Drama and outrage have erupted on Twitter after a screenshot started circulating of J.K Rowling supposedly making a homophobic comment. J.K. denounced the forgery, and by now most people seem to recognize that it’s a fake. But the speed at which the faked screenshot spread across the internet demonstrates one thing — most people don’t realize how easy it is to fake a screenshot.
The idea most people have a virtual forgery usually involves Photoshop and a designer meticulously erasing lines and filling in gaps with their own reality. It’s generally seen as something you need some amount of artistic or design skill to pull off — nevermind access to expensive software.
But it’s not. Anyone can fake a screenshot with nothing more than their browser — and pretty much any website, tweet, or headline is vulnerable.
I’m showing you how to fake screenshots not to encourage you to do it — lying about what someone said is both morally wrong, and could possibly even put you at risk of committing libel or defamation, which you can be sued for.
I’m showing you how it is done so that you know how easy it is to do—and so that you don’t fall prey to fake news. We all have a responsibility to become critical consumers of internet information, especially if we are sharing it.
For the sake of this tutorial, we’ll learn how to fake a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump. I’ll be using Google Chrome, although similar tools are available in most modern browsers, including Firefox.
Step 1: Inspect an element
If you want to follow along, open up this tweet in Google Chrome:
Right-click on the text of the tweet, and select “Inspect” from the dropdown menu:
This will pop open the development panel in your Chrome browser. It will look something like this:
This may feel scary if you’re not a web developer, but don’t be overwhelmed. A basic understanding of HTML will help you in the next step, but it’s not necessary.
Step 2: Find the element you want to change
Websites are made up of little pieces, called “elements”. Those elements are each delivered to us and rendered in the browser. Chrome’s developer tools allow us to change those elements, but the change only appears on our own view of the website, and it resets when you refresh the page.
The next step in faking a screenshot is to find the element you want to change. If you clicked “Inspect” on the proper element, it’s likely already focused for you.
You can scroll through elements in the code and see what they correlate to on the page by simply moving your mouse over the HTML elements panel:
In this case, we can see that the text of Trump’s tweet is contained in a
Step 3: Change the contents of the element
Once you have isolated the element, double click inside of it to change the text. Click “enter” on your keyboard when you are done:
If your forgery is more complicated, you can change multiple elements, including the metadata (like the timestamp) of the tweet, or the number of likes and retweets:
Step 4: Take your screenshot
Once you’ve finished editing the elements to your satisfaction, take your screenshot and let drama commence:
Examples of faked screenshots
Applying what we’ve learned, we can fake screenshots of more than just tweets. In fact, we can fake entire articles if we want to:
We can also change images in the screenshot, by replacing the
src attribute of an
img element with the url of a new image, as seen in this example:
Look for the Truth Before Sharing
Before you hop on the outrage bandwagon over the next screenshot you see, do a little bit of research to find out if it is real.
The easiest way to confirm a screenshot is to look for the original source. Go to the actual website of the screenshot in question and look to see if the article, headline, or content is still there. If a tweet is real, chances are it’s still up and you can see it for yourself (yes — tweets can be deleted, this only can prove the existence of a tweet, not that it never existed).
Tools like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine can help confirm if a website existed in a previous form. For example, here is a web archive link of the Biden NYT article I screenshotted above. This way, even if they take down or change the article, there is a record of it existing in that format. This isn’t a complete record, but most large websites are recorded fairly often.
If you want to prove that something on the internet really happened, providing an archive link rather than a screenshot is more reliable, since we know now how easily screenshots can be faked.
It’s hard to prove a negative — like that a tweet never happened. But by understanding the ways screenshots can be faked, we all become more informed and critical internet users.
Now don’t use your power for evil.
M. K. is a writer, plant enthusiast, and recovering software engineer. Subscribe to get her latest posts directly in your inbox.