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Photographic Evidence: It’s Easy to Believe

We fall for images even more than stories.

As the world began to function under stay-at-home orders, Twitter feeds filled up with photos of wildlife seemingly reclaiming their territory from human civilization. During the pandemic, there have been reports of a puma stalking the streets of Santiago, cows getting their hooves wet at the beach in Corsica, and wild mountain goats taking over the sidewalks of a small town in Wales.

One of the most viral examples concerned swans and dolphins returning to the winding canals of Venice, Italy. Photos showed swans elegantly paddling with their webbed feet through the deserted canals. Aerial shots showed dolphins, now visible through the undisturbed canal water, cruising just below the surface. The photos were beautiful and the accompanying story was compelling.

IulianUrsachi/iStock
Did this swan show up in the canals of Venice, Italy, after the pandemic-driven shut-down?
Source: IulianUrsachi/iStock

The problem with these photos is that they didn’t actually show what they suggested. A recent Bloomberg article notes, “Research suggests that ecosystems can rebound with speed once human intervention subsides.” This statement is technically true, and it has happened with other ecosystems (e.g., the famous example of the wolves in Yellowstone). But this rebound doesn’t happen in days or weeks, as the photos of the puma in the city, the cows at the beach, and the mountain goats on the sidewalk seem to suggest. Instead, this rebound takes years, even decades, and these viral animal photos could not have captured that. A recent Nature article optimistically suggests that a marine ecosystem could be rebuilt by 2050, three decades from now. Obviously, these viral photos did not capture the future or a changed ecological system.

The National Geographic reporter Natasha Daly focuses on “the intersection of animals and culture: how social media and societal trends shape our perceptions, and treatment, of animals.” As she explained in one article, “Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life.” Here, she explains the misinformation involved in the viral photos of the swans and dolphins: "The swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken. The Venetian dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away."

In fact, the swan depicted here is gliding through Burano, rather than Venice, and was photographed in 2019, well before the pandemic. Why was it so easy to believe these wildlife stories? One reason is the psychological concept known as the principle of charity, which suggests that humans more readily believe than doubt. That is, the human brain is built to believe (the skepticism has to be learned). Just click on those hyperlinks, above, and look at those animal photos. Seeing them makes the viewer want to believe that wildlife are returning; you might even sense the principle of charity happening as you look.

These returning-wildlife stories are great stories, which also makes them easier for many readers to believe. As we discussed in a previous article, humans naturally find stories more compelling than data and facts (the fact here being that an ecosystem simply cannot change that fast). In fact, research shows that the principle of charity can be combined with testimonials to drive our opinion: As one study participant explained, “There’s a lot I don’t trust about the internet, but I do trust the reviews somehow. When I read them through they give me a different slant on it than the overview or the advertising. It’s a more personal response.”

And, of course, given the viral nature of the animal photos, we’d be remiss to not mention the effect that repetition can have on believability. Research shows that the more humans hear new information, the more believable that new information becomes, even if it isn’t true. And finally, evidence suggests photos are simply more persuasive than text alone.

In the past, the first question about the believability of a photo concerned whether it was photoshopped or not. Now we must ask ourselves more nuanced questions as well. The next time you look at the photos that accompany an article, consider these questions about possible misinformation photos:

  • Does the image appear photoshopped?
  • Does the image show what the caption or article suggests?
  • Was the image taken at a different time or place than what is suggested?
  • And finally, do I believe this image because I want to believe it?

References

Boudry, M., Blancke, S., & Pigliucci, M. (2015). What makes weird beliefs thrive? The epidemiology of pseudoscience. Philosophical Psychology, 28(8), 1177-1198. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2014.971946

Duarte, C., Agusti, S., Barbier, E., Britten, G., Castilla, J., Gattuso, J., Fulweiler, R., Hughes, T., Knowlton, N., Lovelock, C., Lotze, H., Predragovic, M., Poloczanska, E., Roberts, C., & Worm, B. (2020). Rebuilding marine life. Nature, 580, 39-51. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2146-7

Fazio, L. K., & Sherry, C. L. (2020). The effect of repetition on truth judgments across development. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620939534

Metzger, M. J., Flanagin, A. J., & Medders, R. B. (2010). Social and heuristic approaches to credibility evaluation online. Journal of Communication, 60(3), 413-439. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2010.01488.x

Rodriguez, F., Rhodes, R. E., Miller, K. F., & Shah, P. (2016). Examining the influence of anecdotal stories and the interplay of individual differences on reasoning. Thinking and Reasoning, 22, 1-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13546783.2016.1139506

Seo, B. K. (2020). Meta-Analysis on Visual Persuasion–Does Adding Images to Texts Influence Persuasion? Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications, 6(3), 177-190. https://doi.org/10.30958/ajmmc.6-3-3

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