How to Separate Truth From Falsehood in Conflict-Zone Footage

Not sure if that video from a conflict zone is real? There’s an app for that.

National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
July 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

Foot­age up­loaded to You­Tube is a boon for hu­man-rights watch­ers, journ­al­ists, and oth­ers who need to know what’s go­ing on in parts of the world they can’t ac­cess. Videos of massive protests, nat­ur­al dis­asters, or bru­tal killings have brought cit­izen journ­al­ism in­to the main­stream, mak­ing grainy cell-phone videos an es­sen­tial way to con­vey the truth on the ground to those abroad. But re­cord­ing and shar­ing these videos is just as easy as fak­ing them.

A new web­site run by Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al is de­signed to help on­line users dis­tin­guish between real video and mis­lead­ing foot­age. The site, called the Cit­izen Evid­ence Lab, shows users how to veri­fy the au­then­ti­city of an on­line video with a step-by-step walk­through. The in­ter­act­ive tu­tori­al prompts users to ex­tract metadata from the video and com­pare parts of its con­tent to ex­ist­ing foot­age on the In­ter­net.

Take this ex­ample from the site. The Wash­ing­ton Post linked to a You­Tube video in Au­gust 2013 that shows an ar­mored po­lice van fall off a Cairo bridge, ap­par­ently pushed by Egyp­tian pro­test­ers. Chris­toph Ko­ettl, Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al’s emer­gency re­sponse man­ager, took a closer look at the in­cid­ent. He con­duc­ted a de­tailed search and found a second video of the same in­cid­ent, filmed from a high­er vant­age point, re­veal­ing that the po­lice vehicle that tumbled from the bridge first col­lided with an­oth­er vehicle — nobody pushed it. By com­par­ing land­marks vis­ible in the video with satel­lite im­agery from Google Maps and pho­tos from the in­cid­ent, Ko­ettl was able to pin­point where the van fell from the bridge, con­firm­ing that the foot­ages was in­deed taken in Cairo. The Post, which pos­ted the ori­gin­al video with the claim that the van had been pushed, later is­sued a cor­rec­tion with the second video.

But this kind of de­bunk­ing isn’t new. A com­pany called Story­ful has been veri­fy­ing In­ter­net videos since 2010, help­ing the press sift through the massive amounts of in­form­a­tion and me­dia avail­able on the so­cial web. To au­then­tic­ate videos com­ing out of Syr­ia, the com­pany re­lies on ex­perts on the ground and tricks like Ko­ettl’s. Story­ful then dis­trib­utes videos it has de­term­ined to be genu­ine to news­rooms around the world.

Earli­er this month, a Brit­ish blog­ger known on­line as Brown Moses (real name: Eli­ot Hig­gins) an­nounced he will be launch­ing a site called Bellingcat. Hig­gins be­came known in 2012 for his in­de­pend­ent work veri­fy­ing and col­lat­ing hun­dreds of You­Tube videos a day com­ing out of the the civil war in Syr­ia. He has be­come an oft-cited source for West­ern journ­al­ists cov­er­ing the con­flict.

The work that Cit­izen Evid­ence Lab users, Story­ful, and Hig­gins do — sep­ar­at­ing truth from false­hood in user-gen­er­ated video — will be­come more im­port­ant as video takes on a lar­ger role in con­flicts. As in Ir­aq, for ex­ample, where IS­IS re­lies on im­ages and videos dis­sem­in­ated on so­cial me­dia for pro­pa­ganda and scare tac­tics, journ­al­ists and act­iv­ists will al­ways need tools with which they can un­der­stand and con­tex­tu­al­ize user-gen­er­ated me­dia.

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