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This fake photo has been around since at least 2011. The real shot of the shark was taken off the coast of South Africa in 2005.

THOMAS P. PESCHAK/National Geographic Creative (real); via Twitter (fake)

When Photos Lie

Fake images are tricking countless people online. Here’s why that matters—and what you can do to avoid getting fooled.

The photo pops up on-screen and your eyes nearly pop out of your head. Is that . . . a great white shark swimming on a flooded highway? The person who posted the photo says it was taken after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas in August 2017.

You gasp and immediately share the picture with your friends. But guess what? You’ve just fallen for a hoax. Someone used photo-editing software to combine a picture of the fearsome creature with one of an empty, flooded road.

The phony shark photo often goes viral after big storms, and hundreds of thousands of people have liked or shared it. It’s just one example of a growing problem online: fake photos.

The photo pops up on-screen. Your eyes nearly pop out of your head. Is that . . . a great white shark swimming on a flooded highway? The person who posted the photo says it was taken after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas in August 2017.

You gasp. You immediately share the picture with your friends. But guess what? You’ve just fallen for a hoax. Someone used photo-editing software. They combined a picture of the fearsome creature with one of an empty, flooded road.

The phony shark photo often goes viral after big storms. Hundreds of thousands of people have liked or shared it. It’s just one example of a growing problem online: fake photos. 

The Power of Pictures

You’ve probably heard the term “fake news”—articles that are made to look like real news but are actually partly or completely made up. Each day, countless fake articles get passed around on social media.

Like made-up news, phony photos can make people believe things that aren’t true. And experts say they can be even more powerful than fake articles because we often believe what we see more than what we read.

You’ve probably heard the term “fake news”—articles that are made to look like real news but are actually partly or completely made up. Each day, countless fake articles get passed around on social media.

Like made-up news, phony photos can make people believe things that aren’t true. And experts say they can be even more powerful than fake articles. That’s because we often believe what we see more than what we read. 

What's the Harm?

Most fake photos are pretty harmless­. People often create them to get a laugh or a lot of likes on social media. Maybe they want to trick friends into thinking they own a 200-pound cat or that Taylor Swift came to their birthday party.

But others do it for a more serious purpose: to spread lies. Many fake photos are meant to make political leaders look bad. Others are related to issues that people have strong opinions about, such as immigration. The images are often designed to make people upset. The goal is to influence the way people think or even how they vote.

“With the right image and the right headline, you can really manipulate people’s emotions and make them believe all sorts of things,” says John Silva. He works for the News Literacy Project, which helps students learn to find reliable news sources.

Most fake photos are pretty harmless. People often create them to get a laugh or a lot of likes on social media. Maybe they want to trick friends into thinking they own a 200-pound cat or that Taylor Swift came to their birthday party.

But others do it for a more serious purpose: to spread lies. Many fake photos are meant to make political leaders look bad. Others are related to issues that people have strong opinions about, such as immigration. The images are often designed to make people upset. The goal is to influence the way people think. It can even be to influence how they vote.

“With the right image and the right headline, you can really manipulate people’s emotions and make them believe all sorts of things,” says John Silva. He works for the News Literacy Project. The organization helps students learn to find reliable news sources.

Stop the Spread

A click or a tap. That’s all it takes to put a fake photo online. But once it starts spreading, it can be hard to stop. Experts say the more likes and shares a photo racks up, the more likely we are to think it’s real. And when we believe what we’re seeing, we’ll share the photo too. But, Silva says, when we share fake images, we contribute to the problem.

So how can you help stop the spread of fake photos? According to Silva, the key is to be skeptical. If an image seems unbelievable, that’s a warning sign that it might not be real.

“If something doesn’t look right, take a step back,” says Silva, “and start asking questions.”

A click or a tap. That’s all it takes to put a fake photo online. But once it starts spreading, it can be hard to stop. Experts say the more likes and shares a photo racks up, the more likely we are to think it’s real. And when we believe what we’re seeing, we’ll share the photo too. But, Silva says, when we share fake images, we contribute to the problem.

So how can you help stop the spread of fake photos? According to Silva, the key is to be skeptical. If an image seems unbelievable, that’s a warning sign. It might not be real.

“If something doesn’t look right, take a step back,” says Silva, “and start asking questions.”

martinedoucet/Getty Images (bus); gillmar/Shutterstock.com (standing polar bear); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (polar bear); kate_sept2004/Getty Images (profile photo)

1. How do the photos on page 2 help you understand the article’s first two paragraphs?

2. How are fake photos similar to fake news? How are they different?

3. Summarize why some people create fake photos.

4. Explain why you should be skeptical about the photo in the sidebar “Don’t Fall for a Fake”?

1. How do the photos on page 2 help you understand the article’s first two paragraphs?

2. How are fake photos similar to fake news? How are they different?

3. Summarize why some people create fake photos.

4. Explain why you should be skeptical about the photo in the sidebar “Don’t Fall for a Fake”?

Close-Reading Questions

Click the Google Quiz button below to share these Close-Reading Questions with your class.

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