Doctoring Images to Deceive the Public

News Analysis by Gianna Leopoldi and Briana Bennett

Can you believe what a group of women wore to a Trump rally in North Carolina back in July 2019? In fact no, you can’t. According to an article at the News Literacy Project, this “I’m a racist” T-shirt image, widely circulated on Twitter in mid-September, is a phony—and it’s just one example of a widespread new phenomenon: Images of people in T-shirts where the slogan on the shirt has been deliberately edited to elicit emotional reactions.

The article allows you to link to both the original and the doctored images (shown above). Originally, the image showed a group of women wearing shirts that read “I’m a Trump Girl 2020″–which is what they were actually wearing. But on the left, their shirts have been edited to say “I’m a Racist 2020.” The intention seems to have been to mock Trump supporters and purposely worsen perceptions of them.

Although social media is a great way to connect the world, it is also a perfect place to deceive people who tend to trust photos they see as just that: actual, unretouched photos. Doctored images can easily illustrate a false narrative to fulfill a specific agenda.

In another example, shown below, Trump is called an “arrogant traitor scumbag” for comments that appear to have been quoted from a phone call with the Fox News morning program Fox and Friends. In reality, this was never said by Trump. It was inserted as text into a screenshot taken from the actual broadcast. It’s especially difficult to distinguish truth from lies when the faked version is made to look exactly like a well-known outlet. The public generally expects to find accurate quotations from President Trump at Fox News, since it’s one of the few outlets he regularly communicates with (even if the channel has a poor track record on context), so people may not second-guess an image that seems to come from that network. In this case, it’s not only the pictures being manipulated but the public, too. (Another confusing factor here is that many of Trump’s actual tweets do not read significantly differently in tone from this made-up quotation. The most insidious fakery often succeeds because it does not seem that unlikely.)

When people are passionate, they become easily excitable and less skeptical of falsified images that support their own views. It’s important that consumers don’t take everything they see online as fact without verifying it because it’s easy to base strong opinions on inaccuracies. 

Takeaway: Be immediately wary of any image you see online of someone wearing a provocative or offensive T-shirt. If you’re unsure whether an image you come across has been doctored, resources such as Google Images and TinEye can help with their photo search engines. Even though image doctoring is on the rise, so are new tools to combat these visual lies. It’s up to consumers to dismiss false information and form opinions based on truth.