News Lit Tips

Doctored images put words in people’s mouths (and on their shirts)

“This Shirt Says It All!” one Twitter user wrote in October 2017 about a viral photo of NBA star LeBron James in a graphic T-shirt.

Well, no, in fact, it didn’t. The message on the shirt had been manipulated. What is accurate was the headline on the PunditFact article that fact-checked the image: “Fake photo changes social message on LeBron James’ t-shirt.”

Both messages, altered and original, were commentaries about perceptions of the treatment of Black Americans. The altered message said, “We march, y’all mad. We sit down, y’all mad. We speak up, y’all mad. We die, y’all silent.” The original message (included in the PunditFact fact-check) was “I can’t breathe” — the final words of Eric Garner, a New York City man who died as the result of an illegal police chokehold in July 2014.

Words can be seamlessly changed in other photos, too. Take the photo of cosmologist Carl Sagan holding a sign that warned against placing billboards in space. If that sounds ridiculous, your news literacy Spidey sense is right: The sign Sagan held in unaltered photos was a pictorial “message from Earth” included in spacecraft sent out in the early 1970s.

And according to Snopes, the most recent dissemination of the anti-billboards image, which first gained traction around 2010, was a statement by someone (not Sagan, who died in 1996) who saw the 2018 launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket as a commercial ploy by its funder, Elon Musk. (That said, Sagan did describe as “an abomination” a 1993 plan by a company in Roswell, Georgia, to place a giant billboard in orbit in time for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.)

Digitally replacing letters in photos online is, unfortunately, easy to do — the equivalent of putting words in their mouths (or on their posters or shirts). Fortunately, being aware of the fact that such manipulation is possible means that you might question the accuracy of photos. When in doubt, do a reverse image search. And always consider the credibility of your sources!