Educational sheet 10


Level : Intermediate

Educational goals

Objective 1: Viewing the importance of images in our societies objectively

Objective 2: Preventing manipulation via images

Objective 3: Approaching images critically and positively

The power of images

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’


For decades now, images have had an important role in our societies, be they on television, in media, advertising, or more directly in our lives with the frequent use of social media. When you see an image, you think you are getting an immediate and full picture of reality, much more quickly than with written text or a speech. As a result, this type of communication and expression has great symbolic power because it can contain so much in so little content.


A double-edged sword


That being said, this great symbolic power is not without its flaws. The tendency to think that an image can speak for itself is a trap to be avoided because images can easily trick our senses, meaning they can be used to mislead or manipulate us. For example, it is very possible to interpret one image in multiple ways.


With the power of social media and the internet, an image, photograph, or video can go viral and global. On the one hand, this virality can be a good thing when spreading images helps to raise awareness, such as the photo of a young Serbo-Croat couple kissing proudly while wrapped in their respective flags, which was disseminated widely on social media. At the same time, however, it means that sometimes we have to deal with the massive and rapid spread of false information or conspiracy theories illustrated by or directly linked to images or videos.


Fabricating and manipulating images


The central role of images and their impact on our societies helps us to understand why the most effective and widespread false information uses visual aids (images, photos, videos). Even when it is not directly linked to a photo, the creator of the false information will usually look for an image (often manipulated or taken out of context) to illustrate it.


There are different types of image manipulation:


  • Removing context: This is the most common method because it is very easy to do. It involves reinterpreting the meaning of an image to make it say something else by taking it out of its original context. As a result, the real reasons and circumstances in which the photo was taken no longer matter. The goal is to try and illustrate a statement by only using the surface-level appearance of the image and omitting the backstory, which itself is a kind of betrayal of the image’s meaning.


Example: In August 2020, an image circulated on social media claiming that a 5G antenna had been installed on the roof of a minaret of a mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, the photo showed nothing but the minaret, but the caption said that it had a 5G antenna that was emitting strong magnetic radiation, even though 5G has yet to be installed in the country.


  • Doctoring and photo editing: This method involves artificially modifying the original image or photo with the intent of changing its meaning. This can be: 
    • A person or object added to or removed from a photo or video.


Example: After the explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, doctored images appeared online that had a missile added into them using video software, implying that the explosion had been a military attack by a foreign country, specifically Israel.


    • The photo can also be cropped to hide part of it, such as during a meeting or demonstration: It is possible to crop out parts of the image where there are no people to give the impression that the whole area was full.


  • Deepfakes: This is a manipulation technique that uses artificial intelligence software to replace a person’s face in a video. For example, there is a video of a fake speech by Barack Obama in which he insults his successor Donald Trump. The manipulation was achieved with ‘DeepFake’ technology. With the recent technological advances, it has become increasingly difficult to tell which images have been doctored or manipulated and, with the arrival of new video manipulation methods, even greater caution and more verification of sources will be required.


False information and social media: two connected issues


Sharing photos and videos is a core function of the vast majority of social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat). In that regard, the danger is actually twofold because, on the one hand, it is possible for any person to publish or share images to a large social media audience, and, on the other hand, image manipulation does not require any actual technical proficiency (as was the case of the photo of the 5G antenna on a minaret in Bosnia and Herzegovina).



Newspaper cartoons and caricatures

The symbolic power of images is something the press has been using for a long time to convey its messages. Even before photography existed, newspapers used images as a form of criticism, particularly caricatures. It is interesting to note that even today, despite widespread use of images and photography, caricatures are still used in the press and the technique has even become a profession unto itself.


Definition: A symbolic form of expression that synthesises a concept, issue, or current event by exaggerating a person or phenomenon’s features or appearance. Most caricatures use a humorous tone to censure and criticise.


Example: In Serbia in November 2018, caricatures by the famous cartoonists Predrag Koraksić Corax and Dušan Petričić were the subject of such controversy that the Lazaravac Library had to take down their drawings. The illustrators were very adamant defenders of freedom of expression and an exhibition of their cartoons and caricatures opened on 22 November at the Stari Grad municipal building in Belgrade.


Caricature is an interesting topic when considering the use of images and their impact, but it is a tool that is seldom used by young people. Because of its symbolic power and the fact that it is attached to a specific context or subject, talking about caricatures with young people often requires contextualisation to allow them to understand the issues and topics the caricature addresses.