Who needs deepfakes when bogus crowd photos get thousands of shares on Facebook?

April 12, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

Fact vs. Fake is a weekly column in which we compare the reach of fact checks vs. hoaxes on Facebook. Read all our analyses here.

When President Donald Trump’s press secretary claimed that the crowd at the 2017 inauguration was record-breaking, the United States had a nervous breakdown.

Fact-checkers launched into action, analyzing charts of past attendance numbers, as well as metro ridership the day of Trump’s inauguration, to show why Sean Spicer’s claim was demonstrably false. Journalists compared photos on live television. And Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway infamously justified the falsehood by stating that Spicer had used “alternative facts.”

It was a bizarre precursor for what would become a historically inaccurate presidency — and it felt like a defining moment for American fact-checkers. But the obsession with crowd size isn’t only a feature of American politics.

In Indonesia, where people are paid to spread deliberately false information about presidential candidates on social media, fact-checkers have been busy debunking similar hoaxes in the lead-up to next week’s election. France 24 reported this week that misinformation has exacerbated religious rifts in Indonesian society.

At the same time, a lot of the hoaxes that journalists are going after have to do with crowd size. In the past week, two of the most engaging articles from Liputan 6’s fact-checking team debunked photos that were taken out of context, according to audience metrics tool BuzzSumo.

In its latest fact check, the outlet debunked a series of photos that claimed to show a crowd of supporters of presidential candidate Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) in a field. According to the hoax, which had racked up several hundred engagements as of publication, the event was a campaign event organized by Jokowi.

But it wasn’t. Liputan 6 fact-checkers found that the photo was actually taken at a campaign event organized by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in February.

Below is a chart with other top fact checks since last Tuesday in order of how many likes, comments and shares they got on Facebook, according to data from BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle. Read more about our methodology here.

In a second fact check published this week, Liputan 6 covered another hoax about crowd sizes — and this time it used a tool specifically designed to help fact-checkers.

On Monday, fact-checkers debunked a claim from presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto that the audience for one of his rallies at a stadium in Jakarta exceeded 1 million people. But spokespeople for Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium itself refuted that charge, saying it could only hold up to 150,000.

Liputan 6 put the dispute to rest using Mapchecking.com, a tool created by French developer Anthony Catel that lets users highlight a specific area on Google Maps and see how many people can mathematically fit there. What the fact-checkers found was that, even if there were seven people per square meter throughout the stadium and its surrounding roads, it could only accommodate 564,486 people.

(Screenshot from Liputan 6)

In late March, Liputan 6 debunked another out-of-context image that purported to show a bridge filled with Jokowi supporters in Palembang, South Sumatra. In fact, the photo was taken from a Black Nazarene procession in Manila, Philippines, and posted out of context by a Facebook user, racking up more than 1,400 engagements as of publication.

For just a few weeks of a presidential campaign, that’s a lot of falsehoods about crowd sizes. And it’s not just Liputan 6, either; the Agence France-Presse’s Indonesia team debunked an image on Thursday that claimed to show a Jokowi rally but was actually taken in Turkey.

These fact checks echo past hoaxes about crowd sizes, spanning from Iran to the U.S., and they reveal how easy it is for misinformers around the world to create them.

In all but one of Liputan 6’s fact checks, as well as AFP’s article, Facebook users simply posted old photos with a new context. That’s a common tactic for misinformers around the world and, in a lot of cases, they get more engagement on Facebook. That’s despite the fact that debunks from the company’s fact-checking partners, including Liputan 6 and AFP, decrease the future reach of false images and videos.

Who needs Photoshop or “deepfake” videos when misinformers can just post out-of-context photos and get thousands of engagements on Facebook? For now, this kind of misinformation is still among the biggest threats to tech companies as they try to combat election fakery worldwide.

Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook’s fact-checking project.