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5: Verifying Video

Malachy Browne is news editor with Storyful, the first news agency of the social media age. Headquartered in Dublin and with staff in Asia and the U.S., Storyful helps its news clients discover, verify and distribute the most valuable user-generated content on social media platforms. Prior to Storyful, Browne created and edited Politico.ie, an Irish political website and news archive. He worked for the Irish political Village magazine from 2006 to 2008 and was editor of the magazine's website, Village.ie. Formerly a computer programmer, Browne strongly believes in newsroom innovation and in the capacity of technology to strengthen journalism. Browne is from Broadford, County Limerick, and lives in Dublin. He tweets @malachybrowne.

The convergence of affordable smartphone and camera technology, ubiquitous Internet access and social media is largely responsible for the explosion in citizen-powered news coverage. One byproduct of this is an enormous amount of video being uploaded and shared every minute, every hour.

The revolution in information technology is not over and the volume of newsworthy user-generated content will only grow. Journalists have a new responsibility - to quickly gather, verify and ascertain the usage rights of UGC. Traditional values of investigation apply, but a new skillset is required for media such as video.

Verifying video from an unknown source on social media may initially appear daunting. But it's not rocket science.

Here's what you need to get the job done: A determination to investigate the backstory of the content, coupled with a healthy level of skepticism and a familiarity with the multitude of free tools that can help establish facts about a video. This chapter will help to equip you with all three.

A first point to understand about verifying user-generated video is that it spreads across social media in a way that makes the version you first see unlikely to be the original. Videos may be spliced, diced and reposted with different context. Important traces from the original video may disappear. Your job is to root out the facts that support or deny what this video purports to show.

As with any story, start with the basic questions: who, what, when, where and why. In this context, the metadata associated with a video can help answer some of these questions by providing you with details about the original source, date and location.

One rule, however, is that one piece of evidence alone is insufficient to verify a video -usually a body of evidence needs to be collected to form a complete picture. Get ready for that adrenaline rush when the puzzle comes together.

Here's a step-by-step-guide to verifying video from social media.

Provenance

Identifying a video's provenance is the first step. Sometimes it is obvious that the video belongs to the Facebook or YouTube account where you discovered it. But as detailed in Chapter 3, you always start from the assumption that a video has been "scraped" or duplicated.

Most videos come with a description, tag, comment or some piece of identifying text. Extract useful keywords from this information to begin your search. Acronyms, place names and other pronouns make good keywords. If the description is in a foreign language, paste the text into Google Translate to highlight these keywords.

Search for the earliest videos matching these keywords using the date filter to order results. On YouTube, look directly below the search bar for the Filters menu and select Upload Date, as in the below image. Vimeo, YouKu and other video platforms have similar filters. Scroll through the results and compare video thumbnails to find the earliest version (the thumbnails of original and "scraped" videos usually match).

Another method to find the earliest version of a video is to perform an image search of the video thumbnail using Google Image Search or TinEye (as explained in the previous chapter). This can identify the first instance of video thumbnails and images. The helpfulness of these tools depends on the image quality; a strong contrast in the video and a distinctive color scheme help.

Once you've found the source behind the video, contact the source to begin the next step.

Verify the source

It's time to examine the source the same way we would look at any more-traditional source of information. Indeed, often much more information is available about an online source than a traditional source telephoning a tip line, for example.

Online profiles leave a digital footprint that allows us to examine history and activity. Most platforms enable us to contact uploaders, which is an essential step. Ultimately we seek to engage with the uploader, ask questions and satisfy ourselves that the uploader filmed the footage.

These questions are useful when examining an uploader's digital footprint:

  • Are we familiar with this account? Has the account holder's content and reportage been reliable in the past?
  • Where is this account registered?
  • Where is the uploader based, judging by the account history?
  • Are video descriptions consistent and mostly from a specific location? Are videos dated?
  • If videos on the account use a logo, is this logo consistent across the videos? Does it match the avatar on the YouTube or Vimeo account?
  • Does the uploader "scrape" videos from news organizations and other YouTube accounts, or does he upload solely user-generated content?
  • Does the uploader write in slang or dialect that is identifiable in the video's narration?
  • Are the videos on this account of a consistent quality? (On YouTube, go to Settings and then Quality to determine the best quality available.)
  • Do video descriptions have file extensions such as .AVI or .MP4 in the video title? This can indicate the video was uploaded directly from a device.
  • Does the description of a YouTube video read: "Uploaded via YouTube Capture"? This may indicate the video was filmed on a smartphone.

Gathering the answers to these questions helps paint a picture of the source, the source's online history and the kind of content he shares. From there, it's important to try to connect that account's activity to any other online accounts the source maintains. Below are some practices/questions to guide this process.

  • Search Twitter or Facebook for the unique video code - are there affiliated accounts? (Every piece of UGC is identified by a unique code that appears in the URL. On YouTube and Facebook, for instance, the code is placed between "v=" and the next "&" in the URL.)
  • Are there other accounts - Google Plus, a blog or website - listed on the video profile or otherwise affiliated with this uploader?
  • What information do affiliated accounts contain that indicate recent location, activity, reliability, bias or agenda of the account holder?
  • How long have these accounts been active? How active are they?
  • Who are the social media accounts connected with, and what does this tell us about the uploader?
  • Can we find whois information for an affiliated website?
  • Is the person listed in local phone directories, on Spokeo, Pipl.com or WebMii or on LinkedIn?
  • Do the source's online social circles indicate proximity to this story/location?

Asking these questions, and answering them, gives us an impression as to the reliability of a source of content. And, importantly, it provides a means to contact the uploader to seek further questions and guidance on the how the video may be used by news organizations.

When speaking to the source, be sure to ask about some of the information you came across. Do the answers match up? If the source isn't honest with you about information, then you should be extra suspicious of the content.

Locate the video

With the source identified and examined, it's time to try to verify the content of the video itself. This begins with confirming, or establishing, the location of the video.

Verifying where a video was filmed very much depends on the clues the video presents. A distinctive streetscape, a building, church, line of trees, mountain range, minaret or bridge are all good reference points to compare with satellite imagery and geolocated photographs. Should the camera pan across a business name, this might be listed in online classifieds or a local directory. A street sign might give clues to the precise location. Car registration plates or advertising billboards might indicate provincial details. Sunlight, shadows and the approximate time of day of the event can also be helpful. And if the video contains dialogue, do the accents or dialects fit the circumstances it purports to represent?

The starting point, again, is to examine any text accompanying the video and clues within the video. Home in on the location using Google Maps and try to map the video location. If possible, zoom into Street View to get the camera angle. If Street View is not available, turn on "Photos" in Google Maps' options and check if geolocated photographs match the video location. Geolocated photos may also be searched using the advanced search features on Flickr, Picasa and Twitter.

If the video is in a foreign language, enter the text into Google Translate and identify the place name. Be aware that Google Translate often mistranslates: for instance, the Arabic for Lattakia in Syria mistranslates as "Protoplasm," Daraa as "Shield." Also be aware that various English transliterations of Arabic render names differently: Jidda or Jiddah, for example. By taking the Arabic text for these places and entering it into Google Maps, we'll find our way to the city. The below image shows searches in Google Translate and Google Maps.



When translating, use the language skills available among your colleagues and contacts. Translating Japanese characters to Korean or Mandarin yields a more accurate translation than Japanese to English. So if you have a Korean or Mandarin speaker in your midst, or can find one quickly, ask her to investigate the translations for you.

Wikimapia is a crowdsourced version of Google Maps in which buildings, suburbs, military sites and other points of interest are outlined and described. This is useful to get context for an area and identify locations, though this information should be corroborated by other information, as it is possible to encounter errors, or deliberately misleading information.

One example of how Wikimapia can be useful came when a day of "civil disobedience" was held in Port Said, Egypt, in February 2013. Demonstrators were filmed marching by the Port Said University's Faculty of Education, according to one YouTube uploader. The streetscape was difficult to identify on Google Maps amid the densely packed streets of Port Said. However, the Faculty of Education (كليةالتربية) is tagged on Wikimapia; finding and examining this reference point confirmed the location of the demonstration, as shown below.

Google Earth is another useful tool, in that it provides a history of satellite images. This is useful when examining older videos where the terrain may have changed.

Google Earth's terrain view is also valuable when examining terrain and the relative dimensions of buildings. Recently when the team at Storyful was considering a video as evidence supporting a reported Israeli strike on Syria, Google Earth Terrain's view of mountains north of Damascus verified the location of a YouTube uploader, as you can see in the below comparison.



Verify the date

Confirming the date of videos uploaded from a planned event like a demonstration or political rally is generally straightforward. Other videos of the same event are likely to exist via news reports, and corroborating pictures are usually shared on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites. Searching these platforms with relevant keywords and hashtags is usually sufficient to discover supporting evidence such as distinctive buildings or street furniture, placards or weather conditions.

However, for more obscure videos, date is generally the most difficult piece of metadata to verify. YouTube videos are time-stamped in Pacific Standard Time (PST) from the moment the upload begins. This led Russia's Foreign Ministry to cast doubt on videos depicting a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta near Damascus: The videos were uploaded in the early hours of August 21, and therefore were dated on YouTube as August 20. The Foreign Ministry's ignorance of this prompted it and others to claim the videos were staged and uploaded ahead of the reported time of the attack.

Weather reports alone are insufficient to verify dates, but they help. As previously detailed, Wolfram Alpha provides weather information about a place on a particular date. After Rita Krill uploaded what purported to be amazing video of a lightning strike in her Florida backyard on October 5, 2012, Wolfram Alpha showed that thunderstorms were active in the area. And searching Twitter for Naples, Florida, on that date showed a local weatherman asking his followers for pictures of storm clouds in Naples. Below is an image of the Wolfram Alpha search and the tweet.



Final checks: What does the video show?

Now it's time to bring all of your data together and ask the obvious questions: Does the video make sense given the context in which it was filmed? Does anything jar my journalistic instinct? Does anything look out of place? Do clues suggest it is not legitimate? Do any of the source's details or answers to my questions not add up? Remember, your assumption is that the video is false. Does the evidence confirm or refute that assumption?

When it comes to video, bear in mind that elaborate hoaxes have been, and continue to be, played. Canadian students infamously faked a video of an eagle swooping down in a park in Montreal and picking up a baby. This was debunked by splitting the video into single frames and spotting that the eagle's shadow was missing in some frames. (More technical people can use video editing software like the free VLC media player or the free Avidemux video editor, or the licensed Vegas Pro editor to split a video into its constituent frames if you have doubts over its construction.)



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