Validating and Verifying Citizen Video: Combating the Digital Fake

Session Type:
Working Group

Session Category:

Session Leader:
Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS


David Clinch,
Editorial Director, Storyful

Heather Ford,
Ethnographer, Ushahidi

Sarah Knuckey, Director, Project on Extrajudicial Executions,
New York University

Bradley Samuels, Partner,
Situ Studio

Harlo Thomas,
The Guardian Project

Day: Saturday
: W300
Time: 12pm – 1:30pm

Session Notes

Summary: How do we better authenticate and verify citizen video? With more video material coming directly from a wider range of sources, often live and or nearly in real-time, and often without context, it is increasingly urgent to find ways to rapidly verify or trust such information. This session explores how existing approaches to fact-checking and authentication from news journalism as well as legal issues around evidence and chain-of-custody, and new crowd-sourced approaches can be are being incorporated —from a technology, practices and standards point-of-view—into the process of creating, collecting, and distributing digital media, especially video.

Agenda: Each participant will present a concrete case example of where they have validated and verified citizen video or similar social media sources. Our perspectives range across a range of approaches from forensic and legal to crowd-sourced efforts and new tools-based approaches. Among the case studies we will use as a starting point: the review of perpetrator-shot footage of extrajudicial killings in Sri Lanka, crowd-sourced data verification using Ushahidi, the use of multiple video sources and spatial mapping to understand an incident in the Occupied Territories, data verification in the real-time environment of the Arab Spring, and the potential of open-source tools like the SecureSmartCam to generate stronger authenticable data when filming.

Description: Major journalism organisations like the BBC and Al-Jazeera as well as new commercial and social-purpose enterprises like Storyful and Crowdvoice are learning as they go along, and are sharing emerging practices in how to sift, verify and curate social media content about human rights and humanitarian crises and to guard against falsified information. In the human rights and legal realm there is an increasing discussion of how existing concepts of chain of custody, of evidentiary value, of reliable documentation and source-confirmation can be adapted or incorporated for a citizen and social-media driven environment; as well as about how to guard against digital manipulation of images and video.

For example, when we consider the digital video files shot with handheld cameras and mobile phones—documenting uprisings, protests, and human rights abuse from the Middle East and around the world—these file formats have inherent metadata that can help identify where and when a video was shot. However, this information can be easily manipulated or faked and does not follow the video when it is shared and made available for others to re-use on popular video platforms. 

Alongside more manual, forensic techniques of verification, more technology- driven initiatives are underway to provide technical verification and digital chain-of-custody of footage, to help underpin the use of video in evidentiary, legal, media and archival contexts. However, significant questions remain over how to vouch for authenticity, protect safety, and communicate the original intention of human rights footage. As live video streaming from mobile devices grows in prevalence, new questions will also arise – for example, how to reconcile expectations of total transparency and immediacy with the frequent need to edit footage to protect people’s safety or the need to fact-check a live source. 

How can verification be incorporated in the media creation and collection process, and in open video on the web? Can video files carry better authenticable data? How can the process of verification be shared among networks of users or social media network participants?

Outcome: This group of journalists, technologists, and human rights activists will discuss and prototype various approaches to verifying citizen video that are relevant to both news content as well as more niche content such as human rights material — looking at cryptographic solutions, digital analysis crowd-verification solutions, as well as multi-step authentication solutions based and building on existing journalistic and legal practice, and more. We hope to share ideas between different disciplines that are drawing on the power of citizen video, and lay the groundwork for enhanced approaches and collaborations moving forward.