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Fake Pictures In Our Digital Age: Which 50% Do You Fall Into?

A study published in 2001 by researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and University of Victoria in Canada found that false (digitally manipulated) photographs could create false childhood memories in test subjects. In that test, the subjects’ images were digitally inserted into photographs of hot air balloon rides and 50% of the subjects created complete or partial false memories of actually having been in those rides.

There have been many articles written on how false memories can be created and how they can negatively affect people. These have clinical and legal bearings because some witnesses to a crime can be implanted with false memories (through questioning or being shown fake pictures) about events that may never have happened or happened differently, and of seeing an accused who may not have been at the scene of the event.

But what about all those fake photos on social media sites?

In the movie “Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu” (1973) (translated as “Where there’s smoke, there is fire” but it is not the same as the English movie with that title), an election campaign becomes more interesting when anonymously published photographs depict the wife of a candidate attending a sex party. The wife assures her husband that the pictures are false and he believes her. The police is called and photo experts get involved. They enlarge the images by projecting them onto walls and meticulously examine the edges of the neck to determine if the head of the wife has been overlaid onto the body of someone else. The doctored images are of such high quality that they are not able to debunk them as fakes. The wife (and others) starts to wonder if she really did participate but has somehow forgotten.

Of course, we have contemporary examples of politicians and a news anchor claiming to have participated in events where other witnesses contradicted their accounts of these events–and they have claimed to have simply misspoken or have used the “false memory” defense, rightly or wrongly.

Then, and much more today, image-manipulation techniques are widely available and easy to use. “Healing” and “Cloning” tools easily doctor up an image, removing or adding a subject or a piece of conviction to an image. We are constantly bombarded with digitally-enhanced images, especially on social media sites, and including on photographer’s sites. Most photos are usually improved with some judiciously applied post-processing in an image editing software. A photographer is also free to digitally enhance a picture and even to manipulate it by combining different photos to create a piece of Art.

However, pictures digitally manipulated to deceive are usually frowned upon, especially if they purport to report news events accurately. Photo contests may or may not accept digitally manipulated images; you need to read their rules carefully. When we come to magazines and social media, a picture is worth a thousand lies. It’s not only the major music and movie celebrities on magazine and CD covers who are given the digital make-over, even minor social media celebrities regularly indulge in this art of deception.

Although we sometimes doctor personal photos for pure entertainment, the research done above shows that exposure to altered photos can lead to false memories, especially in children. This can create a false sense of reality in our kids, so think carefully before creating fake family photos.

Children are also voracious consumers of social media videos and photos. Carried too far, doctored photos and videos can lead to bullying, with disastrous mental-health consequences.

The following video from anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label is worth sharing with your kids and those friends who may be a little bit too impressed by social media personalities:

I didn’t fall for any of the fake photos in the video… except for the clean desk!!! Do fake photos affect you negatively? So many times I have seen photos of minimally clean desk and felt guilty about my own desk! I feel MUCH better now.