It’s easier than ever to get fooled online, especially by photos. Sophisticated editing can make doctored images look like legitimate photojournalism, and a surprising number of the viral images that show up in our social media feeds are at best misleadingly taken out of context, and at worst, completely doctored. But if you’re not a Photoshop expert, you may not be able to tell. That’s where SurfSafe comes in. The new browser extension helps flag fake or misleading images as you surf the web, as Wired reports.
Available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers, SurfSafe allows users to cross-reference where photos have shown up before online. It compares images with similar photos from news organizations, fact-checking sites, and reports from its users to determine whether you should trust what you’re seeing.
It flags images as either “safe,” “warning,” or “unsafe” depending on whether there are other versions of the photo out there that show a substantially different image and whether it’s been the subject of any controversy. When you click on the magnifying glass in the right-hand corner of an image, a window will appear in the right-hand corner of your tab aggregating instances where that image or something similar has shown up elsewhere on the web.
When you enable SurfSafe, you can choose to mark a number of sources as “safe,” including TV news networks like ABC and CBS, wire services like Reuters, papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and websites like Slate and Ars Technica. Wired reports that the extension also checks more than 100 other sites, including dedicated fact-checking sites like Snopes.
But some of the sources you’re allowed to mark as “safe” aren’t entirely reputable themselves. The list includes sites that have a well-known reputation for being unreliable, like The Daily Mail—whose standards for factual accuracy are so low that Wikipedia no longer allows it as a source. Presumably, if an image is cross-checked against 100 other sites as well, the extension will be able to flag a misleading photo, but it still seems like an odd choice for a fact-checking plug-in regardless.
The browser extension just launched, so the developers may still be working some kinks out. During my trial run, the extension sometimes lagged and failed to finish analyzing particular images. Other times it incorrectly reported that an image had not been spotted on any other site, though a reverse-image search on Google turned up plenty of hits for the same photo.
Eventually, the more people who use SurfSafe, the bigger its database of verified and flagged images will grow, in theory making its results more and more accurate. Even with its shortcomings, unless you dedicate yourself to becoming an eagle-eyed Photoshop expert and news junkie, it’s probably your best chance at navigating the often-murky world of viral images without falling for a hoax.