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How to Determine if an Image is Real

Suzy Woltmann Suzy Woltmann
6th July 2020
How to Determine if an Image is Real
Misbar can help you determine if news if real or fake (Getty Images)

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Have you ever seen a picture and wondered whether or not it is a real depiction of what someone claims it is? Misbar’s mission is to help its readers figure out the difference between real claims and those that are fake or otherwise misleading. Photoshop, Facetune, and other forms of picture editing software, as well as the use of false captions, often lull viewers into believing that an image they see is real. Using the tools below, though, you can discover when an image was first published online, if it has been edited, and any subsequent changes made to it and what it claims to show. 

To guide you through these steps, we are using an image circulating on social media that purports to show Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Representative Maxine Waters posing underneath a Trump 2020 campaign poster. Since both Pelosi and Waters are staunchly anti-Trump, the image seems to be unlikely.

1. Use Google’s reverse image search function.

A supporting image within the article body

      a. First, copy or download the image you want to check. You can also save the address of the specific image. If you save the web address, it has to be the URL of the image itself, not the website it is posted on.

      b. Go to images.google.com

      c. Click on “search by image.”

      d. If you copied the image, click paste. If you downloaded it, click choose from files. If you copied the URL, click paste image URL.

      e. Upload or paste the image or its URL.

      f. Click on “search by image.”

Google reverse image search results will include the websites that contain the image you’re searching for, images that are similar, and other versions of the image. Performing a reverse image search of the Pelosi picture on Google Images leads to several news sites claiming the picture is false, as well as the original image, taken in February 2018 and posted to Waters’ Twitter page. The original image, as well as several other fact-checking news sites’ posts, show that the doctored image is false.

2. Use TinEye, a free reverse-image search tool.

A supporting image within the article body

      a. Download the image you want to verify, or save the URL of the image.

      b. Go to www.tineye.com

      c. Click on “upload image.”

      d. Upload the image

      f. Look at the images discovered by TinEye and compare between the image you saved and the images they provide.

TinEye discovers various versions of the searched-for image: most changed, oldest, and newest. This allows you to use your critical thinking skills to navigate the space between the image you’re checking and how it originally appeared online. Searching for the doctored image of Pelosi and Waters and clicking on “search by oldest” shows that the original (undoctored) image was the one posted by Waters to Twitter.

3. Use FotoForensics, which relies on an algorithm to detect manipulated images through their compression levels.

A supporting image within the article body

      a. Save the image or its URL.

      b. Go to www.fotoforensics.com

      c. Upload the image or URL into the system.

      d. Analyze the image’s data based on FotoForensic’s many image detection tools: color adjustment, digest, ELA, expectations, hidden pixels, JPEG %, metadata, search, and service info.

FotoForensics points out parts of the image that the human eye usually cannot detect. This will allow you to see if an image has been manipulated.

4. There are other tools (Fake Image Detector, JPEGsnoop, Forensically, ImageEdited) that work in very similar ways.


Important questions to ask yourself when considering whether an image is real or fake include:

  1. Does it seem like the image is being used for a purpose that does not align with what you know about its contents?
  2. Does the image seem unlikely or unrealistic?
  3. When and where was the image first posted?
  4. Do the lighting, shading, and language of the image match what it claims to show?
  5. Is there distortion in the image? For example, many images posted to Instagram are distorted through FaceTune or similar apps. You can look at distortions between people and the objects around them.
  6. Using any of the above websites, reverse search the image and consider what you discover about its source, when it was originally posted, whether it has been modified, and so on. What does this tell you about the image?

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