Was the moon landing faked? Are tree octopuses real? How can you begin to tell whether that flexing photo someone posted to social media is real?
Robbie Barber, teacher-librarian at Tucker (Ga.) High School, shared some of the ways she engages students in digital image literacy in her session “Picture This! The Literacy of Digital Images” at the American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 26.
“The more knowledge and experience people have, the better they are at evaluating images,” Barber said. With students and a shifting technological landscape, repetition is key. “I cannot talk to my kids one time and consider it done.”
Manipulated images are everywhere, from airbrushed or Photoshopped touch-ups to AI-generated fakes. Teaching students to recognize misleading images can start early—Robbins uses image hoaxes like the tree octopus to get young students to question the plausibility of things they’re being asked to believe. While they’re excited by the idea of the tree octopus, when asked whether a pet fish could live in a tree, they quickly recognize the absurdity.
Plausibility is one of the most basic clues to spotting image manipulation. Older students can begin to recognize more complex and science-based issues with shadow and light (like missing reflections and figures lit from different light sources) and quality issues that are often remnants from digital manipulation (like pixelation and uneven edges). AI-generated images are sometimes harder to spot, but most models still generate images where the text in the background, such as signs, is nonsense. “The more you start thinking about this, the more it becomes second nature,” Robbins said. You don’t memorize the process of tracing light sources or zooming in to find imperfections, but “you start to go ‘Wait a minute, that light looks weird.’”
If you see an image you’re unsure about or that appears out of context, Robbins recommended using reverse image searches like TinEye and Google’s reverse image search. The original source may provide more information on its origins.
Beyond lectures, Barber provides a passive reminder of how pervasive manipulated images can be by posting pictures on the library windows challenging students to spot what’s wrong, from the 1994 Time magazine cover that darkened O.J. Simpson’s mugshot to photos where the angle changes the meaning, like Prince William seeming to make a rude gesture. These challenge and engage the students even when Robbins isn’t actively working with them, and recently were adopted into a ninth-grade writing assignment to delve more deeply into how these types of images circulate and affect public opinion.
Adobe’s Real or Photoshop is also a great tool for driving home how difficult it can be to identify modified images. “I can’t do well on it, and I do a lot of this image work,” Barber admitted. It hammers home that no one has the ability to spot every manipulated image.
“My goal is not to magically have my students suddenly understand pictures,” she said. “My goal is to make them pause.” The more they see images and the issues within, the more they may pause, which opens the door to questioning.
Barber concluded by reminding library workers that children are awash in images on social media, manipulated or not, some of which can be traumatic. Kids scrolling through those pictures may be dealing with a trauma load they’re not even aware of. She urged those who work with children to be aware of ways to reduce that trauma load. “You need to be aware so you can help them when you get the opportunity,” she said.