OPINION: Fool me once, shame on me, but fake photos, shame on you

Apr 18, 2024 | OP-ED, Opinion

Understanding photo manipulation is one rabbit hole I was not prepared to climb down.

But when the Mother’s Day photo of Kate Middleton with her three children sparked Photoshop debates, I sought out to understand the impact of photo manipulation, especially on media organizations.

When the photo was found to be doctored, Kensington Palace acknowledged it with a tweet signed by Kate, but by then, trust had been breached.

A breach of trust between journalists and a place of authority is not to be sidelined. For journalists, trust is a currency that holds great value.

News syndications such as Reuters, AFP and AP, had used the photo and then recalled it from circulation.

Professor Kevin Brandon with Humber’s Faculty of Media and Creative Arts helped me understand the gravity of the distrust these incidents could propel.

“If Kensington Palace puts out another photo, are people going to be looking at it more closely before they post it? You have eroded trust between journalists and the Kensington Palace. How much time do you have to go authenticate everything? And when you find out something is not authentic, then what happens?” Brandon asked.

More recently and closer home, the “Can’t afford to pay” campaign by TTC was edited and circulated on social media with a tagline that said “not our problem.” TTC issued a clarification with the original photos.

To me, a regular TTC user, this appeared to be rude. But I knew that not everything on social media could be trusted.

Brandon shared some advice to verify photos.

“Always check the source where the photos came from,” he says. “One of the things that’s happening in terms of a non-profit collaborative idea between a number of companies is the Content Authenticity Initiative.

“It doesn’t tell me exactly what was used but just that this image had some AI. It’s a start,” he said.

But there’s a catch here. Even with tools like these, it could be difficult to verify the photo if the original photo didn’t have its content credentials stored on a cloud.

Right now, it looks like we are trying to catch up with photo manipulation technologies. Some of the risks can be forecast and mitigated but we can’t foresee how people will use the technology.

“We always bring the technology out first and then put the rules around it. Even if we foresee it, how do we stop it?” Brandon asked.

If a company like Apple brings out a holograph of its late founder Steve Jobs at the next iPhone launch, I would definitely know technology is at play. But if a photo of Kate Middleton is doctored, or a TTC campaign is altered, how do I even begin to plant that seed of speculation to check it?

That’s where a universal digital library of data files comes into the picture, don’t mind the pun.

These data signatures in the files would record that the photos have been modified. But, should a universal policy like this be made mandatory? Should every photographer or photo agency be made to upload these content credentials?

Until the guidelines are agreed upon, we should regard all images online with a lens of scrutiny.