July 8, 2014

Amnesty International is in the verification game and that is good news for journalism.

When journalists monitor and search social networks, they’re looking to discover and verify newsworthy content. Amnesty utilizes the same networks and content — but their goal is to gather and substantiate evidence of human rights abuses.

“Verification and corroboration was always a key component of human rights research,” said Christoph Koettl, the emergency response manager in Amnesty USA’s Crisis Prevention and Response Unit. “We always had to carefully review and corroborate materials, no matter if it’s testimony, written documents or satellite imagery.”

Now they’re “confronted with a torrent of potential new evidence” thanks to social networks and cell phones. As with their counterparts in newsrooms, human rights workers and humanitarian organizations must develop and maintain skills to verify the mass of user-generated content.

That’s why, it’s no surprise, Amnesty International today launched a new website and tool to help human rights researchers and others with the process of video verification. The site is Citizen Evidence Lab, which offers step-by-step guidance on how to verify user-generated video, as well as other resources. The tool is the YouTube Data Viewer.

The development of the site and tool were led by Koettl, who is one of Amnesty’s lead verification experts. (He also authored a case study about verifying video for the Verification Handbook, a free resource I edited for the European Journalism Centre.)

Here’s an introduction to the site:

YouTube Data Viewer

The YouTube Data Viewer enables you to enter in the URL of a YouTube video and automatically extract the correct upload time and all thumbnails associated with the video. These two elements are essential when verifying a YouTube video, and it’s information that’s difficult to gather from YouTube.

The upload time is critical in helping determine the origin of a video. Finding the upload time of a YouTube video can be difficult — it’s not clearly displayed on the video page. The thumbnails are useful because you can plug them into a reverse image search tool such as Google Image or TinEye and see where else online these images appear.

“Many videos are scraped, and popular videos are re-uploaded to YouTube several times on the same day,” said Koettl. “So having the exact upload time helps to distinguish these videos from the same day, and a reverse image search is a powerful way to find other/older versions of the same video.”

The goal is to offer non-technical users a tool and guidance to help them verify video, without requiring an expert such as Koettl. He said now his colleagues “will be able to do this basic research themselves by using the new tool, so not everything has to go through me for a basic assessment.”

The same goes for journalists. The YouTube Data Viewer should join tools such as an EXIF reader, reverse image search, Spokeo, and Google Maps/Earth as one of the core, free verification tools in the verification toolkit. (For a list of other tools out there, see this section of the Handbook.)

A guide to video verification

Citizen Evidence is also a valuable addition to verification training. Koettl has created a series of videos that offers a step-by-step walkthrough for verifying user-generated video. This is a detailed and easy-to-follow guide, offered by someone who practices this as part of his daily job. (The videos are geared toward human rights workers, but the techniques apply for journalists.)

For Koettl, the tool and the videos are an important step in helping spread the skills of digital content verification within his profession.

“I believe in a couple of years from now, verification of citizen media will be part of the core skills of any human rights researcher, as a consequence of better verification protocol and tools, as well as dedicated training,” he said. “Subsequently, we will only need dedicated staff for more advanced analysis, including more technical and forensic assessments.”

I hope this same dynamic begins to emerge in more newsrooms, whereby basic verification knowledge/skills are spread among as many people as possible, and they are also supported by a smaller group of colleagues with specialized expertise.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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