An Internet Sleuth on How to Spot Fake Viral Posts During the Coronavirus Pandemic (And Beyond)

March of 2020 will forever go down in history as the month the entire world changed.

What started as a couple of January news reports about a disease in China thought to come from bat soup — which the rest of the world winced at, then assumed would pass — turned in the blink of an eye into a global pandemic that has left more than 2.5 billion people on lockdown. Schools are shut down for the rest of the year, all stores and businesses labeled ‘non-essential’ have been closed, and nearly every large-scale event in the world has been cancelled or postponed.

But members of the media — and social media — are off to the races, from reporters on the front line giving updates on makeshift morgues, to YouTube users sharing heartwarming videos of quarantine duets from across balconies. Locked behind closed doors, the whole world is hungrier than ever for information, and even more so for good news. Unfortunately, that desire to find a glimmer of hope throws down roots for a new problem to grow: sometimes, if something sounds or looks too good to be true, it is — like photos suggesting that lockdowns have resulted in the flourishing of wildlife (viral Tweet shown below.)

Yet it spreads as quickly as a novel virus anyway.

Now enter the ironic hero of this story — a self-described “killjoy” Canadian with a Twitter account. He’s a web developer, former NASA employee, the pedant behind @PicPedant, and since the early 2010s, he’s been on a mission to debunk viral posts that, in some way or another, are misleading or fake. His real name is Paulo, and though he might come across as a bit hubristic on Twitter, he’s cheerful and chatty on the phone, and he has no qualms about letting us in on his investigative secrets.

“The first thing I do is take the image to TinEye, a reverse image search engine, which collects images, and images which are similar to those images, and tracks where they were first posted,” he tells us on the phone as we sit a country apart in quarantine.

“It shows you when those images were posted — it’s not always accurate, but it’s a good way to get a feel for it. Then, sometimes I’ll go over to Google image search and see other contexts that the image has been posted in.”

But it’s not always about finding the appropriate attribution or context of an image, but about the editing a photo has gone through (See this example of how a clever editing job tricked the internet into believing a shark was found swimming in a flooded escalator.) For that, TinEye’s “most changed” option comes in handy, allowing users to look at other variations of a certain image and revealing how it might have been edited.

It is methods like these which have allowed Paulo and other internet sleuths like him to debunk posts like this one of a Eiffel tower photo that’s just a bit too picturesque.

His Tweets offer a master class in making use of Twitter’s 280-character limit: he shows you the viral post, links to its source, explains what was done in editing, and in most cases, and also manages to throw in a bit of sarcasm to get his point across.

The good news is that the spreading of ‘fake’ posts isn’t always intentional or malicious — In fact, Paulo says that in his experience, most cases began with just one person who was unknowingly misinformed when he or she hit ‘retweet’ or ‘share.’

“A lot of these viral picture accounts are really just scraping, we call it,” he says. “They’re just picking up images that they’ve seen elsewhere, and very often, it’s not even a person, just a bot.”

Of course, some of these viral posts carry more weight than others, and in the case of COVID-19 posts on social media, the problem is deeper than just the source of a pretty picture. Since the crisis began, Twitter has been flooded with videos that give fake ‘looks inside’ pandemic epicenters, footage attributed to the wrong country, and even photos of nurses edited to increase the appearance of medical glasses-induced bruising on their faces. Sensational, visual-heavy stories like these, along with much more uplifting but equally misleading posts about alleged ‘silver-linings’ in a crisis, have one thing in common: what Paulo called a “desire for virality.”

“There’s the euphoria of getting clicks, likes, retweets, and so on,” he says, adding that he wishes there wasn’t a need for his pedantic Twitter account at all. He ends our call with some words of advice to us — and anyone else with a desire to look at social media with a more critical eye — in a time when the truth is more important than ever.

“Watch for [how a photo or story] is positioned. If it’s framed in a way that manipulates your emotions, then there’s an agenda. I don’t want to promote the kind of cultural paranoia that turns everyone into an internet fault-finder like myself. I’ve been trying to put out the message that maybe you’re not supposed to be relying on spam bots that post Reddit imagery so much as relying on yourself to find beauty in the world. Go out and take your own photos rather than going on second and thirdhand stuff you find on some screen…”

He does have a warning, one that would have sounded straight out of a sci-fi movie a matter of weeks ago, but elicits nothing but a nod from the two of us now.

“Of course, in the age of pandemics, you want to do it from a responsible physical distance for now.”

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