Photo debunking accounts spring up to call out viral fakes on Twitter

Paulo Ordoveza says there’s nothing complicated about what he’s doing.

Ordoveza, 37, follows roughly 100 Twitter accounts that share remarkable photos of earth, space, historical moments and other events. Then he calls them out from his @PicPedant handle for tweeting fakes, not crediting the original photographer, and for scraping images.

In a little more than a month his oh-so-simple Twitter account has drawn more than 9,000 followers.

A sample:

 

PicPedant is part of a small cadre of photo debunker accounts that provide a counterpoint to the viral photo feeds that offer an inaccurate, and infringed, view of the world.

Other debunkers are FakeAstropix (1,219 followers), CreditsInPics (287 followers), and Hoaxoffame (324 followers as of this writing), which also has a Tumblr.

Of course, they are dwarfed by the number of followers for accounts like HistoryInPics, which was profiled by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic and boasts close to 1.2 million followers.

When asked about the lack of credit they offer for the images they tweet, one of the teenaged founders of the account told Madrigal, “Photographers are welcome to file a complaint with Twitter, as long as they provide proof … I’m sure the majority of photographers would be glad to have their work seen by the massives.”

He also cited BuzzFeed as a popular site that often uses copyrighted material without attribution.

Notably, Ordoveza decided to launch PicPedant in late January after reading a story on BuzzFeed: “2014 Is The Year Of The Viral Debunk.”

Writer Charlie Warzel described this form of debunking as “a public, performative effort by newsrooms to warn, identify, chase down, and explain that the story you just saw — most likely on Facebook.”

But it’s not just newsrooms.

“I read the story and said, ‘I want in on this,’” Ordoveza says. “It started out as @PicScolder but then I thought it’s more being a pedant, so I changed it to that.”

Debunker by nature

Ordoveza is a developer and designer, currently working on government contracts. Prior to that, he was a front end developer for U.S. News & World Report. He’s also an experienced debunker.

“I was always that guy,” he says.

He’ll never hesitate to tell friends and family that the emails they had forwarded were fakes or scams. In the late ’90s he ran a debunking site for the Philippines, calling out hoax emails and other fakes. (Ordoveza was born in the U.S. but grew up in the Philippines.)

“I was just obsessed with accuracy and correcting what were moral panics in some cases that did not hold up to fact,” he says. “It didn’t last because I was overwhelmed with the volume of emails. I insisted on making everything super researched and long form, so it fizzled out. But having Twitter around has helps. The medium is prime for quick bursts of fact checking.”

Ordoveza has a habit of putting up websites about topics he’s passionate about. For example, he used to run demotepluto.com, which made the case for taking away Pluto’s status as a planet.

“I pulled it because it was a bit mean spirited towards people who think Pluto should still be a planet,” he says. “They’re wrong, but they’re not horrible people.”

The early success of PicPedant has been a surprise to Ordoveza. This is partly because he for the most part just uses Google Reverse Image Search to track down the original photo and point out what the viral photo feeds don’t bother to tell followers. He’s also a skilled Photoshopper, which helps him spot fakes.

“I started in late January,” he says. “I just debunk or attribute a couple of photos every hour or so. It took off in a way I wasn’t expecting.”

It seems the viral photo accounts don’t appreciate his efforts: Ordoveza was recently blocked by @earth_pics, which has 1.75 million followers.

‘History is not a toy’

So what is it about those viral photo accounts that drives him crazy? He recently explained in an exchange with someone on Twitter:

Fighting for proper recognition of artists in a laudable motivation. Another is to ensure people understand the truth of history and our world. That was beautifully expressed in a recent blog post by Sarah Werner, the digital media strategist for the Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Attribution, citation, and accuracy are the basis of understanding history,” she writes.

More from her:

These accounts capitalize on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened.

But history is not a toy. It’s not a private amusement. And those of us who engage with the past know how important it is and how enjoyable it can be to learn about it and from it.

Ordoveza believes that what he’s doing “should also be second nature to any journalist, especially on Twitter where viral fakes are so easy to propagate, but also easy to debunk.

“I know most journalists are too savvy to fall for the lunar eclipse and such,” he continues, “Well, I hope so anyways.”

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