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How to Tell if an Online Photo Is Fake

A fast and easy reverse image search can help you spot doctored pictures


spinner image Fake photos are prevalent on the internet, here's how to use reverse-image search and other tools to spot fake images.
Boris Zhitkov / Getty Images

In the photograph, Lionel Messi holds an Israeli flag. A screenshot showing the image on the soccer star’s Instagram page Oct. 31 was widely shared on Facebook and X. But the photo was a phony. In the actual shot, he held a sign for Icons.com, a sport memorabilia company — not a flag. And the real photo appeared on Icon’s site — not on Messi’s Instagram page. ​

Manipulated images and fraudulent photos generated with artificial intelligence are proliferating online — and the problem will surely grow. Fifty-eight percent of Americans think that AI tools will increase the spread of false information during the 2024 election, according to a poll released in November by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. ​​

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And fakes can be hard to spot. In a 2022 study in the journal Vision Research, participants not only struggled to distinguish real faces from fake faces but sometimes “believed fake faces to be more real than real faces.” ​​

And in an October survey by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, more than half of boomer and Gen X respondents confessed they weren’t confident about distinguishing between AI- and human-generated content.​ Here are ways to tell what’s real — and ensure that you aren’t sharing false images with others.​

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Conduct a reverse image search

​As AI becomes more sophisticated, reverse image searching is an important tool for confirming the reality of photos, says Alexa Volland, senior manager of educator professional learning for the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which provides free resources to teach people how to identify credible news. A reverse image search is an online tool that reveals information such as when and where a photo was taken, who took it, and where it appears online. With Google Image Search, for example, you click a camera icon and then drag or upload an image (you can also paste a URL). The results can show the photo’s origin and share information from news organizations and fact-checkers.

​​​Similar tools include Bing Visual Search and Yahoo Image Search. Websites include DupliChecker.com and Labnol.org (you can find apps through the Apple and Google Play stores). Volland’s favorite tool is TinEye: She likes its “most changed” sorting option, which shows how an image has been digitally altered. ​​

Anyone can do it, and quickly. “Reverse image searching can be 30 seconds or less,” Volland says. ​​

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Other ways to spot fake photos

​​​Question inflammatory T-shirts. Before the last presidential election, a photo on Twitter showed a group of women in T-shirts that said, “I’m a racist [expletive] 2020.” The image, however, was doctored. The real T-shirts said, “I’m a Trump girl 2020.” T-shirts, like other surfaces with text, are a common target for manipulators. “Hats, posters, billboards — these can all act as a canvas for false messages,” Volland says.

Distrust incendiary celebrity statements. If you see celebrities sharing divisive messages, be suspicious. Stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ben Affleck, Chris Evans and Sylvester Stallone have all appeared in T-shirts that make contentious political statements — and all of the images are fake. “When I see a public figure wearing something with a shocking message, I’m immediately a little skeptical,” says Volland. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘Does it make sense for this person to be doing this thing? Is this out of character?’”​​

Go to the source. A quick look at Messi’s Instagram page would have shown that he didn’t post the Israeli flag photo. Even a basic Google search can uncover truths. Search for “Lionel Messi with Israeli flag” and you’ll find stories from USA Today and Reuters debunking the image along with reports from AFP Fact Check (a department within a French news agency) and fact-checking sites. ​​

Look for AI clues. AI technology is improving rapidly, but for now it’s still flawed. “Most of the photos that are AI-generated have this cinematic sheen, an overly glossy finish,” Volland says. AI image generators also struggle to create realistic hands. In 2023, an image of Pope Francis addressing a huge crowd in Lisbon was shared widely on social media — but his left hand had just three fingers.​​

Check the lighting. A manipulated photo — such as cutting and pasting a politician so he’s at a KKK rally instead of a baseball game — can include mistakes. If someone’s hair is blowing, for example, and the person is supposedly inside, something’s not right. Odd lighting and shadows are also giveaways. Volland has seen numerous examples “where someone will take a high-profile person, edit them out of the original image, and put them in a new scene where the lighting doesn’t make physical sense.”

​​​​Gauge your emotions. False images often create anger, whether it’s a shot of Dr. Oz kissing Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (didn’t happen) or a man in Warsaw giving Joe Biden the finger (didn’t happen either). If you feel an intense emotional reaction, that’s a warning sign for misinformation and confirmation bias. “If something makes you feel angry, or superior, or frightened, be aware that this is a tactic,” says Claire Wardle, cofounder and codirector of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University. “They’re trying to double down on people’s existing beliefs.” ​ ​​ ​

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.