Weather

Viral tornado photo from Tuesday’s storms in Kansas was a recycled photo from last year

Photos that depict Mother Nature’s strength almost always inspire awe.

In today’s age of social media and near-instantaneous reaction to extreme weather and natural disasters, we see more dramatic photos from such events than ever before.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to tell what’s accurate and what’s not.

Last night, not long after a tornado ravaged parts of Lawrence and Linwood, Kan., a photo that I shot nearly a year ago near Maize began circulating on social media sites, depicting it as being from Tuesday’s storms. One Twitter or Instagram post turned into another and by the time I was headed to bed, I was getting messages asking me, “Isn’t that your storm photo?”

One astute Twitter user, Ryan Atkinson, tried to set the record straight in a tweet posted at 11:33 p.m. on Tuesday night.

“So this image is going viral,” Atkinson wrote.

“Most posts are saying it was from the Bonner Springs PD. Couple of things: 1) This is way too good of a photo to have been taken with a cell phone or something. 2) C’mon people. This is the Midwest. You should know corn ain’t looking like that on May 28.”

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Unfortunately, Atkinson’s appeal for accuracy had little effect.

Another Facebook post from a Leavenworth woman praised the “awesome pictures,” but attributed them to a friend.

“She was actually driving thru all this to get home. People need to take their own pictures instead of stealing someone else’s and make it look like it’s theirs.”

The second photo in the Facebook post was my photo from the Maize storm a year ago, only flipped horizontally, and the “Kansas.com” watermark was cropped off the top. In the comments, one woman reiterates that it’s her photo, and that she’s “Not worried” about claims being made that the photo is, in fact, not hers.

Genelle Belmas, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, isn’t surprised to hear another story like this.

“We are a click-happy and a like-happy society,” Belmas said.

“Some of us have gotten drunk on finding the best possible ways to get those clicks and likes. We measure ourselves to some degree on our clicks and our likes.”

Belmas said there’s a course taught at KU to help students find the best ways to verify the accuracy of images online. Websites like Tineye.com or a Google image search can be utilized to help verify the accuracy of an image.

In the course, students are given a photo of an alligator lying in a driveway, purportedly during Hurricane Harvey in Houston and taken in August 2017. Well-known news anchor Katie Couric even retweeted the photo. Students, using verification tools, learn that the photo was indeed taken in Houston, but in April 2017, four months before Hurricane Harvey.

But Belmas acknowledges that it’s easy to teach journalism students to verify an image, it’s quite another to get the general public to do it.

“I think that we are still in an era where people think if it’s visual, it must be true,” she said.

“It’s a lot of work to be a critical thinker.”

There are numerous websites one can use to help verify the authenticity of online photos. Some helpful websites are:

Google Reverse Image search: https://images.google.com/

TinEye: https://www.tineye.com/

YouTube Data Viewer: https://citizenevidence.amnestyusa.org/

Foto Forensics: http://fotoforensics.com/

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