edited eye image

Don’t believe what you see – digging deeper for the truth

Feature image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

We live in a world that is mediated by technology. Every morning we wake up and check our phone for the latest news and updates from friends. We make a cup of coffee and sit down in front of a screen to catch up on our emails. We chill out in the evenings watching streamed entertainment. We even enjoy concerts and holidays through the lens of our phone as we record every second.

concert filmed on phone
Image by Atarythm from Pixabay

I read an article this morning published on The Conversation that concerned me. Entitled Identifying a fake picture online is harder than you might think, it described some research undertaken which intended to investigate how people evaluate the credibility of images which illustrate online stories.

The research topic is one that is of great interest to me. As a librarian and educator, I am deeply interested in how we are educating ourselves and our students in digital and information literacy, and the assessment of credibility in online information is an important aspect of this. When 47% of 17-21 year olds’ main source of news is social media, and 54% of the global population seek their news through these channels, it is particularly important that individuals have the capacity to critically assess the credibility of items which they consume and share with others.

What concerned me about this research was the finding that

the main factors that determined whether a person could correctly perceive each image as a fake were their level of experience with the internet and digital photography (Kasra, 2019 para 16).

Other factors included the credibility of the source (i.e. New York Times (considered a trustworthy source) vs Buzzfeed (considered a less trustworthy source)),  the trustworthiness of the intermediary who shared the information (was it straight from a News site, or posted by a friend of a friend) and Bandwagon (the number of likes or retweets of the item, often used as an indicator of reliability…surely that many people couldn’t have been duped?).

Although these were considered by many of the participants, practice in viewing images and an understanding of how they may be manipulated were the greatest determining factors of credibility. People still believe their eyes, even though it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘see’ the truth.

Image manipulation technology is evolving rapidly, and radically altering the appearance of a digital image is possible nowadays with a tap on a screen. Inbuilt image editing in camera applications on phones and augmented reality filters on social networking sites like Snapchat make it easy to create a visual that may not exist in real life.

It is clear that we can no longer believe our own eyes when it comes to images shared digitally.
Therefore it is even more vital that we employ a range of additional strategies to evaluate the credibility of images (and increasingly, videos), and encourage others to do the same.

What are these strategies? One of the most recently revised models comes from Mike Caulfield, who suggests that we SIFT information for credibility and quality.  Please read his article for more information, but briefly, SIFT stands for:


Investigate the source

Find more coverage

Trace to the original source.

It was reference to these or similar steps that I was looking for and disappointed to find absent in the Conversation article.  We can no longer believe our eyes, and neither can we afford to simply rely on previous tricks such as looking for shadows or differences in the light within photos to assess their authenticity. When we are scrolling through our social media streams, it can be so easy to hit the share button when something looks true, but we need to resist this urge.

The people within schools who are trained experts in this area of information and digital literacy are teacher librarians. This is one more reason (amid the myriad) why we must have a qualified teacher librarian in every school, to assist teachers and students in developing their SIFTing CRAP detection skills. Students need school  libraries! Next month, I am excited to be presenting to a group of school library staff on the topic of information literacy and evaluation of online information, so stay tuned for further resources which I will be sharing in a future post!

In the meantime, I would also like to recommend this excellent article by Hany Farid which explores specific images to identify fake images. Key message – always be wary of incredible shark photos!

I am interested though: how do you engage with evaluation of online information? What does your school do to teach this important literacy? Do you have any interesting or effective strategies you would like to share? Shout out in the comments; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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