On Friday, a photo that purported to show two British naval aircraft carriers dwarfing a much smaller French naval ship made the rounds on social media. But you can’t always believe your eyes online.
Photos are easy to duplicate and then use in misleading ways. Scammers can lift a social media profile photo, for example, and use it to give a fake account a sheen of authenticity. Similarly, news photos can be grabbed from coverage of one event and pasted into stories about another event, misleading readers about what’s happening.
In the case of the photo of the aircraft carriers, a reverse image search revealed the tiny vessel had been added digitally, Snopes found.
A reverse image search can help you spot misleading photos by identifying their origin. If you’re in doubt, this search engine tool will help you spot scams, debunk false news, and discover people using your images without your permission.
Reverse image searches rely on either Google’s Images or Lens service. Either will provide a list of websites displaying the photo or image, as well as a link and description.
Both services can also give you a list of visually similar images that might provide images shot from different angles. The list might also show the same picture with an original caption or from an earlier news story. That information is often used by fact-checkers, who’ve been using the tools to verify whether images from the war in Ukraine are current and shared in the right context.
These tools are so powerful that scammers are turning to high-tech methods to end-run reverse image searches. AI-generated profile pictures have become popular with dishonest groups that rely on bogus social media accounts, like the scheme researchers identified on LinkedIn that aimed to generate sales leads with a raft of fake profiles. Reverse image searching an AI-generated photo won’t lead you to a real person, so they’re harder to identify as fake. But the use of AI-generated photos is currently fairly limited.
Here’s what you need to know about reverse image searches.
Why you might want to run a reverse image search
You can use a reverse image search to spot fraud and scams. Going on a first date? Run the person’s Tinder profile picture through a reverse image search to see if the photo is associated with anyone else. Buying something from a stranger on the internet? Reverse image search the picture of the item to see if it’s been posted by other people.
If you have photos you don’t want repurposed by strangers, it might also make sense to run them through a reverse image search now and then. You can check if anyone is reusing your profile photos on TikTok or Tinder or stealing snaps of your crafts from Pinterest and claiming your creations as their own.
Finally, you might want to win an argument. When someone posts an image with a news story that just doesn’t sound right to you, you could try to look it up on Snopes. But the website, which fact-checks news stories, rumors and memes that fly around the internet, can’t investigate everything. That’s when it’s time to open up Google.
How to run a reverse image search
A handful of options for reverse image searches exist. They all start with a browser, however, so open Google Images on Safari, Firefox or Chrome.
Option 1: Click and hold the image. Then drag it to the Google Images search field in another tab. If you’re using Safari, you’ll need to have the page with the image open in one window and the Google Images search page open in another. To open a new window, you can click File and then New Window, or you can click and hold on a tab to drag it out of the window you’re currently navigating in.
Option 2: Take a screenshot of the image and drag that file into the Google Images search field. (You can also upload the file from the Google Images search bar, if you prefer.)
Option 3: Right-click on the image and select Open image in another window. Copy the URL and then paste into the Google Images search field.
Option 4: If you’re using Chrome, right-click on the image and select Search Images with Google Lens. Drag the cursor over the image to select it as in a screenshot.
The results will tell you what other contexts the photo has appeared in. For example, a reverse image search revealed that a photo of Mike Tyson apparently wearing an anti-vaccine T-shirt had been doctored; the T-shirt actually worn by the boxer in fact displayed a photo of Mike Tyson himself.
How to run a reverse image search on your phone
Reverse image searches on mobile have come a long way. Here are four options:
Option 1: In the mobile Chrome browser, press on an image and then select Search Google for This Image.
Option 2: Press on the photo in your mobile browser and select the option that lets you copy the photo (Copy or Copy URL, for example). That puts the photo’s URL onto your clipboard. Then paste the URL into the Google Images search bar.
Option 3: Use Google Lens on Android phones, either with the standalone app or Google Lens features that some Android phones offer in the camera app.
Option 4: Use the Google app on your phone (this works for Android phones and iPhones ($263 at Amazon)). Save a screenshot of the photo in your camera roll. In the Google app, tap the camera icon and then tap the camera roll in the lower left corner. Select the screenshot from your camera roll.
What to do about fake or misleading posts
You can report a misleading or false meme to the social media platform you found it on. For example, you can report tweets for being “misleading” to Twitter and flag posts for including “false information” on Facebook.
You can also report scam dating profiles, bogus for-sale posts and fake rental listings to the Federal Trade Commission, as well as to the websites that host them. Steps for reporting the posts will be different for each website.
You can also let people know they’ve posted something misleading, which they may have done unwittingly. You may be in for an argument, but you’ll have facts to back you up.