fakery or unaware of the unlikely geopolitics that surround its implications.
I asked Farid, the fake-photo expert, how normal people lingering at the edge of an “oh, wait” moment might avoid sharing altered images.
“Slow down!” he replied. “Understand that most fake news/images/videos are designed to be sensational or outrageous and get you to respond quickly, before you’ve had a time to think. When you find yourself reacting viscerally, take a breath, slow down, and don’t be so quick to share/like/retweet.”
Unless, of course, your goals are both to be sensational and to get retweets. In that case, go ahead and share the image. You can always rationalize it later.