Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes

With Hurricane Sandy approaching the New York metro area, the nation's eyes are turning to its largest city. Photos of storms and flooding are popping up all over Twitter, and while many are real, some of them -- especially the really eye-popping ones -- are fake. 

This post, which will be updated over the next couple of days, is an effort to sort the real from the unreal. It's a photograph verification service, you might say, or a pictorial investigation bureau. If you see a picture that looks fishy, send it to me at alexis.madrigal[at]gmail.com. If you like this sort of thing, you should also visit istwitterwrong.tumblr.com, which is just cataloging the fakes.

The fakes come in three varieties: 1) Real photos that were taken long ago, but that pranksters reintroduce as images of Sandy, 2) Photoshopped images that are straight up fake, and 3) The combination of the first two: old, Photoshopped pictures being trotted out again.

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[Update, 10:30am: Alexis is at a conference this morning, so your morning photo-verification crew -- Atlantic social media editor Chris Heller, IsTwitterWrong's Tom Phillips, and I (Megan Garber) -- are taking over for the moment. Keep your submissions coming! You can send them to me at mgarber[at]theatlantic.com.  --Megan]

This image of NYC -- and of, yes, a double rainbow -- made the rounds on social media this morning. (It was helped along by a Facebook post from none other than George Takei.)

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And ... it's legit! The image is an Instragram dated this morning. It was taken by Kurt Wilberding, a professional photographer who shoots for the Wall Street Journal.

You can see other takes on the same rainbow scene, also dated this morning, at the Mild Amusements Tumblr.

Less legit, unfortunately, is this wondrous image

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You so want it to be real ... but it is not. Or, at least, it's not real when it comes to Sandy. The image, best we can tell, dates from December 2011. It was taken in the Philippines during Tropical Storm Washi.

Here, on the other hand, is one you don't want to be real ... but it is. 

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Here's another, clearer shot of the Seaside Heights roller coaster -- different angle, same scene -- sent from Brian Thompson, who covers New Jersey for NBC News's local New York affiliate. And here's a statement from New Jersey governor Chris Christie confirming Seaside Heights's Boardwalk devastation and mentioning that "the roller coaster or the log flume is in the ocean." Sigh.

And this is an image Gate C34 of New York's LaGuardia Airport. It's been getting lots of action on Facebook and Twitter.

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So the image is most likely a real one. It's been posted by JetBlue's blog. There are corroborating images -- including one sent from the Twitter account of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority -- that make clear visually what we know from news reports: that LaGuardia is, indeed, flooded. A high-res version of the C34 photo has been posted to Facebook by a fellow who seems to be a pilot.

Then again, that pilot -- after a cancelled flight due to Sandy -- was in Phoenix yesterday, according to another Facebook post, so it's unclear how he could have gotten to LaGuardia to take the photo himself given the airport's suspension of air traffic. Almost certainly, he's sharing an image he got somewhere else -- best evidenced by the lower-quality version of a similar image that was posted to Facebook several hours before the pilot's.

Also, we're not 100 percent sure that the photo originated with JetBlue. It's a tiny point, but as far as we can tell, JetBlue is served by Terminal B at LaGuardia, rather than Terminal C. So it's (a tiny bit) strange that JetBlue would be, itself, taking pictures of a gate that it doesn't use. Then again, it could just be that cabin-feverish airport workers and stranded travelers are roving the place, terminal by terminal -- and that this was the photo that the JetBlue folks chose to share.

Either way, we can't say for sure what the source of the image is at this point. So while it's likely the real thing, we'll call it "Unverified" for now, and will update when we find out more. If you have any tips, please do send them along.

Meanwhile, here's another verified photo

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The image isn't a still from a Christopher Nolan movie; instead it's a Reuters picture of the skyline of lower Manhattan shrouded in storm-induced darkness. That one lucky, lighted building? The Goldman Sachs headquarters. Though power outages encompassed everything from 14th Street on down -- and though the building at 200 West Street falls within that zone -- the building made use of a generator to keep the lights on. (Or to keep the power on, as it were.) This move was, unsurprisingly, controversial.

It's worth noting (Alexis here!) that part of the reason this photo is so striking is that it is very dark and the contrast is very high on the image. I took a look at other skyline photos of New York from earlier in the year and found that it wasn't that hard to make the Goldman building look ridiculously lit up by just pushing the contrast up and the brightness down. Like this:

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I also found that if you took the Goldman image above and performed the opposite operation -- increasing the brightness, decreasing the contrast, the building didn't look quite so awkwardly bright in the early morning light. 

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Does this all make the Reuters photo less real? No. But it's a good reminder that the reality a photograph captures is always subject to the vagaries of lens and light. Small tweaks in the way you capture light can lead to very different images. (If you'd like a deeper reflection, I'd refer to Errol Morris.)

Also verified is this incredible image of a tanker washed up last night on the shores of Staten Island.

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And ... yes, it is real. Here's video from last night's ABC Eyewitness News broadcast showing the tanker at rest. The journalists heard a report of the tanker's grounding; they sent reporter Michelle Charlesworth down to check it out for herself. She was greeted with a scene that, save for being actual, was incredible. "We just couldn't believe it," Charlesworth said in her broadcast. "It looks like something out of a movie." 

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This is an easy one: this scuba diver in a flooded Times Square station was trotted out before the storm. Gizmodo (which is down) had it up at 11:05am. It's fake. At best, think of it as an artist's conception.

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Everything about the lit-up Jane's Carousel pictures from Dumbo scream fake. One, the carousel is gorgeous. Two, it's lit up like a beacon amidst the dark of the flood waters. Why are the lights on? Three, it seems difficult to get this photograph from that area. Shouldn't the photographer have evacuated? 

Well, yes, it turns out. Anna Dorfman, a book designer who lives in Dumbo, took this photo shortly before evacuating. She's confirmed that she took it. Another Instagram user and Dumbo resident, Ana Adjelic, also posted a photo of the carousel from a different angle. And we also got independent confirmation from a journalist Jeff Howe that another friend who lives in the area had sent him similar photographs. These may be the most improbable and striking images of the night, and they are real. There will be moments of serendipity and islands of beauty amidst any storm. 

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Here's an meme that's been resurrected. This seal survived the Duluth Zoo flood earlier this year. He's now being trotted out as a "wide-eyed seal" that appeared in Manhattan. Do not be fooled. This is not from Sandy.

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This 86th Street Station photo seems dubious. Brendan Cain laid out the case against the photo. "Track trough shouldn't be that opaque. It's not *that* deep," he wrote to me. He also noted that Broadway and 86th is 77 feet above sea level, much higher than downtown areas. 

But, the origin of the photo is an Instagram user named ninjapito, who hashtagged his posts, #brooklyn. If it does turn out to be real, it is most likely a picture of the 86th Street Station out in Brooklyn. I'm keeping this one at unverified, but it is definitely *not* a photograph of the 86th Street station in Manhattan. Stay tuned for updates.

Ok, update 1:32am: Mashable Stephanie Haberman notes that the geotag on the Instagram photo is 9.5 miles away from the 86th Street station at which it was supposedly taken. Suspicious. Consider that circle down there to be closer to orange than yellow. 

Dang, update 1:33am: Countervailing evidence! Brooklynite @RoseTintedVisor reports that the N line is, in fact, inundated with water, including the station near his house further down the line. "It looks like a fucking river," he told me. He also pointed me to another photo showing the N as waterway

Update, 1:51am: @RoseTintedVisor delivered pics of his own from further down the N line. It looks bad.

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Buzzfeed posted a shocking image of FDR Drive underwater without clear provenance although in the square style of Instagram. Our social media editor, Chris Heller, followed up on that video with a YouTube clip that clearly shows the road near the E 34th St exit under water. (That user, Ethan Ruttenberg has posted a series of videos of FDR under water to his YouTube account.) It's not a perfect verification, but even if someone took the time to create an elaborate fake, the reality outside is equally as bad. 

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I'm sad to report that this is as real as it gets. The photo below is an official Associated Press photograph by John Minchillo.

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Risk management experts have warned that New York's subway infrastructure could flood. Still, this photo was one of the most suspect I've seen so far. Sadly, it turns out to be real. It shows water rushing into the Hoboken PATH station through an elevator shaft. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey just tweeted it from an official account. This actually happened.

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Here we see massive flooding in Stuy Town at 20th and C. At first I was suspicious of this photo, but it appears to have been taken by Sriram Satish, an NYU Stern student who lives in that area. I haven't been able to reach Satish, I reached Satish and he says that a friend of his posted it to Facebook, but that he's been in contact with that person and considers it verified. (The context provided in his Twitter feed also gives me confidence that this is a real photograph, i.e. he is a real person living in this area of New York.) It's also important to understand the geographical context of this photo. Though it looks like it was taken in the middle of the city, the East River is very, very close to where the photograph was taken. Take a look for yourself in Google Street View (That's the reverse shot of the image below.)  So, it's plausible that this level of flooding could take place there.

Update: More confirmation of this level of flooding. Christopher Confessore emailed me this video, which was posted to the tenants' association. I'd say that's incontrovertible. 

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The latest photo to circulate on social media is a building that collapsed on 8th Ave in Manhattan. It is real. It was posted by journalist Meg Robertson, who has confirmed she took the photo and has posted several follow ups from the scene. (At least one other person near the building has also posted photographs.)

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Here's a photo of a shark purportedly swimming in the streets of Brigantine, New Jersey, a city which has experienced serious flooding. This photo is fake. The shark fin was Photoshopped into the image of the city. Tom Phillips found the source shark fin in a Google Image Search, which I've overlaid on the original fake image in the GIF below.

This image popped up while we were researching a *different* supposed shark photo from Brigantine, which we have not been able to verify one way or the other. Though we've found no evidence to indicate that the photo below is fake, we're suspicious because of the number of times fake shark photos have cropped up during floods. The photo below was originally posted by Kevin McCarty, who appears to live in that town. This is a complicated situation because McCarty posted both of these photographs, one of which we now know to be fake, and on the Facebook thread for that image, people call out his Photoshop skills. It's still possible, all these hours later, that the photo below is real and McCarty decided to have some fun with the picture above, or that they are both fakes.

UPDATE 10/30 2:44pm: Mystery solved! It's a fake; a very craftily created Photoshopping job. Snopes tracked down the original photograph. The original on Flickr was taken in 2006 in South Africa

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For fun, I overlaid the source photograph on the image of flooded New Jersey, so you can see how the job worked.

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This photo of the George Washington Bridge was taken in 2009 and is sold on Getty Images, Eliot Bentley points out

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Here we see an example of the third variety: an old, Photoshopped image that's been cropped up for more than half a decade. This Statue of Liberty shot was actually created by merging a supercell image from Nebraska with one from New York. Snopes had long ago done the investigation on this.

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Here we see midtown Manhattan in a real photograph ... taken in 2011. This photograph first ran in the Wall Street Journal, as sleuthed by IsTwitterWrong.

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Here we see the Old Guard, which guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The photograph is absolutely real, but it was taken in September, as the Old Guard's Twitter feed has been pointing out this afternoon.

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Not every stunning image is fake, though. Here's one from Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The person who took this photograph, Nick Cope, has confirmed that it was taken today. And there is corroborating evidence both from local officials and journalists that Red Hook streets are flooding, particularly in this warehouse district (which I actually know well).

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Updates (These Will Be Rolling)

Below, we see a still from movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which has had a New York TV logo superimposed on it to fool people. 

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@twitsplosion sent in this photo of Times Square, which has also been making the rounds. Unfortunately, it's a ZUMA Press image from August 2011. 

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The next two pics are both from Atlantic City. I haven't been able to track down the provenance of either, but I think they pass the plausibility test. The first was posted by Weatherboy Weather on Facebook with credit to an unlinked man, Dann Cuellar. 

UPDATE, 9:14pm: Ok, mystery solved! The original Facebook poster misspelled Cuellar's name as 'Dan Cuellar.' Dann Cuellar is a reporter with WPVI in Philadelphia. It turns out, as we hypothesized, that it was taken from the Flagship Hotel. (We got there by noting that it was quite similar to this image geotagged from that same spot, although minus the flooding, of course). Cuellar's Twitter page has various other shots from the same location. 

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One of the reasons I'm willing to do so is that other photographs from the early high tide in Atlantic City corroborate that this area of the city was badly flooded. With Bing Maps, I was able to view the streets in this area and find plausible vantage points from which the photos could have been taken. (Google Maps did not have coverage of the area for some reason.) There is a tall building in just about the precise location that this photograph would have to be taken from. So, again, I'm wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think there is a very good change this photograph is real. If it's not, you should probably hire its creator for your next CGI spectacular.

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And finally, Garance Franke-Ruta sent this one over, which didn't take too much investigation. 

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Thanks to @nathanjurgenson, @edyong209, @discoverymag, @neve_science_wx, @kathyf, @KateRoseMe, @harmonicait, @NigadamaSoup, and @sebprovencher for their help rounding up images.

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.


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