How a badly faked photo of Vladimir Putin took over Twitter

Plus: how to identify fake images online. 

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Last week, the world’s eyes were on Vladimir Putin. As the Russian president sat down for his long-awaited meeting with Donald Trump during the G20 summit, the world held its breath. No one could look away. And nowhere was Putin’s pull better illustrated than in this viral photo of the leader, fixed with the rapt, almost adoring, gazes of Trump, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. If your average picture speaks a thousand words, this one spoke a million.

Or it would’ve – if it was real.

Over the weekend the picture spread across social media, accumulating hundreds of thousands of retweets and shares. Some users quickly pointed out the photo was faked and that Putin had been Photoshopped into an empty chair. Despite this, the picture continued to spread, with many making memes and jokes about a moment that never even happened.

It is not clear where the picture originated. @Hasavrat is a Turkish Twitter user who gained more than 15,000 retweets and 25,000 likes on her tweet of the picture on 8 July, which was captioned: “A Renaissance painting of our age”. She tells me she found the image on the “Turkish Twittersphere” and she doesn’t know who created it. “It was one of those feeds that does political satire and meme-type commenting – we call it #Goygoy in Turkish,” she explains.

One of the other earliest posts of the Photoshop was shared by the Russian journalist Vladimir Soloviev, who shared it on his Facebook page on 8 July and deleted it after it emerged it was fake. This has led to some claiming the picture was created and spread by the Russian media to showcase Putin’s power. In the picture, Angela Merkel has been Photoshopped so that it appears she is wearing a ribbon of Saint George, a Russian military decoration often worn as a symbol of support for the Russian government. Were the picture created by Russian government-sanctioned propagandists, you'd imagine the Photoshop would be infinitely better. 

Although the picture’s creator is currently unknown, it is clear different people spread the photo for different reasons.

“I didn't think it was real when I tweeted it,” @Hasavrat tells me, “I was very surprised and sort of regretted tweeting it at all.” She says she captioned the image with the words “of our age” because she was referring to the use of Photoshop, memes, and gifs in modern political discourse. Her intended audience were her Turkish Twitter followers, who she assumed would understand the joke.

“I did consider deleting it,” she says, “because I was noticing people were responding with ‘[it’s a] Photoshop’ non-stop, which is when it became apparent people thought it was real. I didn’t because I found it amusing, especially when journalists, MPs, think-tankers, etc started picking it up. People who I think really ought to know how to use Google Image search.

“Everyone has an inner troll, or at least I certainly do. I just muted the notifications on it.”

The fake picture continued to spread under joke captions, meaning many didn’t scrutinise its authenticity. Twitter user @ParkerMolloy shared the picture with the lyrics from the 1978 musical Grease, riffing off a scene in which the Pink Ladies surrounded the main character, Sandy. Molloy gained tens of thousands of retweets on the image, but deleted it on 10 July. “People seem to think I was trying to pass it off as real, so I deleted it,” she wrote.

On 9 July, Twitter users began sharing the news the photo was fake. Evan McMurry, a media editor at ABC, gained 13,500 retweets on his tweet showcasing the Photoshop and the original image. Earlier in the day, BuzzFeed editor Matthew Champion gained nearly 600 retweets when he shared the news. It has long been apparent that debunking posts don’t go anywhere near as viral as the fake posts themselves, and this incident seems no exception. Though McMurry’s tweet gained more shares than traditional debunks, there are still many online unaware that the picture is faked.

In 2012, academics found that 86 percent of fake images about Hurricane Sandy were spread through retweets, not original tweets. You don’t have to save and re-upload a fake image to be complicit in the damage they cause. To help you avoid this, the New Statesman has created a comprehensive guide to identifying fake images.

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.