As Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard extraordinary scenes of the devastation were broadcast around the world. At the same time, social media went into overdrive with Facebook and Twitter suddenly deluged with harrowing stories and images of what was happening in New York and beyond. Pictures showed Ground Zero being flooded by sea water, a fairground carousel – seemingly still with its lights on – bobbing in the middle of the rising waters, the Statue of Liberty being pummeled by a gigantic wave and even sharks circling in the floods waters of New Jersey.
All were quickly emailed, shared and retweeted. But, as the hurricane passed, some people began to realise they had been duped. The picture of Ground Zero? Real. The picture of the fairground? Also real. But the shot of the Statue of Liberty and the sharks, along with others that showed everything from the storm building across Manhattan to soldiers bravely keeping guard at Arlington Cemetary’s Tomb of the Unknowns in the driving rain were fake…or at least were not what they purported to be.
So, how do you know whether the image you’re about to send to your friends, colleagues or followers is real or not? Chances are you’re not a photo forensics expert or that you don’t know how to tell the difference between a hurricane and a supercell thunderstorm. Tensions are high, conditions are dangerous, and many of the fake images aren’t even as scary as the real ones.
So, BBC Future has done the leg work for you. Here are five quick rules to keep you high and dry when it comes to sharing fake hurricane photos... or any other fake photo for that matter.
1. Trust your gut
If it looks fake, it's probably fake, says Theresa Collington, the Digital Director for WTSP.com who trains journalists to spot what she calls “Fauxtography.” Take a look at the image and think to yourself: Is this too good to be true? Is this too perfect a shot? Does this feel wrong?
If the photograph is truly amazing – like many of these breathtaking images – and it’s not on the front page of major news sources, pause for a second, Collington says. Most websites will snap up the perfect shot immediately. If it’s not there, perhaps it’s not real.
Natural disaster photos tend to spread quickly, Collington says, because people are scared, and fear tends to silence our inner sceptic. And a lot of photographs really are incredible. Images emerging of cars mostly submerged in Avenue C in Manhattan are real. Photographs of the battery tunnel, and several subway stations flooding are real. “There is a lot going on anyway that is unbelievable, so it's a time when people's sense of what is believable and what is unbelievable is dilated immensely.” Since your sense for what’s real or not might be compromised, take an extra second, she says, to do a gut check.
2. Look at the light
The hardest things to fake in a photograph are light, shadow and reflections, says Hany Farid, an expert in doctored images from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and founder of Fourandsix Technologies, Inc, a company dedicated to helping people detect fakes. However, a storm complicates things, he says. “The weather images are tricky, because one of the things we use is things like lighting and reflections and vanishing points, and those don't really exist in those images.” But sometimes the light can be a clue.