What’s real online?

Posted on May 21, 2013


I’ve talked about ‘authenticity’ over on the Collective Content blog, to be honest mostly in that annoying way that people in marketing use the word. (Definitely not Antiques Roadshow-style.)

But in a very dictionary definition – namely, whether something is what it is supposed to be – it’s becoming a big issue in the digital world.

Two examples. You may have seen this extremely powerful photo.

Gaza Burial photo by Paul Hansen. Winner of 2013 World Press Photo of the Year.

Gaza Burial photo by Paul Hansen. Winner of 2013 World Press Photo of the Year.

Now people are asking whether it has been faked. Not faked like a painting in The Thomas Crown Affair but in the sense that it might be a composite of shots or it has been digitally manipulated to too great a degree. You can read more about the scrutiny here and then about the confirmation it wasn’t faked. But because of the sensitive subject matter, this was no small dispute.

In the same week that this became a big debate in photographic and political circles, I came across this viral video.

I must admit I loved it, shared it on Facebook and Twitter (after seeing a friend mention it there), generally had a smile on my face for a while.

Then you see people question its provenance. Was it too good to be true? Was it real? Was it – at least in some way – a set up? (I even shared it on Facebook with the suffix “Please tell me it’s real.”)

There you go – authenticity again. I’m too jaded to believe most things at face value online, partly from bitter experience.

After all, how many hoaxes are on the internet and how often do you see people fall for them all the time? I recommend sites such as www.hoaxbusters.org. At least it might help me see that ‘Bill Cosby’ right-wing rant a bit less often.

The tricky natural place we get to with all this is simply: Does it matter?

Was there enough truth in that picture from Gaza? Does the video from NBC’s Jay Leno Show still work even if, say, the two singers weren’t quite as spontaneous or randomly selected as we’re led to believe?

There is often also a thin dividing line between real and fake. Is it faking it if the photographer, Swede Paul Hansen, in the award-winning Gaza Burial shot had enhanced colours too much or joined together two photos?

We all see these lines slightly differently. And it’s not getting any easier in a digital world where images – moving or still – are everywhere.

Follow Tony on Twitter – @tphallett