The instinct to believe what we see has made video a driving force in news coverage, but it has also been exploited as a powerful tool for manipulation.
As journalists and crisis responders increasingly look toward YouTube, social media, and their audiences for firsthand footage of developing stories, they can find themselves the target of hoaxes. And despite the growing number of companies, resources, and tools developed to help verify citizen reports, this year’s biggest news stories were inundated with manipulated or misinterpreted videos.
The case of the fabricated hero
If you missed the dustup about it, the video shows a young boy running through sniper fire. At one point, he appears to fall down, faking death, and gets back up to help a girl escape. Despite featuring some common traits of citizen videos of the Syrian war — shaky camera moves, voices repeating “allahu akbar,” and rubble in the street — seasoned viewers were skeptical. No details were provided about who was behind the video, and when and where it was filmed.
While many journalists were working to analyze the video frame by frame or investigate the video’s origins, “Syrian Hero Boy” went viral with outlets like The Telegraph reporting that “it is thought the incident took place in Yabroud — a town near the Lebanese border which was the last stronghold of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Experts tell the paper they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.”
By the time the BBC tracked down the filmers — a Norwegian film crew that produced the video in Malta with professional actors and more than $40,000 of funding — it had deceived upwards of 5 million viewers.
An Epidemic of False Footage
After outraged journalists reacted with a public letter, the filmmakers apologized, and the video has been removed. But “Syrian Hero Boy” wasn’t the first online video to mislead the media and the public at large, and it will by no means be the last. We will never be able to stop pranksters, activists, propagandists, or “filmmakers” from misleading the public with fake or falsely contextualized images. Our only defense is better tools and practices — by filmers, uploaders, viewers, and tech companies — to verify that what we see is real.
I keep a list of these types of videos to use when training human rights workers and journalists on video verification. Their eyes widen when they see that outlets ranging from the Washington Post and Al Arabiya to every TV news channel that has asked its audience to send in storm footage has been deceived by faked, manipulated, or what I like to call “born-again” videos.
The attempted hoaxes are just as alarming. I received a message this fall from a news outlet whose Mexico correspondent had received photos purporting to show the missing Ayotzinapa students. Earlier this year, a human rights researcher inquired about a video sent from a trusted source, described as showing atrocities in South Sudan. In both cases, the footage was shocking enough to merit a major report if proven authentic. For both, a Google reverse image search revealed that the images were in fact old, anointed with a new description like a fresh coat of paint.
Several versions of the above footage were uploaded this year, described as taking place in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Addressing the Verification Challenge
Verifying videos is rarely an easy process, especially when we see how easy and common it is to re-appropriate old videos or use digital effects to fool viewers. WITNESS and other organizations have been working to develop “proof modes,” or ways to give filmers more control over their metadata, so that it can be used to help viewers verify that what they’re watching is authentic. Journalists like Andy Carvin, Eliot Higgins, and the reporting team at Storyful go to great lengths to investigate inconsistencies, as they did to determine that the “Syrian Hero Boy” video was faked.
But for the average viewer, video imparts a sense of authenticity that requires no further proof. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we think, and once we’ve seen it, we share it on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and it often winds up in the news before it’s determined to be authentic. A Tow Center for Digital Journalism study published this year found that while news organizations are upping their use of citizen footage, only a small number of staff are equipped with the skills to verify that it’s real.
But What If It IS Real?
None of this, of course, helps filmers who are genuinely documenting their communities, or the news outlets interested in curating what they document. In many cases, that is precisely the point of false footage — to cast a shadow of doubt on all citizen reporting. But it would be a shame if false videos scared newsrooms from incorporating citizen reports into their coverage. With the help of our partners at Storyful, we’ve curated hundreds of verified videos from across Syria and the refugee diaspora on the Human Rights Channel.
It can be a time-consuming process to make sure the videos we feature are indeed what they purport to be. But without knowing for certain what a video documents, we risk using it in the wrong context, undermining the credibility of authentic footage, and stripping human rights videos of their value altogether.
One of many verified videos from the Aleppo Media Center showing residents returning to their neighborhood after government airstrikes in late October 2014 which killed 15 people, most of them children.
Resources on Verifying Video
In the course of the past two years curating citizen videos on the Human Rights Channel, WITNESS has compiled a list of resources that offer guidance, tools, and best practices for verifying online footage. If you use a tool or strategy that isn’t listed, please share with us in a comment below.
Madeleine Bair works at WITNESS, where she curates the Human Rights Channel, a Webby-nominated collaboration with Storyful, hosted on YouTube. Follow her at @MadBair, and follow the channel at @ytHumanRights. She spoke on the panel, “Media Policy and Participatory Journalism” at the AEJMC annual conference last August.