If fish could fly…(on fake news, again)

During a call-in to TRT World with anchor Ayça Aydoğdu, I mentioned an example of fake news which still baffles me as to how it duped anyone.

There was no time to go into detail or show the offending image on live on air, so let’s take a look at it now.

Back in June, an unlikely story was published on some newspaper/tabloid websites: a freak storm in China had caused waterspouts which apparently sent sea creatures hurtling through the sky and onto people’s cars.

Now, a few of the photos included in the article look genuine and realistic. A rainy scene, a wet windshield and small sea creatures. I can accept that, lightly, because the creatures are small enough to be transported by high winds and the wet conditions on the car seem to match the reported stormy conditions. The veracity of time and location of the photos is being taken for granted in this case and are as yet unverified.

BUT, none of that matters because the hero image of the article is this masterpiece of deceit / failure of image manipulation:

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The caption reads This octopus was sent flying through the sky thanks to the storm (Picture: AsiaWire).

I’m amazed, nay, flabbergasted that this caught out so many people.

Let’s take 60 seconds to evaluate it, it’s all you need.

The story is about a storm, so we expect to see rain. Checks out. It’s raining on the windshield, which is causing distortion to everything beyond the windshield. But, my oh my, the octopus appears as an unblemished, perfect silhouette (alarm bell #1, really the only one you need in this case).

Even the colour of the octopus is just so uniform. Few things in life are like this, especially in a storm (alarm bell #2, bonus alarm bell). It almost, ALMOST (totally) looks like an illustration.

So, hey, how about we do a quick search for “octopus silhouette”?

BLAHM, here is the octopus falling from the sky:

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When something is too incredible and dumbfounding to be true, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t, but just pause for 60 seconds and take in what you’re looking at.

You don’t have to be a Photoshop user to realise when an image has been altered (case in point, the Paris Hilton t-shirt example I discussed in my TEDx talk).

We can’t stop people from willfully creating images and stories for the sole purpose of deceiving people, but we can stop those “creations” from spreading.

Think of it as a nasty cold.

Viruses exist, but hey, if you cover your mouth when you sneeze, you’ll stop the spread (although seriously you should sneeze into your elbow if you REALLY don’t want to stop the spread).

Fake news fighting tools:

  • Google reverse image search: upload an image and let Google find where else it has been used (to verify context, time, etc).
  • Snopes.com: it will debunk all kinds of stuff, from politicians’ claims to news stories and Twitter posts.
  • FactCheck by Channel 4 News: similar to above, created by the well-respected Channel 4 News team in the UK.
  • Full Fact: UK version of Snopes.

There are so many more, guys. No excuses.

Stop the virus. Stop the spread. Take 60 seconds. (This metaphor/motto needs work.)

(This article was also published on Medium.)