How to recognize fake images online

Not a digital forensics specialist? Maybe you’re like most of us who are self-proclaimed image detectives. Online images today can be very misleading and oftentimes even as fake as a synthetic wig on Halloween. As doctored images of all kinds have made it across social media platforms, being able to distinguish between fake and authentic images is a skill.
Luckily, this blog article will help you develop your image detective skills, so you don’t get fooled online.

by Montanna Owens
Three people with images altered to have dog heads
Some fake images are easy to spot – are obviously just for fun!

Are fake images that big of a deal?

Sometimes we might not think about how easy it is for someone to make fake photos that look real. In our digital world, we are constantly bombarded with photos all day every day, especially if you’re an active social media user. Don’t be mistaken – the existence of fake or doctored images is not new, but the tools used to create them have gotten better. Fake images can be quite dangerous as they can lead many people to believe misinformation about a specific topic or person. And if a viewer sees specific fake image and does not take the time to check its authenticity, they may then share or forward it and contribute to spreading the misinformation.

Producing fake images to sway people into having a specific opinion is a form of manipulation that unfortunately happens all of the time on social media platforms. This can be dangerous for the younger generation as they may not have the know-how to check information that is being presented to them.

Artificial intelligence and deepfakes

Since we are living in a more digital world, the rise of deepfakes is among us. This is when deceptively realistic looking, manipulated images, audio, or video recordings are generated using AI (artificial intelligence). These photos, audio recordings, and videos can convince viewers that what they are witnessing is real or accurate because the deceptions seem so authentic. Deepfakes can take the face of someone else and swap it with another to make it seem like they are the ones posing for the image or interacting in a video. This is done to represent someone in a different context to make them appear bad, ridiculous, or out of character. For example, swapping faces with a government official and having them do TikTok dances. The use of deepfakes emphasizes how AI can generate fake images with people’s faces.

Why do people create fake images?

Motivations for making fake photos cover a wide range of possibilities:
  • To appear to have a different identity; This is common in catfishing and other romance scams. (We have previously done a deep dive into these two topics. If you’re curious, feel free to check them out. )
  • Attention seeking
  • To discredit someone
  • To cyberbully someone
  • To spread political disinformation
  • To sway public opinion
  • Emphasize one’s own point of view

Can you identify an AI-generated photo?

AI tools that allow you to generate an image simply by typing in a word is lifechanging. Who doesn’t want to generate a cat smiling at the camera with a sunset in the back? The rise and popular use of these tools can make it hard to differentiate between a real image and an AI-generated photo. There are some noticeable differences between AI-generated photos and ones that have been photoshopped or deep faked.
AI-generated image of cat smiling at sunset
Fake images online can be hard to sift through. Take a closer look – can your cat smile like this?

How to recognize AI-generated photos

  1. Anomalies within the image: Is there anything standing out to you? Does something look off or a bit too perfect? Can a cat really smile like that in real life?
  2. Facial features and accessories: Pay close attention to facial features as well as earrings or any other accessories. These appear as warped in the image after further examination.
  3. Examine the hands: I have noticed from looking at many AI-generated images that feature hands, the hands are a bit wrapped or different from the rest of the image.
  4. Background textures: The texture of the background can let you know that you have stumbled across an AI image. Pay attention to excessively smooth or pixelated backgrounds.
  5. Test the image: You can upload the image to an AI detector, and it will evaluate the likelihood of the image being AI generated. AI or Not is a popular AI generated image detector.
Two AI-generated images of businesswomen
Everything looks good – until you take a closer look at the hands…

Telltale signs an image has been photoshopped

The use of Photoshop or other photo-editing software can result in real photos that look fake. It is common for people to touch up or enhance images for social media with Photoshop. Because Photoshop became such a household editing tool for social media moments, many people use it to change backgrounds of their photos, edit out blemishes, or even remove people. Many of us evolved into fake image detectives as there are some telltale signs of recognizing a photoshopped image.

How to recognize photoshopped photos

  1. Look for inconsistent lighting and shadows that don’t really make sense with physics. Evaluate if the source of light matches with the position of shadows in the photo. This is helpful because once edits have been done, many people forget about the lighting and the shadows making us fake image detectives notice immediately that the photo has been altered.
  2. Evaluate the image background: Photoshopped images are blurred or appear to have jagged edges especially once you zoom in. This is the most common way to determine if a fake image has been made with Photoshop.

How to recognize fake photos

If you’re unsure if the photo is AI generated or photoshopped, there are general ways you can determine the authenticity of a photo. Here are 4 ways to help you recognize fake images:
  1. Take a close look at the photo: Depending on the software used to manipulate the photos there are different signs within the photo to look for. Odd shadowing, blurring, and excessive smoothing on an image are immediate signs of image tampering.
  2. Pay attention to inconsistencies: Noticing anomalies or things that seem out of place such as accessories, lighting, and shadows can let you know the image is doctored. 
  3. Examine the source: See who is posting the image and evaluate what the caption says. Sometimes fake images are uploaded playfully to show off AI capabilities or someone else’s skills. However, if the images are clearly uploaded to intentionally manipulate others, then the aim of uploading the photo is clear. Checking the source also goes hand-in-hand with credibility of the image. If the image is coming from a world recognized company, brand, or news outlet it is likely that they have checkpoints in place to authenticate images they upload. This does not mean that all largely popular sources can be trusted, however. If something looks off to you, you should be a bit skeptical. 
  4. Google reverse image search: This tool is a great source that allows you to upload an image file to the Google reverse image search and it will bring up any associated or similar photos that appear online. This is oftentimes how you can find the original photo and compare it to the faked image.

It is fake! Now what do I do?

Look at you go; you’ve detected a fake image online! So, now what? Well, if it’s a funny image where someone photoshopped a Christmas hat onto a cat, you can just enjoy the joke. On the other hand, if the fake image is leaning towards cyberbullying or fake news, you can report it. All social media platforms have a report function especially for things that are fake pertaining to news or other important information for everyone. Reporting an image that is spreading false information can help stem the tide of misinformation. But this doesn’t mean you have to report memes or cute photoshopped pet photos.

Before you go off double and triple checking the questionable photos that come across your feed, take a moment and let us know what you thought of this article down below.
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Images: 1&1/Shutterstock; AI images generated using

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