The fake smiles of India’s detained sporting stars

Security guards arrest wrestler Vinesh Phogat

Vinesh Phogat (middle) is arrested in Delhi: shortly afterwards she was put on a police bus

When police arrested a group of top Indian wrestlers during a protest on May 28, two versions of a selfie taken by one of them circulated on Twitter.

In both images, medalists Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat are seen on a bus with other detained members of the wrestling team, accompanied by three police officers.

The images are identical except the wrestlers appear to be smiling in one of them.

Indian wrestlers take a selfie with the coach and compare original and manipulated images

Indian wrestlers take a selfie with the coach and compare original and manipulated images

Indian wrestlers have been protesting for more than a month after accusing Wrestling Federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual harassment.

Mr Singh is an MP for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has denied the allegations.

Holding on but not smiling

The version with the smiling faces quickly went viral, with posts featuring the manipulated image claiming that the wrestlers weren’t serious about the protests and that it was all staged.

Some BJP leaders and supporters also shared this image, but some later deleted their tweets.

The opposition Indian National Congress accused the ruling party’s social media arm, the BJP Information Technology (IT) cell, of manipulating the original image, despite lack of evidence.

We have confirmed that the image of the smiling wrestlers first appeared online shortly after the original non-smiling image was posted.

A Twitter user shared the first picture at 12:31 p.m. local time on May 28 – shortly after the wrestlers were arrested by the police.

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The first manipulated image we found appeared about 90 minutes later, accompanied by Hindi text stating that the wrestlers should be ashamed of causing trouble simply because they didn’t want to compete in the national games.

Using the freely available FaceApp software, we were able to create the exact same smiling image using the original version as the starting image.

How did the wrestlers react?

Shortly after the manipulated image went viral, Olympic medalist Bajrang Punia, who was also protesting in New Delhi, tweeted that the image was fake.

We contacted both Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat and asked why they took the original photo.

Sangeeta messaged us: “We were unsure and afraid of where they were taking us and we wanted to know who had all been arrested along with us.”

Benjamin Strick, investigator at the Center for Information Resilience and open-source investigator, says he followed the wrestlers’ protest.

He told us that the edited image was “deeply awe-inspiring but also frightening” because it’s easy to believe it’s real if you don’t look closely.

“All faces had a similar smile, all had brilliant white teeth. Also the dimples on the cheeks were an indication that the picture was edited.”

We searched for previous pics of Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat – neither of them have dimples and their teeth look different.

Vinesh Phogat receives a gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games

Vinesh Phogat receives a gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games

While these little clues serve as red flags and raise questions about authenticity, advances in technology are making it harder to tell fakes from real ones.

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“With demanding edits, it’s unlikely that there’s enough evidence to be 100% sure,” says Dr. Sophie Nightingale, who studies artificial intelligence at the University of Lancaster.

Indian fact-checker Pankaj Jain says this is the future of disinformation.

“Until now, the fake ones could be caught by anyone, even a common man. That would be very difficult in the future.”

Additional reporting by Benedict Garman

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