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Consumers found to be skeptical of online photos

A study shows that the majority of consumers can tell when a photo has been photoshopped

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis explored consumers’ knowledge of online photographs: are they real or are they photoshopped?

Previous research had found that consumers were more likely to believe images were genuine if they came from a trusted, reliable source, or if they were liked or shared by friends or family. This new study, however, dismantles that idea and shows that consumers are more skeptical than ever about the images they see online.

“In the age of fake news and alternative facts, the risks and dangers associated with ill-intentioned individuals or groups easily routing forged visual information through computer and social networks to deceive, cause emotional distress, or to purposefully influence opinions, attitudes, and actions have never been more severe,” the authors reported.

Real or fake

To put consumers’ knowledge to the test, the researchers gathered six batches of fake images depicting a wide variety of issues and presented them to the participants as if they had been taken from the internet. The researchers either cropped, combined, altered, or changed each image to make it “fake.”

Each image was then crafted to be part of a mockup that the participants would have to identify as either real or fake. Some were made to look like they were from news sources like BBC, Fox News, or CNN. Others looked like emails or were presented as if they were taken from Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

The images were shown to over 3,000 participants ranging in age from 20 to 87 years old. Some of the issues depicted in the images included a bridge collapse, an animal that had been genetically modified to have a cat’s head and a mouse’s body, a same-sex couple and their family, and a war scene, among others.

Along with the image, the participant was also shown the interaction with it on social media -- how many likes, retweets, and favorites it received, and any news write-ups or commentary if it was a news-related piece. After looking at the image, the participants were asked to rank its credibility on a seven-point scale, with seven being the most credible and one being not credible at all.

Discerning credibility

The study found that the majority of participants were able to point out the fake images, regardless of the alleged source of the image, or who had posted/liked/shared it.

According to lead researcher Cuihua (Cindy) Shen, the team of researchers took into account the participants’ level of education -- most had earned a college degree -- as well as their demographics and experience with digital media.

“We found that participants’ internet skills, photo-editing experience, and social media use were significant predictors of image credibility evaluation,” says Shen. “The results show that participants, no matter how careless or distracted they may be, can still be discerning consumers of digital images.”

The full study was published in New Media & Society, and can be found here.

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