Manipulation of photographs is nothing new. For as long as cameras have existed, photographers have staged, retouched and combined images and passed them off as 'real'. Sometimes for artistic purposes, sometimes for fun, but sometimes for more nefarious purposes. The BBC has published a fascinating article on its international 'Future' site exploring the power that faked photographs have over us, and draws some alarming conclusions about our memories, and how easily they too can be 'subverted and rewritten'. 

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In the article - one of the best we've read on this subject - author Rose Eveleth begins by explaining that our memories are unreliable, and easily manipulated. 'Combine this susceptibility with modern image-editing software', Eveleth states, 'and it's a recipe for disaster.'

Widely circulated during Hurricane Sandy, this 'live cam'  image purports to show huge waves striking the Statue of Liberty. In fact, it's a still from promotional material for 2004 disaster movie 'The Day After Tomorrow'.

According to research cited in the article, 'fake memories don't just distort how we see our past, they affect our current and future behaviour too'. This has dangerous consequences when an image is faked with the intent to deceive. As Eveleth writes 'people trust photographs so much that they actually place more weight on information that is accompanied with an image, regardless of how related or useful that image is.' And to complicate matters further, studies have shown that we're more inclined to 'remember' things that reinforce our opinions or prejudices.

This is Mitt Romney, but that isn't his family, and this amusing spelling mistake never happened. You
can see the original (untouched) image here. (original image: AP / Gerald Herbert) 

As evidence, Eveleth cites a study conducted by Slate Magazine, which examined contemporary images faked for political purposes and found that 'Republicans were more likely to remember Barrack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while Democrats are more likely to remember that George Bush was on vacation with the baseball pitcher Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina, even though neither event really happened.'

So next time you see an image on a news website or an email chain that invites you to laugh, cry or become outraged, don't take it at face value. It might just be a fake.