Spotting AI: Knowing How to Recognise Real vs AI Images

March 18, 2024

The post-AI reality that we live in prompts an important question: Can children effectively tell the difference between real vs AI images?

A recent study from Nexcess found that even AI-savvy adults could identify AI-generated images only about half the time, highlighting the urgent need for robust media literacy education.

As an educator, you can help students get better at spotting AI with ample practice, and some tips for evaluating the authenticity of an image. Here are several steps to enhancing visual media literacy in your classroom!


Take the Real vs AI Images Quiz

Having learned from countless authentic images, AI-powered image generators can now create deceptively realistic visuals. Your mission is to separate these AI-made images from real ones. Each question spans a variety of subjects, challenging students to observe, analyse critically, and judge carefully. Ready? Let’s go!

Each set below contains one real image and one that was generated by AI. Select the real image.

Q1. Wildlife and Nature: Poisonous Frogs


RobinsonIcious/Adobe Stock; nyiragongo/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q2. Historical Events: The Titantic


RobinsonIcious/Adobe Stock; nyiragongo/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q3. People: Students Doing Art Projects


Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock; AspctStyle/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q4. Significant Landmarks: Mount Fuji, Japan


Rattanapon/Adobe Stock; Phutthiseth/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q5. Space Exploration: Shuttle Launch


wasan/Adobe Stock; Ployker/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q6. Cities: Hong Kong at Night


wasan/Adobe Stock; Ployker/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q7. Natural Phenomena: Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights)


ECrafts/Adobe Stock; Lily/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q8. Endangered Species: Pangolin


Veniamin Kraskov/Adobe Stock; mgkuijpers/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q9. World History: Ancient Egyptian Papyrus


Paolo Gallo/Adobe Stock; Paulina/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Q10. Influential Events and Figures: Women’s Suffrage Movement


George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress; Szalai/Adobe Stock

+ Click to See Answer

Help your students make sense of digital media in a post-AI world. Master media literacy with Britannica’s free guide Media Literacy for the Digital Era: A Schools’ Guide to Navigating Modern Media.

Ready to take media literacy learning further? Sign up for the latest resources and insights from Britannica, to keep your class ahead of the digital curve.


Look at Images Through a Critical Lens

Now that you know how you went on the quiz, let’s look at some keys for building image evaluation skills. This starts with truly understanding an image. Begin by investigating the image’s message, subject(s), quality, and source. Guide your students through this process with these essential questions:

10 Key Questions for Evaluating Images¹
  1. What do you see in the image?
  2. What message is the image trying to convey?
  3. What elements are in the background and foreground?
  4. Who or what are the main subjects of the image?
  5. Where did you find or access this image?
  6. Who is credited as the source of the image?
  7. Can you trust the source?
  8. What might be the source’s intention behind sharing this image?
  9. Who is the intended audience of the image?
  10. What accompanying information, like text, comes with the image?
Practical Tools for Image Vetting
  • Metadata Analysis: Look up an image’s metadata if it’s available. This can reveal insights like date, location, camera settings, and copyright details. If you’re accessing an image on a computer, right-click the image and select “Properties” to view metadata. If you’re on your phone, you can use apps like Google Photos or access image details through menu options.
  • Reverse Image Search: A reverse image search is a great starting point when analysing images. PBS Learning Media’s video guide shows you how to effectively use this technique.

Keep in mind that these methods aren’t perfect. Metadata can be changed or removed, and reverse image searches might not always find results, especially for less-shared images. These tools are just the beginning to understand image analysis.


Tips for Spotting AI-Generated Images

Next, discuss the downsides of AI-generated images with your students. It’s important to note that while these images can be helpful and are often used responsibly to enhance content where real images may not be as accessible or effective, they can also be misused, even nefariously, to mislead or show something in a certain light.

As you analyse images in this challenge — and in real life — remember these key giveaways that an image might be AI:

  • Unusual or Inconsistent Details: AI-generated images often contain minor, noticeable detail errors. Encourage students to look for abnormalities like asymmetrical facial features, odd finger placement, or objects with strange proportions.
  • Texture and Pattern Repetition: AI sometimes struggles with complex textures or patterns, leading to noticeable repetition or awkward transitions. Students should look for unnatural patterns in textures like hair, skin, clothing, or background elements.
  • Lighting and Shadows: AI-generated images can have inconsistent or unrealistic lighting and shadows. Students should check if the lighting on different objects in the image matches and if the shadows are consistent with the light sources.
  • Background Anomalies: Backgrounds in AI images can be a giveaway. Many are overly simplistic, overly complex, or contain elements that don’t belong. Encourage students to pay attention to the background as much as the main subject.
  • Facial Features: Faces generated by AI can sometimes appear slightly off. This can include oddities in the eyes (like reflections or iris shape), ears, or hair. These features are often subtly surreal or unnaturally symmetrical/asymmetrical.
  • Contextual Errors: AI can struggle with context. An object might be out of place for the setting, or there might be a mismatch in the scale of objects. Encourage students to consider whether everything in the image makes sense contextually.
  • Text and Labels: AI often struggles with replicating coherent and contextually accurate text. If there’s text on the image, it can sometimes be jumbled, misspelled, or nonsensical in AI-generated images.
  • Digital Artifacts: Look for signs of digital manipulation, like pixelation, strange colour patterns, or blur in areas where it doesn’t logically belong.
  • Emotional Inconsistency: AI-generated faces may have expressions that don’t quite match the emotion or mood the image conveys.


Keep Practicing & Learning

Information technology is moving at a breakneck speed. As educators, you can stay on top of developments in AI and digital media with Britannica Education’s trusted information literacy resources:

  • Media Literacy for the Digital Era guide (NEW) — Transform the way you teach media literacy with our curated guide, filled with fascinating facts, impactful tips, and hands-on activities to turn your young learners into media-savvy learners.
  • Key Media Literacy Terms Explained — Key media literacy words, definitions, examples and activities to make them stick!
  • Britannica ImageQuest — Explore millions of authentic, safe, right-cleared images and videos, perfect for classroom and independent projects and learning.
  • Britannica School — Elevate learning with reliable articles, images, maps, videos, and primary sources.

Beyond Britannica, here are some of our top literacy resource picks:

Media literacy is an ongoing journey. By incorporating these conversations into your teaching today, you’re shaping the foundations for students to become strong critical thinkers and responsible digital citizens of the future.

  1. University of Washington Library. (n.d.) Images: Evaluating Images. Accessed on Feb. 7, 2023.
  2. Bartels, M. (March 31, 2023.) “How to Tell If a Photo Is an AI-Generated Fake.” Scientific American.
  3. Nexcess. (June 14, 2023.) “Surprising new study reveals humans struggle to spot AI-generated content, says Nexcess.”
Additional Sources:

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