Visual Literacy and Fake News

We’ve all heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Have you ever taken a moment to ask why? If pictures affect us differently than text, how can we use the power of pictures to enhance our communication? On the other hand, how can we make sure we aren’t being manipulated?

This week I gave a presentation at a conference on the topic “Visual Literacy: Fake News to Fair Use.” I’ll draw from the first part of my talk in this post, but you can find the full slides here:

What is Visual Literacy?

Literacy is a set of skills that allow us to understand, interpret, analyze, research, share, and create information. You can apply these skills to text, images, and other forms of media.

We understand what we see by associating it with our personal experiences and larger narratives in our culture. This is helpful for recognizing faces, places, symbols, and brands. But our context and biases can be easily manipulated in memes and fake news that use stereotypes to build false narratives.

We might trust images more and analyze their messages less carefully, especially if we can’t see the context or if the image is shared by someone we know. You can always bring the same questions you might bring to text-based news to see if we think an image is trustworthy:

  • What does it mean? Is it accurate?
  • What is the source? Where was it published?
  • Who created it? Do they bring a specific perspective to the topic?

Here’s a great example of the different interpretations people bring to images, using examples of photojournalism during the Ferguson protests:

Communicating Visually

We all participate in this world of increasingly visual communication. With our mobile devices, we are now creating and sharing more image-based messages than ever before.

Let’s take emojis as an example. If you use them, you can probably think of ways they may be used to mean something other than the obvious definition – used as humor or innuendo, for instance. Researchers have looked at the way people use specific emoji to create a “secret language” among friends and family:

And there are legal implications for image-based messages:

Even if you don’t use emojis to communicate, it’s likely you’ve taken or shared digital photos. Through social media and cameras on most mobile phones, the number of photos online is skyrocketing.

Infographic: Smartphones Cause Photography Boom | Statista

According to InfoTrends, in 2017 alone people took 1.2 trillion photos – 85 percent on their smartphones:

Our understanding of privacy and our social norms for creating, sharing, and publishing images are changing as these tools become more widespread and easy to use.

How does this proliferation of images affect communication?

Fake News & Memes

Images grab our attention with something we know or recognize. They can convey emotions from fear to humor, from anger to delight. Memes and fake news capitalize on these emotions, often starting with something true and editing or adding something to it to make it more appealing or outrageous, from simple text to complicated photo editing.

What is fake news?

Usually we think of fake news as an intentional attempt to confuse or distort truth. But some visual memes may start as jokes that people then read as actual news. In other cases, you could argue images are just advertising but find that creators are using some of the same techniques as fake news by photoshopping products or messages onto people who didn’t originally use or support that content.

Here are three examples I’ve seen in the news or on my own social media feeds this year. The “Fauxtography” section of is a great place to fact check for fake images:

Fact-check articles:

Visual Literacy Analysis

Whether I’m looking at an article or a meme, I like to start with these basic questions to apply my literacy skills effectively:

Skills & Questions

  • Identify: What do I know about the context or content?
  • Find: Who shared it? Where did they get it? Are they the creator?
  • Evaluate: What is the message? Is it accurate? What is the motivation to share it?
  • Apply: Can I learn more? Where would I go?
  • Acknowledge: How will I respond? If it’s accurate, can I note the author before you share it? If it’s inaccurate, do I want to share that with anyone else?

Fake News Case Study: Russian Twitter Bots, #MeToo &  #Oprah2020

Identify: On January 7, 2018, the 75th annual Golden Globe awards took place while #MeToo stories of abusive Hollywood figures – especially Harvey Weinstein – dominated news headlines. A group of famous actresses in Hollywood responded by wearing black and bringing activists who have been working for fair labor standards or against sexual violence to the awards ceremony.

During the Golden Globes event, Oprah Winfrey was presented a lifetime achievement award and gave a speech that was very well received.

Some people responded to the speech with the hashtag #Oprah2020. The next day, a few news stories asked whether she would want to run for president.

Find: Various versions of this image, adapted into a meme, began trending via the #Oprah2020 hashtag on social media.

Evaluate: The memes implied, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that Oprah Winfrey was aware of the abuses in Hollywood and was willing to actively procure young women for Harvey Weinstein. Many of the accounts sharing the memes also implied this was a partisan political issue.

Personally, my own biases made me doubt Oprah would ever do such a thing. Looking at the image and evaluating their body language alone, I thought the women looked more comfortable with each other than with Harvey Weinstein and the younger woman seemed to be seeking support and perhaps comfort from Oprah Winfrey.

Apply: Since the role of Russian bots on Twitter in spreading divisive propaganda in America has been researched extensively, there are tools that can help you see if these specific Twitter accounts are pushing specific messages every day.

On January 8, 2018, I took this screenshot of the trending hashtags from –

The top hashtags from these bots that day included:

  • #Oprah
  • #SheKnew
  • #Oprah2020
  • #OprahKnew

You can’t always prove that it’s a Russian bot spreading misinformation. There are other simple tools you can use if you don’t trust an image.

Reverse Image Search

If you’re looking at a photo online that you suspect may be manipulated or taken out of context, one quick fact check strategy is to do a reverse image search using Google’s Image Search or

Note: Reverse image searches may not work on mobile devices. On a smartphone? Try this site:

On my computer, all I had to do was right-click on the image in the Chrome browser and “search by image” to find the original source: a February 2014 article about the young woman, Rita Ora, attending a party in London hosted by the Weinstein Company:

A quick search of Rita Ora’s own Twitter feed shows her using other photos from the 2014 event to show her memories didn’t match the Russian Bot meme stories:

Acknowledge: I learned about this meme from someone else who was already calling out the inaccuracies and sharing the securingdemocracy bot tracker, so I didn’t feel the need to disabuse anyone of the lie directly, but I did bookmark the tool and save some screenshots to share later!

Test Your Skills!

I attended a wonderful presentation at the 2018 CALI conference presented by Carol Watson and Kris Niedringhaus on fake news: Battling Fake News and Developing Digital Literacy Skills within the Legal Profession.

Here are a few of the websites and apps the speakers recommended to help verify the accuracy of news or to test your own skills in evaluating fake headlines.

Recommended Reading:

I also enjoyed the range of articles recommended at their CALIcon18 presentation. I’ve shared my full notes on this Twitter thread, since I haven’t found their slides online.

Beyond Photoshop

If we’re more easily influenced to believe images than text, how much more are we going to be manipulated by videos? If you haven’t heard of software that makes these “deep fakes” easy to do, you may want to read this article:

Here’s an example designed to help you see how the skills and questions I’ve described above can be applied to videos that may have been manipulated using new software:

About Emily Barney

Technology Training & Marketing Librarian
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