When War Video Can’t Be Trusted

A company called Storyful vets smartphone images from Syria and elsewhere to ensure their authenticity.

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian army fighters fire their weapons during clashes with government forces, unseen, in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
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Steve Patrick Ercolani
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Steve Patrick Ercolani
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

In an emo­tion­al ap­peal last week, Pres­id­ent Obama asked that every Amer­ic­an view a video of Syr­i­an chil­dren ly­ing on a lacquered gray floor in Dam­as­cus. The clip shows more than 400 chil­dren in East Ghouta, ar­ranged side by side as they con­vulse, choke, and even­tu­ally die. Videos like these, which the White House and its al­lies cited as evid­ence to sup­port their ar­gu­ment for in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, were not plucked at ran­dom from You­Tube. They were vet­ted by a group called Story­ful.

Truth, of course, is the first cas­u­alty of war — es­pe­cially a two-year civil war, fought by guer­ril­las bey­ond the reach of most in­de­pend­ent journ­al­ists. Am­a­teur videos (pur­portedly cap­tured by loc­als with smart­phones) have poured in­to the in­form­a­tion va­cu­um claim­ing to show at­ro­cit­ies or vic­tor­ies on both sides. To deal with the prob­lem, Story­ful re­lies on a net­work of un­paid fix­ers and ex­perts on the ground in Syr­ia to veri­fy what’s real. Then its staff ed­it­ors and re­port­ers — in­clud­ing old hands from the BBC and Re­u­ters — com­pile and share the hand-cur­ated clips with me­dia and oth­ers.

In April 2010, Mark Little, a former Ir­ish tele­vi­sion presenter, launched Story­ful with the help of ven­ture-cap­it­al start-up money. He saw that as news or­gan­iz­a­tions slashed budgets and laid off their staff, news­rooms in­creas­ingly lacked the abil­ity to check on the massive amounts of so­cial-me­dia in­form­a­tion. Story­ful — in par­tic­u­lar, its new crowd­sourcing plat­form, Open News­room — would help the press sift through it all. Already, its cli­ents in­clude ABC, The New York Times, France 24, and You­Tube, as well as more than 35 oth­er news­rooms, ac­cord­ing to news ed­it­or Malachy Browne. Un­like some oth­er in­de­pend­ent veri­fic­a­tion spe­cial­ists, Story­ful charges up to $25,000 for a year’s ac­cess to its journ­al­ists and ex­perts, who de­liv­er in­form­a­tion via a private Twit­ter ac­count that has nearly 7,000 fol­low­ers.

A re­l­at­ively small num­ber of mod­er­at­ors cur­ate Open News­room’s con­tent. They in­clude Browne; Iain Mar­tin, a former ed­it­or at The Wall Street Journ­al Europe; and Dav­id Clinch, a former in­ter­na­tion­al ed­it­or of CNN, among oth­ers. Google Hangout con­nects sev­en of­fices from Hong Kong to San Fran­cisco to the Dub­lin headquar­ters as ed­it­ors re­view pho­tos and videos from war zones like Syr­ia, where both the rebels and the re­gime of Bashar al-As­sad have in­cent­ives to tell their own ver­sions of the story.

To check vera­city, Story­ful com­pares where a video was shot to where it was up­loaded; sur­veys the past so­cial Web be­ha­vi­or of the up­load­er; and looks for his or her of­fi­cial mem­ber­ship with an es­tab­lished or­gan­iz­a­tion. One of the biggest prob­lems, ex­plains Browne, is “scrap­ing.” Scraped videos have been copied sev­er­al times over. The more a video is copied, the harder it is to find out who ori­gin­ally up­loaded it, and where. So Story­ful uses satel­lite im­agery or Google maps to identi­fy land­marks in a video — look­ing for a par­tic­u­lar min­aret or in­ter­sec­tion, for ex­ample. A video taken in Saudi Ar­a­bia and up­loaded in Syr­ia, for ex­ample, is not con­sidered re­li­able. 

Eli­ot Hig­gins, one of the more pro­lif­ic in­de­pend­ent veri­fi­ers — who con­trib­utes, gratis, to Open News­room — points to the BBC as an ex­ample of what can hap­pen when so­cial in­form­a­tion isn’t fact-checked. In May 2012, the net­work used a pho­to­graph (of a boy jump­ing over a row of bod­ies) provided by a Syr­i­an act­iv­ist who claimed it was from the mas­sacre in Houla. In fact, it was taken in 2003 in a desert south of Bagh­dad. Twit­ter users began to take note, and the photo was re­moved after 90 minutes.

Story­ful guards against er­rors like that by stor­ing in­form­a­tion about up­load­ers: where they live, which mi­li­tia con­trols their town, their track re­cord. It runs a large data­base of pre-vet­ted sources that it — and its cli­ents — can trust.

One morn­ing in late Au­gust, Browne’s dash­board was full of massive streams of in­form­a­tion: raw video foot­age from the Syr­i­an mas­sacre in Ghouta, anti-Mor­si protests in Egypt, and tape from car bombs in Le­ban­on. Browne toggles between Face­book, Twit­ter, and You­Tube, cre­at­ing lists of pre­vi­ously vet­ted out­lets and up­load­ers from dif­fer­ent coun­tries that give him an idea of what is hap­pen­ing in real-time.

On Aug. 22, a user called TheSyr­i­an­re­v2011 up­loaded a video to You­Tube titled “[944]Syr­ia, Ghouta: Child’s Hys­ter­ic­al symp­toms due to ex­pos­ure to Gases 21/8/2103 [Mul­ti­lin­gual].” It was one of the first claim­ing to doc­u­ment the chem­ic­al at­tacks in East Ghouta, and it quickly began to ap­pear on so­cial me­dia. Browne sus­pec­ted the video was a scrape. The first clue was that the video was de­scribed in both Eng­lish and Ar­ab­ic; nor­mally only Ar­ab­ic is used, and Story­ful’s mul­ti­lin­gual staff trans­late with the as­sist­ance of Google. Browne then looked through the up­load­er’s video his­tory and es­tab­lished that most of the videos were branded with dif­fer­ent lo­gos and had vary­ing qual­ity, fur­ther dis­cred­it­ing the ac­count. Fi­nally, many of the up­load­er’s videos were drawn from sev­er­al loc­a­tions on the same day. “An up­load­er of user-gen­er­ated con­tent,” says Browne, “couldn’t be in dis­par­ate loc­a­tions on the same day.”

The at­tack in East Ghouta, however, was a dif­fer­ent kind of suc­cess for Story­ful. Its tech­niques val­id­ated the video; its ed­it­ors li­aised with ABC News, and the veri­fied clip played on Good Morn­ing Amer­ica. Ul­ti­mately, it be­came part of the pres­id­ent’s ar­gu­ment.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story said Story­ful shares in­form­a­tion dir­ectly with gov­ern­ments; it does not. It primar­ily works with news­rooms.

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