A bad month for phonies and plagiarists

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The photo of the forest fire is dramatic. A low-flying water bomber side-lit by a sea of orange flame swoops across a backdrop of grey, gothic clouds. It dumps its own clouds of water on the inferno below. It was posted online, along with dozens of other harrowing images, as the wildfire of Fort McMurray raged. The photo was shared over 1,500 times on Facebook. But it wasn't taken in Fort McMurray, or even Alberta. It was captured in Salerno, Italy by photographer Antonio Grambone in 2012. Apparently it gets dragged out quite often when there's a wildfire worth sharing on social media.

But, that wasn't the only photo that got shared and questioned online in the last week. Steve McCurry is a travel photographer whose work has appeared for years in National Geographic. His most famous image is of an Afghan girl with piercing jade-coloured eyes. It made the now-iconic cover of the magazine in June, 1985.

But last week a couple of his travel images, which he took for his personal portfolio, came under fire for being dramatically altered. The first evidence of manipulation was a print of McCurry's work in an exhibit in Italy. It clearly shows a yellow road signpost with its base poorly cloned. The cloned portion seems to have moved a passerby so the yellow post wouldn't appear to be coming out of his head. It is only a small part of the overall image and it looks, as McCurry explained, that it was a printing error. However, the alteration sparked an online hunt to see if other of McCurry's works had been tampered with. It appears they had. Online photo bloodhounds found two versions of a McCurry image featuring a group of boys playing in a river. In one, the foremost of the boys has another lad directly behind him. In the other version, that boy in the background has been replaced by foliage.

In another image, a young man ferries three passengers through the rain on a bike taxi. But, an alternate version of the image shows only two passengers. Clutter in the background of the image has also been digitally removed. McCurry has yet to respond to concerns raised about the alterations, though some of the images have been removed from his sites.

If this retrospective search for possible chicanery sounds familiar, it should be. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente's work was placed under the same kind of scrutiny when it was discovered that she seems to be a serial plagiarist. Both Canadaland and Buzzfeed Canada pointed to a variety of examples of Wente either copying phrases from other writers' works or aping the concepts and structures of works without attribution. An anonymous Canadaland reader even built the podcast a Wente bot that scours the web in search of additional borrowings.

This is not, of course, the first time Wente has been accused of playing fast and loose with Xeroxing someone else's writing. In 2012, she was called out for stealing ideas and phrases for a 2009 column. The Globe and Mail has apologized for Wente's latest sampling but without mentioning her name. Wente has not filed a column since the discoveries were made public.

What do all these incidents have in common? The misuse and alteration of images and the plagiarism were all revealed, in part at least, by journalists, photographers and academics using the search and collaboration the web allows. Those tools also enabled the diligent work by the folks at Buzzfeed and Canadaland. On the other hand, the web also led to the proliferation of the faux Fort McMurray image.

But, it is heartening, that for all the pseudoscience, gossip and garbage cyberspace is buried in, we can, at times, count on it to self-correct and make April the cruellest month for the folks who try to slip one past us. Oh, and that April bit? T.S. Eliot wrote that, just so we're clear.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Photo: woodleywonderworks/flickr

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