Truth Tracker: Reusable straw edited into Elizabeth May photo
TORONTO -- In politics, photographs hold power. But what happens when political parties begin manipulating photographs?
That’s the predicament Green Party Leader Elizabeth May finds herself in after Postmedia reported that a photo of her holding a cup, which was published on her party’s website, was edited to add an environmentally-friendly metal straw and the Green Party’s logo.
May said she was “completely shocked” to learn that one of her staff – who she described as “well-meaning” -- edited the image without her knowledge.
“And I'm sorry for the staff person that did it. I don't want to call them stupid on television, but there was nothing there to hide. So why Photoshop it? I have no idea. If they're going to Photoshop, couldn't they do something with my face and make it look a little younger?" she told CTV News Atlantic Tuesday during a trip to the Maritimes.
Asked whether she would apologize for the photo that some may see as political hypocrisy, May said the incident was not hypocritical because, in the original image, she is holding a compostable cup with no straw.
“I'm very conscientious about this. It won't surprise you to know I never take a plastic drinking water bottle, I carry my own mug, I carry my own utensils on airplanes so I never take a single-use plastic item. So it's bizarre that the notion of fakery should stretch to someone who doesn't fake anything."
The decision to add a metal straw to an already compostable cup, May said, was someone “just being really stupid, but it wasn’t fakery.”
The edited image was condemned by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who called the incident “troubling.”
“People need to know that they can rely on the information that’s being spread so they can make an informed decision,” Singh said Tuesday when asked about the incident during a campaign stop in Metro Vancouver.
Experts say the photograph is clearly misleading and falls short of the standard of truth. Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor at the University of Regina who studies fake news, said there is no excuse for a political party to doctor photos.
“It’s a bit tone-deaf considering the problems with misinformation that we’re having,” Pennycook told CTVNews.ca.
A metal straw might not seem like a big deal. But the problem has everything to do with viewers’ expectations, Pennycook said. When most people see an advertisement, they assume that there’s some level of editing involved.
But viewers don’t expect the same from politicians.
“Editing a photo that people ostensibly don’t think would be edited is misleading,” he said.
Even so, Pennycook called the straw photo “a very modest form of deception” and said he doesn’t think voters will care.
“It’s an interesting case study in a news story. But I would be surprised if it changes a single person’s vote come election time,” he said. “That’s a pretty silly thing to base your vote on.”
It’s rare for a political party to be caught doctoring a photo. But out-of-context photos shared by people with strong political motivations is common, according to Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit that provides resources on digital and media literacy.
“We haven’t seen too many examples of doctored photos in this election, but certainly photos are an issue in almost every election. And we know as well that photos are a major form on online misinformation,” Johnson said.
One recent example was a photo of trash on the ground that suggested climate strikers left the rubbish following a protest. In fact, the photo was the aftermath of a rock concert.
Another recent example was a photo of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing a white headdress that included a fake quote suggesting that he was converting to Islam. He isn’t. The photo actually showed Trudeau dressed as the pilot from Le Petit Prince, a French children’s book, while trick-or-treating with his son, Hadrien, in 2016.
When political disinformation emerges, it has a “corrosive” effect on voters, Johnson said.
“Any time we do have misinformation spreading as truth, even if it is innocent misinformation, then it makes it harder for us to know what is true and it leads to an electorate that is cynical instead of healthily skeptical,” he said.
Voters who share political news online should not assume that, just because something comes from a political party, that it meets the threshold of truth, Johnson said.
“Voters need to be cautious of information from all sources,” he said.
MediaSmarts offers online tools to help social media users spot photos that are doctored or taken out of context. Johnson said that anyone sharing stories online should take it upon themselves to conduct a quick fact check or reverse image search before hitting “share.”
“Most of the time, checking will not take 30 seconds. Less than a minute at the most,” he said.
“But it is essential that before we share anything we confirm that it’s true, because in our networked media environment, we’re not just consumers of news anymore -- we’re broadcasters too.”
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