Monday, January 2, 2017
Fake News, Faked Photos, and how to identify them
Professional news reporters, to say nothing of editors, are supposed to check out their stories: examine their sources, verify their facts, before publishing -- let alone editorializing. Editors, at least, are supposed to do the same with photographs. Journalism professionals are supposed to have the skills and the training to do just those things. Seeing how many of these professionals have gotten sloppy on the job lately, I think it's a good idea if more people learn more critical thinking and verification skills for themselves.
As a training exercise, let's look at a famous scandal. Google search "Abu Ghraib Photos", carefully set aside the initial prejudices created by the media, and view with a critical eye. ...Hmm, it would also help to do one's homework; read the investigative reports on Abu Ghraib done by the US Army and the Red Cross. A little knowledge of 2006-level digital photographic technology would also be useful. Okay. Ready? Hit the search button and let's go.
The first site, "Images for Abu Ghraib", features a chaotic mix of photos ostensibly taken at Abu Ghraib prison, political cartoons, photos clearly PhotoShopped, photos purported to be from the brig at Guantanamo Bay, pictures of political protests, and portraits from news reports -- a blizzard of them in no particular order. The only unifying narrative is outrage over US military abuse of prisoners, and the only verification is the citations of where the pictures were published. Since many of these are re-posed and/or PhotoShopped versions of each other, they clearly can't be trusted for much accurate information. Let's move on.
The next entry is "Abu Ghraib Abuse Photos - by news - Antiwar.com", which labels its editorial position clearly, cites the Washington Post as at least one of its sources, and shows that it would necessarily exercise some editorial caution. Going to the site, we find the photos dated to February 17, 2006 and updated to June 11, which gives us a reference point. The headline reads: "The Washington Post has released new photos along with new information about the use of dogs on prisoners." This phrase neatly shapes our expectations while giving precious little information. Think: just where did the WP get those "new photos" and "new information"? How are they verified? We know what that phrase makes us expect, but just how are the dogs used on prisoners? Let's take a clear-headed look at the first photo.
The picture shows a wide, plain, concrete corridor lined with multiple plain metal doors, one partly open and the rest shut. There appear to be bundles of cloth part way down the corridor and squarish light-sources above three of the doors and the end wall, but the picture is so grainy and the resolution so coarse that we can't see any detail to be sure. There are three men positioned in the middle of the corridor, the two nearer wearing army-style boots, desert-cammo pants and dark jackets, one sleeveless, and what seem to be knit caps -- but again, the picture is so grainy that we can't be sure about the right-hand man. The man on the right has his hands in his pockets, and the man on the left is holding a dog by a short leash. The dog is black and looks somewhat like a Alsatian; its nose is pointed toward the third man, its ears are up, and it looks curious or eager. The third man, positioned between the other two and just under ten feet further down the corridor, is crouched over with his hands raised defensively, looking toward the dog. He appears to be either naked or wrapped in clear plastic; again, the picture is so grainy that the viewer can't tell. There are no injuries visible on the third man. Although there are no windows, the corridor is surprisingly well lighted -- yet the shadows are very soft, vague, and non-directional. That's what we see.
The caption under the photo reads, cautiously (emphasis mine): "An unmuzzled dog appears to be used to frighten a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Two military dog handlers told investigators that intelligence personnel ordered them to use dogs to intimidate prisoners." Obviously the viewer is supposed to conclude that the dog is threatening to bite the prisoner -- but what are we really seeing?
The devil is in the details -- such as, why is the picture so very grainy, or so well lit, and exactly what direction is the light coming from that casts those muzzy shadows?
According to an old friend who used to do professional photography, that graininess is consistent with digital cameras -- including phone-cameras -- of ten years ago, especially if used with an integral flash-device. The flash had to come from the camera, but in that case the shadows would have been more clearly directional and sharply defined -- unless washed out by those over-the-door ceiling lights. If those lights were bright enough to wash out the camera-flash, there would have been no need for the flash in the first place -- unless the whole point was to create that extreme graininess, the bad resolution that ruins the details in the picture, and incidentally makes the face of the prisoner unidentifiable. The faces of the other two men are concealed.
By the way, Mohammed hated dogs, especially black dogs, so good Muslims are supposed to regard them as "unclean", only a little less than pigs. A pious fundamentalist Muslim would fear any contact with the animal, not necessarily bites. Of course, the reason Mohammed hated dogs, especially black ones, is that he made a lot of his early fortune leading a robber-band to attack caravans, particularly at night. If the caravan included dogs, the animals would smell Mohammed and friends sneaking up and sound the alarm. Even if Mohammed and cronies could shoot the dogs with arrows to keep them quiet, black dogs would be hard to spot in the dark. This paints a less-than-virtuous picture of Mohammed, but the pious can always come up with an excuse for their hero.
More details later; there are plenty of other pictures to examine.