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Low-tech lying: How Trump uses old, unrelated images to sow disinformation

It can be hard to spot a lie when the photo itself is real.

Low-tech lying: How Trump uses old, unrelated images to sow disinformation
[Source Images: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images, octomesecam/iStock]

A recent Facebook ad for Donald Trump advocates him as the law and order candidate, using a photograph of protesters attacking a police officer to represent the certain chaos without him at the helm.

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It’s a clear nod to the recent protests in Portland, Oregon, which Trump has spoken out against (and sent federal agents to quell). The only problem? The photo was taken in Ukraine in 2014.

[Images: Facebook Ad Library, Wikipedia]
It’s not the first time Trump—or those around him—have misappropriated images to fit their message. In fact, it’s been happening since day one. So it should come as no surprise that Trump—who has reportedly made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims—would use photographic evidence to mislead and misdirect. But it can be hard to spot a lie when the photo itself is real.

There has been a lot of analysis, speculation, and handwringing over deepfakes—videos that are manipulated so the subject is replaced with someone else’s likeness. But deception from Trump’s orbit has been remarkably analog: Take an existing image and combine it with a new message. The clear implication is that the two are related, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Anyone with a basic understanding of Photoshop can do it. Heck, anyone with a Twitter account can do it. Here are just a few examples of why we don’t need deepfakes for disinformation to thrive.

[Screenshot: Twitter]

Progress that wasn’t happening

In early 2018, Trump tweeted a series of photos showing fencing under construction along the Mexican border with the caption “Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!” The text would lead you to believe that those photos were current and his 2,000-mile border wall was moving forward. However, the images were actually of a short stretch of an existing wall that was being replaced (days before the tweet, Congress declined to fully fund the wall). As of June 19, only about three miles of new wall had been built.

Crowds that weren’t that big

Trump took issue with the suggestion that his inauguration day had smaller crowds than Obama. (It did.) To support Trump’s false narrative, a government photographer cropped photos of Trump’s inauguration day crowds to make attendance appear larger than it actually was.

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Meetings that took place at different times

In April 2018, then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out a photo suggesting that Trump and his team were deliberating a missile strike in the situation room. One problem: Mike Pence, who was in the photo, was in Peru when she posted the image. Huckabee Sanders later clarified the photo was taken the day before.

Protesters that were edited to look violent

This summer, the Trump campaign ran an ad that misrepresented actions of Black protestors. The ad uses a video clip of a group of Black protesters pulling someone who was smashing cement with a hammer. It’s paired with audio citing “chaos in the streets.” In reality, the video captured protestors removing a provocateur. According to the The Intercept, the original photojournalist didn’t give the campaign permission to use the footage.

Events that were totally unrelated

On Facebook, Trump fan accounts shared a photo of a packed crowd and misrepresented it as overflow from Trump’s rally in Tulsa. The photo was actually from a Rolling Thunder event in Washington, D.C., in 2019. Trump’s rally, meanwhile, was poorly attended.

Map that was altered to support Trump’s false narrative

In September 2019, Trump said that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. Except it wasn’t. Rather than admit his mistake, several days later, Trump showed a map of the hurricane’s projected path that had a curious alteration: what appeared to be a Sharpied bubble adding Alabama to the path of the storm. This is probably the most low-fi version of image doctoring yet—no computer required.

Since its invention, photography has been thought of as a tool of empirical documentation because of how it directly captures the world around us. But what we’re learning from the Trump administration is that you don’t even need deepfakes to manipulate images and sow disinformation. You just need a total disregard for the truth.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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