PolitiFact's Notre-Dame Retraction Illustrates Digital-Era Pitfalls

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As the devastating fire raged at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris this past April, an image began circulating online of two men smiling amid a sea of mourners. As the image gained traction – it supposedly provided evidence of Muslims cheering the building’s destruction -- PolitiFact proclaimed it a fake, writing that the two men in the photo had been digitally inserted. But after digital forensics experts confirmed its authenticity, PolitiFact eventually clarified its fabrication claims. Its experience illustrates the difficulties of image verification in the modern era.

The saga of the Notre-Dame photo began like any other suspicious viral image. As the cathedral burned, the seemingly defamatory image spread among partisan social media and web channels. PolitiFact was asked to verify the story as part of its Facebook fact-checking partnership.

Using a reverse image search, PolitiFact identified the photo as having originated with Sputnik, a news agency owned by the Russian government, and said that it was merely part of its live coverage of the fire, with none of the inflammatory storyline it later became associated with. For one thing, there was no evidence the men in the photo were Muslim, or why they were smiling. So PolitiFact rated the claim that it depicted Muslims laughing at the blaze as “Pants on Fire” – its colorful way of deeming it false.

If PolitiFact had stopped there, the matter would not have attracted further attention. Instead, on the basis of a single expert’s opinion, PolitiFact went further to make the extraordinary claim that the originating news agency had fabricated the image, digitally inserting the two men before posting it. Sputnik vehemently denied that it had done anything of the sort, and another fact-checking site, consulting with a different expert, came to the conclusion that it had not been altered.

In response to questions about its fact check, PolitiFact initially defended its work, issuing a statement that Sputnik was a known source of false information and thus should not be believed. Rather than fully retract its claims, it “updated the headline … and some of the content … to be more clear,” but retained the claim that the image “raises questions.” It largely continued to stand behind its fact check even as the AFP tracked down the individuals in the photograph to confirm that it had not been altered. Their version, uncontested by anyone, is that  they were not smiling at the cathedral fire — this implication offended them — but because one of them caught his face on police tape cordoning off the fire zone.

Finally, nearly a month and a half later, PolitiFact offered a postmortem of what went wrong. But it conspicuously stopped short of apologizing to Sputnik.

The fact-checking site did, however, find a way to get Donald Trump into the story. At end of its postmortem, PolitiFact quoted an expert, Dartmouth University professor Hany Farid, as explaining how easy it has become to manipulate digital images. Invoking the 2016 release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes for some reason, PolitiFact wrote: “When it became public … Trump apologized. Now he might label it ‘fake news.’ Because, Farid said, there’s plausible deniability for everyone.”

PolitiFact included.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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