A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. But if a picture contains a misleading caption or is presented out of context, it may take a thousand words to clean up the misinformation mess.
Sometimes the problem can be unintentional — like a missing-person post still circulating online well after the person has been found. Sometimes captions can be removed and purposely replaced with inaccurate descriptions as part of war propaganda. Bottom line: A common way misinformation spreads online is when older images are repurposed for whatever reason with new, misleading captions.
When sharing social media posts that contain images, it's a good idea to make sure the context is accurate. So how do you spot a photograph that is circulating online out of context or with a misleading caption?
The first go-to, of course, is to see if the image has been covered by Snopes or other reputable fact-checking outlets, and if it hasn't, you can submit a tip.
But if you're in the mood to do some research on your own, a good place to start is to do a reverse-image search. As we previously noted, a number of search engines offer this service, namely Google Images, TinEye, Yandex, and Bing Images. To do this, download the image in question, and upload it into the search engine. (If an image has its own url, some search engines like Google allow you to paste the url instead of downloading it.)
The search engine will give you a list of places where the image has appeared before. Take a look and see when the image first appeared online. Was it before the alleged event the social media post in question claims? Can the photograph be found on the website for a reputable news outlet? If so, what does the news outlet's caption say? News captions are often written by the photographers who took the original photographs.
Also as we previous reported, when you do a reverse-image search, you may notice that an image's caption changes over time. The viral version is often not the accurate one, but is instead the most emotionally engaging one. The goal of doing a reverse search is to try to track down the image's original source.
In some instances, the subject of a picture will make a clarification after the image has already gone viral — and that clarification inevitably gets far less attention than the initial viral sensation.
Most people don't follow up to find out whether an image that went viral was shared accurately. It often takes at least a day or two for the bigger picture to become clear. In the meantime, caution is often the best option. Waiting for all of the facts to come out is often better (and less potentially embarrassing) than sharing a viral image in the heat of the moment that later turns out to be misleading.
For example, you may have seen images online of hotel heiress Paris Hilton wearing a shirt that said, "Stop being poor." But did you know that Hilton pointed out the message on the shirt didn't say that? Before it was digitally altered for the sake of memes, the shirt she wore really said, "Stop being desperate."
In another example, some pointed to screenshots from an episode of "Jeopardy" that convinced them contestant Kelly Donohue was flashing the three-fingered "white power" sign on their television screens, creating an internet uproar. But a closer examination of context showed that in previous episodes, Donohue had held one and then two fingers up to signify his wins, and was simply counting his victories by holding up the corresponding number of fingers — in that instance, his third win with three fingers.
Here are just a few more examples of viral posts containing images with misleading captions/context that went viral.
In 2018, posts circulated on social media, many showing a smiling girl seated at a keyboard, and containing a message that the girl, Allisyn Nicole, had been missing "since yesterday at 11:30 a.m." The post was relentlessly shared online for years, doubtlessly by many well-meaning people who believed she was missing "since yesterday."
Although we couldn't independently verify the authenticity of the original post, it's outdated regardless and has been for a long time. A woman identifying herself as Nicole's mother posted an update stating that the girl had been found. In this example, an alleged missing-person post, stripped of the context of its original post date, led many to falsely believe the girl pictured was still missing.
A similar piece of misinformation circulated in 2021 — similar in that the misinformation was based on an outdated report of a missing child. The viral post contained an image of an alleged Wayfair "Doswell Door Wardrobe" (the existence of which we weren't able to confirm) side-by-side with a missing person bulletin for a child with the surname Doswell. But police informed us that the child was found and was no longer missing.
The post played into a viral 2020 election year conspiracy theory that posited the furniture retailer was participating in child trafficking by selling large, high-priced items named for the children they were said to be shipping inside the items.
In March 2022, a viral TikTok video claimed that Google Maps captured a satellite image of a giant snake skeleton belonging to Titanoboa, an extinct giant snake. But the picture was mis-captioned.
Titanoboa snakes were massive. They grew to an average of 42.7 feet long and weighed around 1.25 tons, per the Encyclopedia Britannica. They lived about 58 million to 60 million years ago. The Titanoboa was discovered in a Colombian coal mine and first described in 2009.
Although the skeleton featured in the TikTok video is massive, it's not real — it's an art installment. The metal sculpture is known as Le Serpent d’Océan, and is located in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins on the west coast of France.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. 2022, local time, the Ukrainian people took up arms to defend their homeland. An image that appeared to show Anastasiia Lenna, who won Miss Grand Ukraine in 2015, holding a rifle went viral, as people saw it as a show of strength coming even from the country's beauty queens.
But the image doesn't show Lenna holding an actual rifle, it's an airsoft gun. She posted the image on her Instagram account on Feb. 22, 2022, two days before the Russian invasion, along with the hashtags, #standwithukraine and #handsoffukraine. As the image continued to circulate after Russia invaded, it led many to assume Lenna had joined Ukraine's military forces.Lenna later posted a message clarifying she had not joined the military but had simply posted the image and hashtags to show support for her country.