We live in a reality where nothing is reality. From the posts on Instagram we mindlessly scroll through, to the news we consume from major media outlets – nothing is as “real” as we would hope it would be. Falsities have become a new economy. Just like bootleg designer pocketbooks, fake digital content has been all the rage with people, and large organizations, using it to boost their social status, following, and engagement. So what do I mean when I say fake?

In this post, fake content will refer to digital visual storytelling content – specifically photography – that has been deliberately staged or manipulated in order to incite a distinct/biased response from the viewership. Due to today’s digital culture, nearly everything we see has been edited in some sort of capacity. With the omnipotent powers of Photoshop, we have the ability to whiten teeth, edit the perfect sunset, or even remove whole people from images if we so choose. Apps like Facetune have made editing photos extremely easy and accessible. In fact, young teenagers have been so affected by the fake content they consume that the term “Snapchat dysmorphia” has been used to describe their photo-editing compulsion in an attempt to conform to unattainable beauty standards. In one of his latest projects entitled Selfie Harm, photographer John Rankin Waddell, asks teens to edit their photos until it was “social media ready.” Below you can see one of the results. The after photo depicts bulging eyes, a chiseled nose, and a chin that comes to a harsh point – it’s almost alien in comparison.

Source: Rankin Photo

Although photo editing and staged photos have become more prevalent surrounding the digital renaissance, these concepts are not new in the slightest. One famous instance of fake visual storytelling made global headlines was the “Cottingley Fairies” hoax in 1917. What started as two girls playing around with a family member’s camera evolved into a massive hoax that they upheld until 1983. That’s over 60 years of maintaining a fake story! What a commitment that must have been.

While some visual storytelling falsities, like the above, can be somewhat harmless, many photographers and media publishers deliberately edit images in order to slant messages. In 2008, Iran published a doctored photo of missiles being launched from mobile platforms on a desert military base. During the launch, one of the four large artilleries malfunctioned. To ensure that their demonstration military might was “taken seriously,” Iranian media photoshopped in an extra missile to cover up the one that failed. At this point in history, the Iranians believed it was important to seem powerful and provocative – and a full, working set of missiles could have definitely done the trick.

The Greatest Sin in Visual Storytelling

As we have seen thus far, editing photos can be quite harmful when done with a certain intent. I strongly believe that most staged photography and edits to images are not done for malicious reasons, but rather for artistic ones. In my opinion, the greatest sin in visual storytelling has not to do with the story itself or what edits were made to an image, but rather with WHO is telling the story.

Throughout the past month, I’ve learned that visuals aren’t the only thing to be considered when determining if a story is valuable or not. Online, content is blasting every single second – competing for your attention in the form of social media engagement and click-through rates. Media outlets rabidly hunger to create a viral success. If one formula works for a competitor, you better believe they are going to try it within a week to see if it actually yields results. But with the ease of the Internet, outlets and even regular individuals have gotten even lazier. The greatest sin in visual storytelling today is appropriating a story that is not yours to tell.

Because it is so easy to save an image or to screen record a cool video, people are taking whatever stories they like – regardless of if those stories are “real” – and claiming them as their own by posting it on their channels. This is not only disrespectful to those who worked hard to capture those images or spent nights editing complex video footage, but it is dangerous. By removing the necessary context around what a person is seeing, and potentially inserting another layer of falsities, the audience becomes disoriented and even more skeptical of what is the truth and what is not. 

“Content builds relationships. Relationships are built on trust. Trust drives revenue.”
– Andrew Davis

You wouldn’t buy a Harry Potter book if J.K. Rowling’s name was replaced by some random one. You also wouldn’t buy it if it had a major news site written on it. The world needs to again understand and respect the authenticity and artistry visual storytelling has to offer. Popular content creators often have fans that report stolen work whenever they find a sketchy looking post. Many social media platforms like Instagram, and now even LinkedIn, are committed to helping crackdown on stolen stories. This is crucial. From these efforts on the individual-level and large-scale operations, we can begin to tell more honest, more intentional stories.


(n.d.). Retrieved from https://help.instagram.com/contact/552695131608132

Chiu, A. (2019, April 29). Patients are desperate to resemble their doctored selfies. Plastic surgeons alarmed by ‘Snapchat dysmorphia.’. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/06/patients-are-desperate-to-resemble-their-doctored-selfies-plastic-surgeons-alarmed-by-snapchat-dysmorphia/

Lauriello, S. (2019, February 7). This Is How Much Teenage Girls Edit Their Photos to Make Them ‘Social Media Ready’. Retrieved from https://www.health.com/mind-body/selfie-harm-photo-series-by-rankin

Nizza, M., & Lyons, P. J. (2008, July 10). In an Iranian Image, a Missile Too Many. Retrieved from https://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/in-an-iranian-image-a-missile-too-many/

Ohlheiser, A. (2019, April 28). Analysis | This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/11/18/this-is-how-the-internets-fake-news-writers-make-money/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.59235ba33972

Rea, N. (2019, April 2). Faked ‘Fairy’ Photographs From a Famous 20th-Century Hoax Could Fetch $90,000 at Auction. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/market/famous-fake-fairy-photographs-head-auction-1506307

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