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Visual Forensics: Can We Trust Photos?

Fact-checked photos from the war in Ukraine can be a powerful source of truth.

Key points

  • The war in Ukraine also involves a fight against disinformation and propaganda.
  • Research shows that photos accompanying disinformation increase the believability of disinformation.
  • Research suggests that countering disinformation with facts can be effective.
 Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine mvs. gov. ua./Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International Journalists and independent fact-checkers authenticate photos of the war in Ukraine, including destroyed Russian tanks.
Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine mvs. gov. ua./Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Through photographs and videos, the world learned of horrors in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha in Ukraine.

Images showed dozens of bodies on the ground, some with their hands behind them. Russian state television quickly (and falsely) denounced the photos as a hoax, claiming (outrageously), for example, that one supposedly dead body moved a hand and other supposedly dead bodies stood up near the end of videos.

Photos and videos are powerful persuaders, and they can propel disinformation when combined with inaccurate or misleading text, a powerful combination sometimes termed multimodal disinformation.

We’ve covered multimodal disinformation before, although not by that name. We wrote about fake animal photos, which may seem harmless. Unfortunately, our appropriate skepticism can get worn down when it doesn’t seem anything is at stake, opening us to gullibility in the face of propaganda. We also wrote about photojournalist Jonah Bendiksen’s clever fake Book of Veles, which was an attempt to draw attention to the problem of disinformation in photos. And we wrote about fun “deepfake” photos like Bendiksen’s and dangerous “deep fake” videos, such as revenge porn.

Visual Forensics

Communication researcher Michael Hameleers and his colleagues (2020) outlined research on the powerful effects of multimodal disinformation compared to unimodal disinformation (for example, just text). For that reason, it is particularly important to develop techniques to uncover false photos and videos. Journalists are at the forefront of such efforts. In a recent episode of the News Literacy Project’s podcast Is That a Fact?, Elyse Samuels of The Washington Post described her work as a member of the visual forensics team for coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Samuels talked about tactics that included satellite images and Google image searches to see where, say, buildings really are, and even checking date stamps and the weather for the supposed date to see if they match.

In the case of the Bucha massacre, such techniques confirmed the authenticity of the gruesome images. One article reported: “High-resolution satellite images of Bucha from commercial provider Maxar Technology reviewed by The Associated Press independently matched the location of the bodies with separate videos from the scene. Other Western media had similar reports.”

In addition, the bodies were also visible in satellite images from weeks earlier. These were clearly not crisis actors posing for a few hours.

Of course, many Russians are against the war. And it's important to note the reported role of independent Russian journalists, many of whom have bravely fought against disinformation at great personal expense, including exile and imprisonment. For example, many Russian journalists have fled to countries that don’t require a visa, including Turkey and Armenia. And there are several reports of Russian journalists being detained or charged, including their coverage of anti-war protests.

Open-Source Intelligence

But it’s not just journalists doing this work. Independent organizations and individuals are using technology to determine which photos and videos are authentic, fake, and real but taken completely out of context. One such organization is the Dutch Oryx blog, which provides open-source intelligence (OSINT) about the military in worldwide conflicts. During the war in Ukraine, Oryx has been documenting Ukraine’s success in destroying Russian military equipment.

As the blog authors write, they document only “destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or video evidence is available. Therefore, the amount of equipment destroyed is significantly higher than recorded here.” Before adding to their list, they go to extensive efforts to verify the accuracy of any images, including examining satellite data and looking for multiple photos and/or videos of the same occurrence. (See also the similarly careful work of the Dutch fact-checking and OSINT group Bellingcat.)

The meticulous work of the Oryx team has earned the trust of several news outlets. As a Forbes journalist wrote, “It’s not for no reason that open-source-intelligence analysts, such as the bloggers at Oryx, often find overlapping visual evidence—videos and photos—to confirm the outcome of any observed aerial engagement. It might take a few weeks, but evidence usually surfaces.” And once there’s a trusted source such as Oryx, suddenly multimodal disinformation – and multimodal truth – can be uncovered.

In addition to emphasizing the particular perils of multimodal disinformation, Hameleers and his team (2020) showcased research on fighting back. They noted the central role of fact-checking. Specifically, research suggests the power of “the integration of message simplicity and factual information.” Pushing back on disinformation in the most uncomplicated way possible may be the path to cutting through propaganda.

Visual forensics specialists like Elyse Samuels and OSINT organizations like Oryx are essential in cutting through disinformation, uncovering Russian atrocities, and showcasing Ukrainian success. The latter is almost certainly a morale booster to Ukrainians and a powerful tool to encourage continued international support for Ukraine. So, yes, we can find ways to trust images, which is urgent and necessary right now.


Hameleers, M., Powell, T. E., Van Der Meer, T. G. L. A., & Bos, L. (2020) A picture paints a thousand lies? The effects and mechanisms of multimodal disinformation and rebuttals disseminated via social media, Political Communication, 37(2), 281-301,

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