Verify a Photo's Origins

Use reverse image search

The contents of this guide have been adapted from the Digital Enquirer Kit written by Tactical Tech and produced by GIZ.

Visual information is not always so straightforward. As you explored in “Is What You See Really What You Get?” cheap fakes and deepfakes are some of the ways that images and videos can be taken out of context or manipulated, and they don’t always require advanced technical skills. In fact, some apps will automatically do it for you with a simple tap or click.

Images can be used to make you feel a certain way or to provide documentation that something happened. A picture can convey all kinds of messages and can color your interpretation of an article or video that it appears to represent. Misinformation can spread through photos, videos, as well as other visual forms like memes and infographics.

While visual misinformation definitely makes its rounds during pandemics and political elections, you may also get it when you least expect it. That’s why it’s important to keep a few different strategies in your back pocket to verify information.

In this Data Detox guide, you’ll learn how to conduct a reverse image search to verify a photo’s origins on the internet.

Whether you’ve stumbled across visual misinformation on social media or received forwarded messages directly to you in your family chat app and wondered whether it was reliable, this guide is for you.

Let’s dive in!

Start By Asking Basic Questions

What do you know with 100% certainty just by looking at this image?

Photograph of a scientist in a lab

It’s impossible to know much about an image with 100% certainty. No matter how closely you look at it, there’s more than meets the eye.

Date and location

Date and location

When and where was it taken?

Photographer

Photographer

Do you know who captured the photo?

Modification

Modification

Do you know for certain that this photo hasn’t been modified (i.e., miscaptioned, manipulated, or cropped)?

Meaning

Meaning

Could anyone try to mislead you by providing this image?

Confirmation

Confirmation

Can you confirm the subjects/events are from the specific day, time, place, or incident you’re looking into?

Details

Details

If there’s a caption, do you know if it accurately describes the photo?

Just by looking at an image, you wouldn’t be able to answer all these questions, but you can dig deeper to find out the details. One way is through reverse image search.

A reverse image search is when you upload an image from your phone or computer to a specialized website or app, which will then search for other websites that have the same or a similar image. There are many reverse image search tools online: TinEye is a well-known and reliable option.

Conduct a Reverse Image Search

You can conduct a reverse image search in TinEye in a few different ways…

  • by upload: Upload an image from your device. Click on the upload button to locate the desired image.
  • by URL: Copy and paste an image from your clipboard.
  • by drag and drop: Drag an image from a tab in your browser and drop it in the TinEye browser tab that is open.
  • by copy and paste: Copy and paste an image URL address into the search box.

TinEye then performs the search for you and the results immediately appear before your eyes!

Try a reverse image search yourself by taking that photo of the scientist. Follow the steps below:

  1. Go to TinEye.com
  2. Copy and paste the image's URL into the search bar on TinEye’s website. The image's URL is: https://cdn.ttc.io/s/digital-enquirer-kit/ddk-reversesearch/scientist.png
  3. Click or tap the magnifying glass to start the search.

At first glance, you can see that TinEye came back with more than 100 results.

  • Sorting the results by the “oldest” will lead you to the people who used this image first online, or to the original source of the image.
  • Sorting the results by the “Biggest Image” is sometimes useful because the original source is usually the one with the highest quality.

Sponsored: Did you notice that the first two search results are labeled in orange as “sponsored”? This means that the websites the image appeared on paid the search engine to display them first. This already shows that the image has appeared on other websites.

The oldest version of the image dates from 2013. It is labeled as a “stock” image. In fact, all three of these results are labeled as “stock.” So what exactly is a stock photo?

A stock photo is typically captured during a photo shoot with a model or actor and provided to an agency to be sold or shared, for example in commercials or online. There are countless stock photo websites where anyone can use a selected photo on their own website, posters, commercials, or marketing materials for free or for a price.

When you’re fact-checking, coming across a stock photo could be considered a red flag. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What message are they sending by using a stock photo?
  • Are they being deceptive (e.g., about the development and testing process) by using a stock photo on this page?
  • Why are they using a stock photo and not their own photo?
  • Does the subject of the photo really exist or are they fictional?

More Options Than TinEye...

If a search doesn’t yield any results on one reverse image search engine, try another one. Search engines such as Bing, Google, and Yandex include reverse image search options as well.

You can also use a browser extension like RevEye (for Chrome or Firefox), which helps automate reverse image searching by allowing you to search a variety of reverse image search engines by right-clicking on an image you find. There are also specialized reverse image search engines that search for a particular type of image; for instance, PimEyes allows you to search for images that contain similar faces.

If the tool you’ve chosen doesn’t seem to work on your mobile phone, there may be a simple solution. You may first need to switch to the ‘desktop’ version of the website in your mobile web browser.

In your browser, go to: Menu → Desktop Site (turn on)

Many of these tools belong to private companies and you can’t control what they do with your uploaded content.

  • Uploading public photos? Maybe no big deal.
  • Uploading privately shared photos? Consider any potential negative outcomes of a stranger possessing the photo you are doing the search on.

Some services do not provide a secure website, meaning your data could be exposed. Your location will be accessible if you don’t obscure it (e.g., via a VPN).

While the tools may change over time, your researching skills and expertise will, however, continue to strengthen through experience.

Edit the Photo and Try Again

If none of the search engines produce any good results, you may need to repeat the search with some parts of the photo cropped out or obscured.

  • To identify a landmark with people, crop them out or blur them so that the reverse image search algorithm doesn’t get distracted by the faces.
  • To identify a particular person, blur out or remove other faces in the photo, and use a face-based reverse image search site such as PimEyes.

The presence or absence of reverse image search results can help you to verify or cast doubt on the claims a source is making. But remember, they're only one piece of the puzzle.

Now that you know how to spot visual misinformation, check if what you see is truly what you get, learn 6 Tip to Steer Clear of Misinformation Online, and find out how to tackle health misinformation in Health vs. Hoax: Immunize Yourself Against Health Misinformation Online.

Last updated on: 1/4/2022