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Advanced reverse image search

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Search by image

This lesson has been adapted from Google News Lab and is reproduced with permission. It follows on from An introduction to image search.

When newsworthy footage emerges online, numerous copies will quickly follow in the race to claim ownership and accumulate views. Reverse image search is the quickest and easiest verification step and should always be the first check you run.

There are several methods and services which allow you to perform reverse image searches at no cost. The two most popular services are TinEye and Google Image Search. As well as this lesson, we strongly recommend that you also read Africa Check’s excellent How to verify images on your smartphone.

For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll be focussing on Google Image Search.

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • How to interpret the results of a reverse image search
  • How to use reverse image search on mobile

Uncovering your image’s backstory

Knowing all the places a photo has been used or finding images that are similar to it can help you verify its source and authenticity. There are two easy ways to learn more about images online.

We covered the basics of how to search by image in the previous lesson, here.

In this example, provided by Kenyan fact-checking website Pesacheck, this image was posted to the social media account of a major national news organisation to illustrate a story about election-related violence.

NASA Is the National Super Alliance, which is in opposition to the current president.

Cross-referencing the image

While it’s tempting for other journalists to start resharing the same image, fact checking takes seconds. Using a web browser or a mobile app for image search reveals that the picture upon which the NASA story is based identical to the thumbnail for a video uploaded to YouTube showing a truck fire on a US highway.

This is the key result in a reverse image search.

Image search result in Google.


And in TinEye.

You can see from the metadata at the bottom of the search link that the video was uploaded in 2011 – six years before the Kenyan election. The video itself was shot in 2008. This story was just one of many “fake news” pieces that circulated on the same day, mostly as a result of poor fact checking.

More options for image checking

A single image search may not give you all the details you need to confirm whether or not an image is genuine, especially if you’re investigating stories that were published some time ago. Searching across multiple image search engines, using this browser add-in for example, can help you to build up a more complete history of an image.

You can also try other methods, such as looking at the data embedded in the image itself. Metapicz and Verexif are web-based tools that will let you view data recorded by the camera at the time the photograph was taken. This is called EXIF data, and includes the data a photo was taken, as well as the type of camera it was taken with.

Beware, however, as EXIF data can be edited before an image is uploaded online, so it should not be considered 100% reliable.

In Google Image Search, once you’ve searched by image, you can narrow down your results using the Time drop-down menu to see when and where it’s been published.

To filter your results by date, click on Search Tools and then Time to set your parameters, which range from the past hour to the past year to custom dates.

Reverse image search on mobile

There are two ways you can use reverse image search on mobile.

Maybe you’re in the field when you get a breaking news alert about a drug bust that you want to investigate immediately. You can perform a reverse image search right on your phone.

If you are using Chrome as your mobile browser, press on the image until the pop-up dialogue box appears, then select Search Google For This Image.

Alternatively, you can go to reverse.photos and upload an image from your phone there (you’ll need to download it in your browser first).

To learn more about reverse image search, check out the FAQ video on YouTube.

There are also a number of mobile apps and browser add-ons available which can search Google Image Search and services such as TinEye simultaneously.

Multiple images and video thumbnails

Many of the same images circulate after major events like natural disasters, riots and airline crashes, so finding original news reports will help to identify misattributed content.

When you are working to verify a video, try running a reverse image search of the video thumbnail to see if an earlier version of the same video exists online.

During a severe storm in Cape Town in June 2017, many major news sites shared videos which were said to made by eyewitnesses during the event. Many were fake, including one which was originally filmed in Chennai, India. Sharing videos like this without checking the thumbnails can cause panic.

Let’s review!

Reverse image search