Fact Check: Some Circulating Photos of Public Health Officers Are NOT The Original Version -- Photo Manipulations Carry Message

Fact Check

  • by: Sarah Thompson
Fact Check: Some Circulating Photos of Public Health Officers Are NOT The Original Version -- Photo Manipulations Carry Message Altered Photo

Does this photo accurately portray the appearance of Canadian Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam? No, that's not true: This photo, which originally appeared in the Toronto Star on April 23, 2020, has been digitally altered in several ways to change how she looks. Other public health officials, such as Dr. Barbara Ferrer, public health director of Los Angeles County, have also been similarly attacked by means of photo manipulation.

The earliest altered version of the Tam photo that Lead Stories identified was posted to a Facebook page titled "4chan /x/ - Paranormal" on May 4, 2021. That post did not identify the person pictured, and did suggest that the image was edited. The altered photo had renewed attention in September 2021. One example is from a Facebook post on September 10, 2021, with the caption:

Look very closely...what does your intuition tell you?

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Fri Sep 17 15:44:38 2021 UTC)

The image has been altered in a way that specifically feeds into QAnon conspiracy tropes calling QAnon's targets demonic or reptilian. One obvious change to the photo is the color saturation and contrast that enhances wrinkles and shadows. Skin blemishes have been added, and both the eyes and mouth have been enlarged. The size of the irises has also been enlarged and their color changed to an inky black. Captions and comments on social media posts use dehumanizing language like, "I don't want it ministering to my health." An Instagram post has text reading, "Health minister of Canada. No one will ever convince me this is not a demon."

Below is a comparison of the altered image and the original as it appeared in an article titled, "Conservative MP's ugly smear against Theresa Tam comes from an infection in Canadian politics," in thestar.com on April 23, 2020.


(Image source: Lead Stories comparison created on Fri Sep 17 16:13:41 2021 UTC)

Another public health official whose appearance has been attacked and misrepresented through photo manipulation during the COVID-19 pandemic is Dr. Barbara Ferrer. A photo still from a May 13, 2020, COVID news conference has been altered. The altered photo appears in a September 13, 2021, Facebook post. In this case the warm tones of Ferrer's complexion have been reduced, making her appear grey, and dark shadows have been added to her eyes.


(Image source: Lead Stories comparison created on Fri Sep 17 16:13:41 2021 UTC)

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson lives with her family and pets on a small farm in Indiana. She founded a Facebook page and a blog called “Exploiting the Niche” in 2017 to help others learn about manipulative tactics and avoid scams on social media. Since then she has collaborated with journalists in the USA, Canada and Australia and since December 2019 she works as a Social Media Authenticity Analyst at Lead Stories.


Read more about or contact Sarah Thompson

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