How to verify the origin of social media photos

Hurricane Harvey, like other natural disasters before it, has spawned a fresh crop of viral social media hoaxes that are believable enough to take hold. Readers swipe through feeds and their natural inclination is to react or share, not verify.

In times like these, verification is essential. But even experienced journalists can forget this basic discipline, as Katie Couric has demonstrated. The photo she tweeted Sunday is actually from a Houston Chronicle report in April.

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Screengrab of @katiecouric’s alligator tweet

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If you want to avoid becoming the subject of journalistic schadenfreude, take a few minutes every time you come across this sort of thing and verify the images. It does not take much effort at all to verify images you find on social media. Here are two really easy strategies you should be using:

  • Reverse image search: Download a copy of the image. If that option isn’t available, try taking a screenshot. Upload the image to Google Image Search to see if it exists elsewhere on the internet. (This would have uncovered the source of Couric’s image above.)
  • Verify metadata: If you can get the original photo sent to you through a DM or email, save it to your desktop and upload to metadata reader site like Metapicz. Original image files that come directly from a camera or mobile device all store information like the time and date it was taken, what kind of device was used and GPS location data. This data can be stripped from files when they are uploaded to Facebook and also when they have been modified by software like Photoshop.

Also, if you’re not confident in the validity of an image, don’t share it.