10 tips for verifying viral social media videos

This article was originally published on FactCheckingDay.com for International Fact-Checking Day on April 2.

Of all types of misinformation, video is among the hardest to fact-check. 

First, it isn’t easily searchable like text and photos are. You can’t paste or upload a video on Facebook or Google to see if it’s true or even trending. 

Second, there’s currently no way to see which videos are going viral on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. They’re essentially block boxes, and fact-checkers regularly gripe about how it makes their jobs harder. (Although there has been progress with fact-checking images on Facebook.) 

Then there’s the fact that fake videos are getting easier to create and harder to detect. So-called “deepfake” technology draws upon artificial intelligence to alter images and even superimpose celebrities’ heads on other people’s bodies. 

With those challenges in mind, here is a list of tips and tricks for debunking viral fake videos on social media. Unfortunately, fact-checkers still don’t have good ways to verify deepfake videos — but several agreed it’s too early to tell how big the problem will become. 

1. Think critically. Before dissecting the video itself, see if there’s anything else you can use to debunk or confirm it. Has it been reported in the media? Is there anything in the video that seems obviously doctored? Videos are relatively hard to verify, so try to avoid doing unneeded work. 

2. Look for inflammatory language and basic information, such as the who, what, when, where, why and how. If the former is present while the latter is lacking, there’s a good indicator that the video could be misleading. 

“If the video uses slurs or demeaning language there's a good chance that the accompanying text is only telling a partial (or completely fictional) version of the backstory … What information was shared with the video? I've always found videos lacking basic information to be suspect.” – Dan Evon, content manager at Snopes

3. See if the details of the video change depending on the sharer. If one post claims a video takes place in one country while another say it doesn’t, that should cause some pause. “The backstories for hoax videos are frequently changed to cater to certain audiences,” Evan said. Additionally, watch the video and read its accompanying text separately to determine whether or not what it claims to depict is plausible. 

4. Use tools like Amnesty International’s YouTube Dataviewer or download the InVid browser extension. While the former focuses exclusively on YouTube, the latter allows people to paste a link from YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to get more information about its origins, as well as pull out key frames for further inspection.

“It allows you to figure out if the video has been published before, as well as where the video was shot, because the similarity search can recognize some place, some point of interest … most of the videos that we see are just decontextualized videos — videos that already exist on the web and are used in another context.” – Denis Teyssou, editorial manager of the Agence France Presse MediaLab

5. If you’re on mobile, take a screenshot of the video and upload it to a reverse image search service to see if it’s published elsewhere online — that can give you a better clue as to whether or not it’s true. Google and TinEye are great tools for this. 

6. If pulling individual frames from InVid doesn’t work, try slowing the video down using software like VLC to see the transitions. With fake videos, it’s relatively easy to tell when a scene is doctored if you watch in slow motion. Alternatively, try using FFmpeg to get more detailed key frames, then run a reverse image search. 

7. Download the video and check out its metadata. While most social media platform strip this information out once someone uploads it, if you have the source material, there might be clues as to the videos origin. Try using your computer’s native file browser or things like Exiftool.

8. If the video takes place outside, use geolocation software to check whether it’s actually where it claims to be. Google Earth and Wikimapia, a user-annotated collection of satellite imagery, are good tools for this. 

“We probably use geolocation tools most often. If you know the location, and it’s correct and verified, you’ll probably find more information related to the case … figure out where it was taken, determine visual cues and match that with satellite imagery.” – Christiaan Triebert, a digital investigator and trainer at Bellingcat

9. Check the time when the video was filmed. If there are shadows visible, you can determine when the video was shot by checking their directions against a specific time of year using tools like Suncalc. That could help you either verify or debunk a video based on its timeframe. 

10. If all else fails, try doing a quick search for some keywords related to the video on YouTube. Triebert said that — especially with videos that draw upon video game footage to misinform — hoaxers will often pull directly from the video sharing platform using the same keywords.

For more video fact-checking tools, check out Bellingcat’s open-source guide. Have a tip that didn’t make the list? Send it to us at factchecknet@poynter.org.

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