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Baltimore ‘looting’ tweets show importance of quick and easy image checks

It only takes a few seconds to check if an image has a history around the Internet

Veggies/Flickr.

Unrest in Baltimore, like any other dramatic event these days, created a surge of activity on social media. In the age of the selfie and ubiquitous cameras, many people have become compulsive chroniclers of all their activities – sometimes unwisely so.

Reactions ranged from shock and disgust to disbelief and amusement when a series of images started to circulate showing looters proudly displaying their ill-gotten gains. Not all, however, was as it seemed.

Few things say America like KFC, and it was no surprise to see that the Colonel had fallen victim to the violence:

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I often get asked about the fundamentals of verification, and one of the first things I alway mention is the ability – and indeed the reflex – to always perform a reverse image search. I also mention, only half-jokingly, that this should possibly even be added to the school curriculum. It’s not as if it would take up much of the school year; it can be taught in approximately 30 seconds.

In the case of the trashed KFC above, a quick check via Google reverse image search or TinEye showed that the photo was taken in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2012.

Several other tweets portraying similar scenes were just as easily debunked:

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The photo showing the pile of cosmetics has been online for at least three years.

This photo and the accompanying declaration were admittedly worrying:

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But the young man shown had already been the subject of an April 17 news report from Fox13, a Memphis-based Fox affiliate.

Given the provenance of the images, it should come as no surprise that the profile photographs used on the Twitter accounts are not exactly 100 per cent legitimate. The gentleman named as Da’Marious Trufton connected to the KFC photo turns out to be Dupree Johnson, from South Florida.

‘Tanisha’, who appeared to have looted an entire cosmetics counter, was represented by a photograph of a Canadian rapper, Honey Cocaine.

The profile photograph of ‘Jayrome’, who was preparing to take his heat-packing kid brother on a crime spree, actually showed a young man who goes by the name of “VonMar”:

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VonMar appears to be a Chicago-based Jackass wannabe who has a taste for mischief but not, as far as we know, looting.

There are numerous other examples, but you get the picture.

We could speculate all day on the motivations of the people who posted these tweets, from the sinister to the silly. One thing for certain is that they were getting dozens of favourites and retweets, and there was no shortage of people taking them seriously.

Some notified law enforcement officials…

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…others were disappointed…

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…and still others grabbed the opportunity to display the worst side of their own nature:

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The ‘confessions’ were shared widely, being retweeted by plenty of people, half a dozen of them by a blogger with more than 23,000 followers:11-tuViJ9uCo-GzBY7drqEqNw

I approached the blogger ahead of writing this article and, after a bit of back and forth, received some counsel:

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The full conversation is here.

The point, of course, is not whether these things happened or not. The point is that the tweets were not portraying what they purported to be. Worse, they used photos of real people and connected them to these acts.

Tineye and Google image search provide browser add-ons, meaning these kinds of checks can be performed in seconds. Cultivate the habit — increased credibility is only a right-click away.

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A project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, First Draft News is an open-access site that provides practical and ethical guidance in how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web.