Spreading Fake News

J K ROWLING RECENTLY apologised for a tweet in which she had criticised Donald Trump for apparently deliberately ignoring a disabled child’s attempts to shake his hand during a visit to the White House. The enraged author had tweeted, “Trump imitated a disabled reporter. Now he pretends not to see a child in a wheelchair, as though frightened he might catch his condition. This monster of narcissism values only himself and his pale reflections. The disabled, minorities, transgender people, the poor, women (unless related to him by ties of blood, and therefore his creations) are treated with contempt, because they do not resemble Trump.”

The boy’s mother then made it clear that in fact the president had not snubbed the boy and Rowling found herself on the receiving end of much criticism. She responded by apologising as follows, “Multiple sources have informed me that that was not a full or accurate representation of their interaction. I very clearly projected my own sensitivities around the issue of disabled people being overlooked or ignored onto the images I saw and if that caused any distress to the boy or his family, I apologise unreservedly.” Note that Rowling pointedly did not apologise to President Trump himself, of whom, it is believed, she is not a great fan. Even so, it cannot have been easy for Rowling to so publicly eat humble pie and take back her accusation having learned that it was untrue. I greatly respect her for doing so and only wish that others, upon learning that they had helped to spread fake news, would react in the same way – not least, of course, President Trump himself.

I know from my own experience that it is frighteningly easy to retweet fake news that chimes with one’s preconceptions. As it happens, I share J K Rowling’s attitudes towards the US President. Thus, when I recently saw a tweet which implied that he had expressed the view that “nobody knows how balloons work” it seemed momentarily plausible to me that the famously scientifically illiterate @POTUS may indeed have expressed such a claim. I retweeted. It was quickly pointed out me by other Twitter users that this was fake news and I tweeted that this was the case as soon as I could. Even so, inevitably lots of my followers retweeted my original inaccurate retweet – and every time they did, I felt very guilty.

I had committed the same sin a few months earlier in retweeting an image that implied that Theresa May had once held some very bigoted views with respect to the LGBT community. That idea chimed with my idea of the kind of person our prime minister is. Now, I actually don’t know what Mrs May’s views are on such matters, but I was quickly informed that the tweet that I had foolishly retweeted was fake. Of course, I should have realised this in the first place. One simple test that I had failed to apply was to ask myself one very simple question: If this news was true, wouldn’t we already know about it? Of course, with breaking news stories that test would not work, but this was supposed to be a story about her views from many years ago.

These days it is very difficult to decide whether an image on the internet is real or doctored simply by looking at it. This was demonstrated empirically in a recent study by researchers at the University of Warwick (Nightingale, Wade, & Watson, 2017). Over 700 volunteers attempted to say whether images presented online were originals or had been manipulated in some way (e.g., by adding objects in or removing them, or by introducing inconsistency in shadows). The overall result was that, although respondents showed some ability to spot fakes, it was very limited.

It has never been the case that “the camera never lies” (as psychical researchers should know) but it has never been more untrue than it is today when relatively cheap software can allow those with the inclination to create fake images that are very convincing. I recall on one occasion appearing on daytime TV to provide a sceptical perspective on a number of ghost photos sent in by viewers. With respect to one particular image, I waxed lyrical and convincingly regarding the phenomenon of pareidolia which can lead to the illusory perception of faces in random patterns of light and shade – only to receive an email after the show telling me that the ghostly image had, in fact, been produced by an app that allows you to place a ghostly image wherever you like in any image!

As I was preparing this column, I saw a tweet from Hayley Stevens being rightly suspicious of an image that was doing the rounds on Twitter. It was a group photograph of members of the Conservative party sitting, smiling happily for the camera. Behind them, hung on the wall and dominating the background, was Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream. Hayley asked, “Is this for real? I feel this is too good to be real.” She was right to be suspicious. A few seconds on Wikipedia revealed that there are four versions of the painting, three in Norway and one owned by a US businessman. So it was unlikely that a couple of dozen prominent Tories had all been transported to pose in front of one of them. But you couldn’t help wishing that it was for real.

Nightingale, S. J., Wade, K. A., & Watson, D. G. (2017). Can people identify original and manipulated photos of real-world scenes? Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. 2:30 DOI 10.1186/s41235-017-0067-2

Professor Chris French, a former Editor in Chief of The Skeptic, is Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London (www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/apru). His previous books include Why Statues Weep: the best of The Skeptic (with Wendy Grossman) and Anomalistic Psychology (with Nicola Holt, Christine Simmonds-Moore and David Luke). His most recent book (with Anna Stone) is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. He also writes for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter: @chriscfrench