When seeing is not always believing.

Fake news is all the rage today, even though what’s fake to some isn’t fake to all.

Fake photos, though, also have their place in the conversation, even if they’re not mentioned nearly as often.

A recent study by the psychology department at the UK’s University of Warwick made the news headlines this past week after published results showed four in 10 of 707 test subjects couldn’t spot a doctored photo even when told ahead of time than an image had been faked.

The bottom line: Many people aren’t very good at telling real images from fake ones.

More interestingly, in an age when nearly everyone thinks they know everything about, well, everything, people think they’re much better at spotting doctored images than they really are.  

If there’s a silver lining to the study results, it’s that the six in 10 who guessed right is slightly higher than the five in 10 that would be expected to guess right if the results were decided entirely by chance. Heads or tails.

Test subjects were shown a number of real and fake images, and told to choose. Researchers created a photo bank of 30 fake photos and 10 real ones, all sourced from Google Images.

The flaws ranged from changing the direction of a shadow to distorting the angle of buildings. In a handful of cases, the researchers applied more subtle flaws, such as airbrushing a person’s appearance.

Tellingly, when subjects were asked to pinpoint what they thought was wrong with an image they thought to be fake, they spotted the actual flaw just 45% of the time.

The study was originally published in the July issue of the trade journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. It was quickly picked up by media, ranging from online sites like Live Science to traditional media outlets like the Daily Mail and Washington Post.

Sophie Nightingale, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Warwick University and the study’s lead author, suggested the results show that, if nothing else, people aren’t perfect.

While that’s hardly news, it is troubling when it comes to telling fake from real — right from wrong, in other words.

“This has serious implications [for society] because of the high level of images, including possibly fake images, that people are exposed to on a daily basis through social networking sites, the internet and the media.”

Study co-author Derrick Watson, noted that even when people know something is wrong with a photo, they can’t reliably identify exactly what.

“Images have a powerful influence on our memories,” Watson told reporters. “So if people can’t differentiate between real and fake details in photos, manipulations could frequently alter what we believe and remember.”

In other words, anyone seeing the faked black-and-white photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle in the Oliver Stone movie JFK might well believe Oswald was framed for theKennedy assassination. Perhaps it was Ted Cruz’s father who did the deed, after all.

faked lee harvey oswald.jpg

The challenge now, according to Nightingale, is to help people improve their ability to spot fake images and hopefully tell the difference between false and real.

The implications for society are more serious than simply being able to tell whether a Sasquatch is real or fake.

According to study co-author Kimberley Wade, a doctor of psychology at Warwick, there are worrying legal ramifications for court cases.

“People’s poor ability to identify manipulated photos raises problems in the context of legal proceedings where photos may be used as evidence,” she told the Daily Mail. “Jurors and members of the court assume these images to be real, though a manipulated image could go undetected with devastating consequences.

“We need to work to find better ways to protect people from the negative effects of photo manipulation. We’re now exploring a number of ways that might help people to better detect fakes.”

Fake news is an even more serious matter: A 2016 study in thew U.S. suggested that nearly 80% of college-age students can’t tell the difference between an actual news story and “sponsored content.”

The content in this blog item is not sponsored, nor has it been altered in any way. The names and identifying details have not been changed to protect the privacy of individuals named.

Now you know.