Whether it was news of industry-rattling sexual assault allegations, bloody mass shootings, or images of a white supremacist rally, 2017’s major headlines were shocking — and fake photographs and elaborate hoaxes were sure to follow.
Sometimes these doctored images were shared simply to take advantage of a trending topic. Other times, however, they were shared with the intent of spreading a political or personal agenda. At the very least, some stories only intended to muddy the conversation enough to cast doubt. The fake photographs on this list generally fall into one of two categories: Either they are digitally manipulated images that show something that never happened, or they are authentic photographs that were circulated out of context.
Here are some of the biggest stories of the year and the fake photographs that accompanied them.
The Trump administration’s first controversy came just hours after the president was sworn into office. The Press Secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, bragged that it was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” However, side-by-side photographs comparing the audiences at Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations told a different story:
It wasn’t too surprising to see the Trump administration start with a flap about crowd size. After all, Trump frequently bragged about the size of his crowds during the campaign season, and we saw several manipulated images purporting to show Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking to abnormally small audiences. This trend continued in 2017, as faux photographs showing crowd sizes at various events were circulated in order to prove that Trump was an unpopular president.
This set of photographs was widely circulated after the Patriots visited the White House in April 2017. Both of these photographs are real. However, the bottom photograph only includes players and coaches, while the top photograph features players, coaches, and staff members:
Some Patriots players did decline the invitation to the White House, and some specifically said that they didn’t attend because of the current president. However, “White House fatigue” may have been another factor in the turnout; this was the second time in three years that the Patriots were invited to the White House.
Regardless, the number of players who attended in 2017 was comparable to previous events:
Just because you have a ticket, doesn’t mean you’ll get to fly.
In April 2017, United Airlines went viral for all of the wrong reasons as a couple of security officers were filmed dragging a kicking and screaming passenger down the aisle of a plane. That incident was very real, and it spawned a series of fake images satirizing the situation.
United Airlines, for instance, did not assemble a new task force:
Southwest did not introduce a new slogan:
And United Airlines did not develop new passenger safety helmets:
When Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest during the national anthem before a pre-season game in August 2016, he did so with the intent of highlighting the national conversation about police brutality and inequality. The discourse that followed, however, had little to do with these two subjects.
Instead, many political pundits diverted the conversation to whether it was disrespectful to kneel during the national anthem, positing that National Football League players who “take a knee” were insulting veterans and patriots. Others noted that peaceful protest is a right preserved by the First Amendment, and that the disproportionate criminalization and imprisonment of black people has been a persistent problem that hails back to the days of slavery in the United States.
This controversy was, as such controversies always are, heightened by Internet trolls who shared out-of-context or outright doctored photographs about these protests in order to mock or mislead their political opponents.
This photograph does not show the Army football team protesting the anthem; instead, it shows the Navy football team kneeling in prayer:
An image purportedly showing an NFL player burning an American flag also went viral. That image, of course, was fake:
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was also dragged into the discourse when a photograph purportedly showing him holding a t-shirt reading “Stand For the Flag, Kneel for the Cross” went viral:
The real image was almost completely different, showing not this player or message, but musician George Strait holding a shirt that reads “Straight Shootin’ Country Boy.”
President Donald Trump campaigned on tougher immigration policies, signing an executive order banning travel from seven predominately Muslim countries almost immediately after his election. This executive order faced harsh scrutiny, and was initially blocked by a federal judge. As the travel bans were debated throughout the year, it gave trolls ample time to spread inaccurate and misleading material about Muslims.
One video (which has since been deleted) was shared with the fearmongering title “France has Fallen,” along with the claim that it showed Muslim refugees rioting in France. Although the video is real, it has little to do with Muslims or refugees, instead showing people protesting after a police officer in France reportedly sodomized a young man with his baton:
A similarly out-of-context video was shared with the claim that it shows Muslims marching for Shariah law in England. In reality, it is an annual religious procession for the annual Ashoura observation.
Another genuine piece of media that reappeared with a fabricated backstory involved a group of people burning an American flag. Although this image was shared as if it documented an incident outside of a New York mosque in 2017, the photograph actually shows people in Bangladesh burning an American flag during a demonstration against the anti-Islam short film “The Innocence of Muslims” that sparked worldwide protests in 2012:
It wouldn’t be proper disinformation without a mention of President Barack Obama, who has been accused of being a secret Muslim by trolls and detractors for many years. As President Trump moved into the White House, misleading articles appeared on many sites, reporting — falsely — that Trump’s staffers had found various Muslim symbols throughout the historic residency, including a sink used for wudu (a way for Muslim worshipers to perform ablutions or wash themselves before prayer, misspelled in the hoax articles as “wada”), Arabic calligraphy over a bed, and prayer mats:
Of course, none of these photographs were taken inside the White House.
Trump shared unfounded anti-Muslim propaganda when he retweeted several photographs from Jayden Fransen, the deputy leader of the reactionary far-right anti-Islam organization Britain First, which has a longstanding problem producing or promulgating factual stories, preying instead on fear and xenophobia:
This video does not feature a “Muslim migrant.” The teenager in the video was born and raised in the Netherlands (where the video was taken) and his religion was never explicitly stated.
The turnout at President Trump’s inauguration may not have been the biggest in history, but the women’s march protesting his inauguration may have truly been the largest single-day demonstration in the recorded history of the United States.
Several faked photographs purporting to be from the events were circulated on social media in an apparent attempt to undercut or discredit their messages. One image, for instance, showed actress Whoopi Goldberg wearing a shirt featuring a violent image of President Donald Trump. Another, genuine image from that same event shows that Goldberg was wearing a completely different shirt:
The Women’s March on Washington, D.C. and its sister demonstrations across the country were huge, but they were not the only protests of 2017. People gathered in cities across the country throughout the year to stage anti-Trump protests, and images from these gatherings were doctored and shared in mocking memes intended to denigrate and humiliate them:
Photographs from these demonstrations were also used in a particularly dark form of propaganda. After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left more than sixty people dead and hundreds more injured, trolls attempted to connect the shooter to a political ideology by sharing photographs of an man (who is completely unrelated to that horrific mass murder) in the so-called “pussyhat” made famous during the women’s marches:
The same tactic was also used after yet another mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which the shooter killed 26 people, including small children, during a service. Opportunistic provocateurs and propaganda peddlers shared photographs of another unrelated person at a Bernie Sanders rally, along with the completely unsubstantiated (and as it turned out, completely untrue) claim that it showed the shooter:
Sexual assault and harassment became the dominant topic of conversation beginning in October 2017, after the New York Times reported that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had for decades been paying off and intimidating women who accused him of improprieties. In the weeks that followed, dozens of women and men came forward to accuse politicians, filmmakers, journalists, industry leaders, and President Donald Trump of sexual assault, harassment, and intimidation.
As the #MeToo movement took off, some tried to muddy the waters by spreading rumor, innuendo, and, naturally, doctored photographs. A number of fake news outlets published stories with bogus accusations (no, Stephen Hawking was not accused of assault, to name just one example) and countless hoax photographs appeared online.
As several women accused President Trump of sexual assault, it was unsurprising to see fake images of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appear alongside claims that the previous administrations were the real perpetrators of abuse and assault:
These are not real photographs of Obama bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Anthony Weiner, although the photograph of former United States President Bill Clinton is real. Bill Cosby was also a Medal of Freedom recipient, but that award was not bestowed by President Obama. Here are the real photographs that these hoaxes were based on:
This is also not a genuine photograph of Joe Biden groping a woman:
Biden’s hands were considerably lower in the original photograph:
And this is not a real photograph of Obama inappropriately touching Melania Trump:
The original image, which was taken from a video on President Trump’s inauguration day, showed President Obama’s hand in considerably higher position:
Nazis and Antifa
White supremacy saw an open resurgence in 2017 that was highlighted with a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that culminated with a neo-Nazi suspect deliberately plowing a car into a crowd, badly injuring several and killing protester Heather Heyer.
When President Trump responded to the incident by famously saying there were “very fine people on both sides,” critics accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer or a white nationalist himself; in order to drive that point home, a number of hoax images purportedly showing Trump and members of his administration in Ku Klux Klan gear were pushed on social media.
This is not Sarah Huckabee Sanders dressed in a Klan robe for Halloween as a child:
This image does not show Trump posing with one of the alt-right members involved in the Charlottesville rally:
This is not Donald Trump at a KKK rally:
A photograph showed a black police officer providing security for a white nationalist gathering is genuine:
The rise of white supremacy in 2017 also led to the proliferation of anti-fascist, or antifa, groups. As a loosely connected network of like-minded individuals with no official leaders or spokespeople but united in their distaste for fascism, they naturally found themselves subjected to a number of hoaxes and disinformation campaigns.
This image, for instance, doesn’t actually show an antifa member beating up a police officer:
The fake photograph was created by using a genuine 2009 image showing a demonstration in Greece. The “antifa” logo was simply slapped onto the back of this person’s jacket using editing software:
On 21 August 2017, thousands of people gathered along the path of totality to witness the first solar eclipse to make its way across over the contiguous United States since 1918, spawning stunning images — some of which were completely fake, such as this image of a setting solar eclipse:
This is not an actual photograph of the eclipse from space:
Sunlight during the eclipse did not arrange itself into the shape of a cross:
One of the most popular images of the 2017 solar eclipse is actually completely real, however. Despite repeated warnings not to look directly at the solar eclipse, President Donald Trump did, for a moment, look at the event without his protective glasses:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 21, 2017
Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Sharks
It is almost inevitable for hoaxes to circulate in the wakes of major storms or natural disasters, so when a series of huge, historically destructive hurricanes made landfall in 2017, it wasn’t surprising to see a new batch of manipulated images tear their own swaths across social media.
This is not an actual photograph of a massive wave striking Jennette’s Pier in North Carolina:
And although this image was taken from real footage of flooding at an airport, it was taken in Mexico City, not Miami:
The 2017 hurricane season also saw an unusually large number of fake sharks, appearing in rumors that Hurricane Irma had turned into a real-life Sharknado and that an especially large (and infinitely repurposed) specimen was roaming down the highway in Houston.
Our favorite piece of fake shark media, however, came shortly after Hurricane Irma flooded portions of Miami:
This video was not created with the use of digital editing software, but was instead done the old-fashioned way, with a combination of practical effects and ridiculous novelty gifts:
President Donald Trump also made appearances in hurricane relief and recovery with a series of hoax photographs purported to show the president personally giving assistance in affected areas.
For example, Trump was not spotted rescuing two cats from floods:
And he didn’t actually get into a rescue boat to save a man from rising waters:
A 2015 image of President Barack Obama serving food to homeless veterans at a church was repurposed to bolster a claim that it showed Trump’s predecessor serving meals in Texas after Harvey flooded the region:
This list is by no means exhaustive. We received and debunked so many hoax photographs involving Donald Trump, his family members, and his staff that we put together a second end-of-year roundup focusing solely on those.