Propaganda gets a boost from Photoshop.
In China this year, it was used to inflate the crowd at a patriotic event. In North Korea it multiplied the number of landing craft used during a 2013 military exercise. In 2008, in Iran, it made a four-missile launch appear successful when one of the rockets failed to lift off.
The ‘it’ in question is Photoshop, the best-known image editing software. Brought to market in 1990, it has made what was once the art of a few experts now accessible to all and has become a devious yet highly effective way of engaging in political propaganda, even generating false memories of events that never took place.
Images, if carefully altered and presented in appropriate circumstances, bypass the filter of reason, writes Cynthia Baron in her book Photoshop Forensics: Sleuths, Truths and Fauxtography. She further points out that: “Most successful attempts to mobilize for war depend at some point on raw emotion to galvanize the population.” This is a tendency that the advent of the digital era has only accentuated, however.
“I believe probably less than ten minutes that went by from the invention of photography to the point where people realized that they could lie with photographs,” documentary filmmaker Errol Morris said in an interview for Motherboard magazine.
Photomontages created for political purposes in fact predate Photoshop by quite a while. The most common examples of false images hail from Communist Russia, according to a document published by the University of Minnesota, which includes several photographs of Stalin from which the founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, and the head of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhof, were duly removed after being deemed “enemies of the people.”
While Photoshop has undoubtedly made it possible for anyone with a PC to create persuasive visual fakes, Mia Fineman, of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and curator of the exhibition Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, maintains that “photographers have always used whatever technical means were available to them to create the pictures they wanted to create.”
She also notes that the “ubiquity of image-processing software has made people more savvy and more sceptical. People are looking at images more attentively than ever… [and they] love pointing out egregious examples of ‘Photoslop’.” Still, the practice is not really all that widespread in view of the number of disinformation campaigns based on artistically manipulated images that go viral on social networks.
The purposes of these campaigns are many, ranging from political propaganda to the dissemination of conspiracy theories on energy, drugs and the environment. One amusing – if false – photo of a squid the size of a football field was posted as proof of the supposed animal gigantism caused by Fukushima radiation, apparently with Godzilla in mind.
At times the manipulations are not so obvious. Many photos reprinted by leading newspapers have been withdrawn after the fact by the press agencies that first distributed them. One example is the image of the Iranian missile launch mentioned above: it appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times and on the BBC website before it was recalled the following day by the Agence France-Presse (AFP). Even the winning photograph in the “Places” category of the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest was disqualified once it was found to have been altered – after it had won. There is software available that helps experts uncover manipulations. “They use algorithms to analyse alterations in jpeg files [digital photographs],” Eric Baradat of the AFP told East. “They are not in any case capable of replacing the eye or the experience of humans, all they do is help us analyse suspicious images, those published by certain government agencies, for example.”
Cynthia Baron explains which characteristics should set off alarm bells. First, the source: if it is anonymous or cannot be traced, its veracity is dubious. Quality is another element: falsifications are usually based on low-resolution images found on the Internet, and are rarely large-format (saved on a hard disk they only “weigh” a few hundred kilobytes instead of the megabytes of the originals).
Another factor to consider is what the person or group publishing the document has to gain: if the photo is ‘overly’ biased in favour of those publishing it, it may have been created intentionally. Finally, if the image is in some way “too good to be true,” then it may well not be. To Baron, this is the most dangerous trap of all, because it’s easy to believe in something that essentially confirms our previously held beliefs. Disinformation only requires the alteration of a few, potentially innocent details. This doesn’t mean that every manipulation is a work of propaganda, Baron is careful to point out. But it certainly makes it harder to perceive where reality’s true borders lie.