The year was a memorable one – looking back at the unforgettable images over the past 12 months, you might think of apocalyptic-looking clouds over Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, or Mitt Romney’s children mistakenly standing in a line spelling out the word “MONEY”, or even the winning US Powerball lottery ticket that became the most shared picture on Facebook. There’s only one problem. All these images are fake.
It would be fine if we could dismiss these images as a fleeting joke, an amusing but harmless tidbit shared among our friends and followers, if it weren’t for the fact that our minds appear to have a curious but fundamental glitch. People tend to think of their memories as a transcript, a rough history of events from some early age until the very moment they are experiencing. But human memory is far more like a desert mirage than a transcript – as we recall the past we are really just making meaning out of the flickering patterns of sights, smells and sounds we think we remember.
For decades, researchers have been exploring just how unreliable our own memories are. Not only is memory fickle when we access it, but it's also quite easily subverted and rewritten. Combine this susceptibility with modern image-editing software at our fingertips like Photoshop, and it's a recipe for disaster. In a world where we can witness news and world events as they unfold, fake images surround us, and our minds accept these pictures as real, and remember them later. These fake memories don't just distort how we see our past, they affect our current and future behaviour too – from what we eat, to how we protest and vote. The problem is there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop it.
Old memories seem to be the easiest to manipulate. In one study, subjects were showed images from their childhood. Along with real images, researchers snuck in doctored photographs of the subject taking a hot-air balloon ride with his or her family. After seeing those images, 50% of subjects recalled some part of that hot air balloon ride – though the event was entirely made up.
In another experiment by Elizabeth Loftus, one of the pioneer researchers in the field of altered memories, researchers showed people advertising material for Disneyland that described one visitor shaking hands with Bugs Bunny. After reading the story, about a third of the participants said they remembered meeting or shaking hands with Bugs Bunny when they had visited Disneyland. But Bugs Bunny doesn't live in Disneyland – he's a Warner Brothers character. None of those people had ever met Bugs, but seeing images of him and reading the story made them remember something entirely fabricated.
Childhood memories may be the easiest to manipulate, but recent, adult memories are at risk too. In one experiment, researchers asked participants to take part in a gambling task alongside a partner. When they came back for the second part of the experiment, they were shown doctored footage of their partner cheating. Despite not actually having seen their partner cheat, 20% of participants were willing to sign a witness statement saying that they had. Even after being told that the footage was doctored, participants sometimes recalled the cheating that never happened. “They say things like ‘I remember seeing it, I saw them taking too much money’,” says Kimberly Wade, a memory researcher from the University of Warwick, who carried out the study.
Of course, people aren’t walking around doctoring false images of your childhood or your recent past, but you've probably seen thousands of doctored photographs in your lifetime without you knowing it. From advertisements to political campaigns, altered and faked images surround us every day. Restaurants make their food look more appetising, magazines make their models skinnier and blemish free, colleges and politicians splice people into photographs to make their students and crowds look more diverse.
In political campaigns especially, faked images show up again and again. In one famous photograph that surfaced during the 2004 US election campaign, Senator John Kerry is sitting next to Jane Fonda, with the caption explaining that both Kerry and Fonda were at a Vietnam war protest. The New York Times cited the image, and many anti-Kerry blogs and sites displayed it prominently. The problem is, the photograph is a fake. John Kerry and Jane Fonda were never at any anti-war protest together – someone had combined two different photographs.