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How to navigate eyewitness media verification and avoid viral misinformation

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How to navigate eyewitness media verification and avoid viral misinformation

In the aftermath of the earthquakes that shook Nepal on April 25th this year, a picture went viral on social media. The picture came with the caption “Two-year-old sister protected by four-year-old brother in Nepal.” It’s clear why the photo appealed to so many. 


The issue? The photo was not of Nepalese orphans. It was taken in Vietnam ten years earlier in Can Ty. The photographer Na Son Nguyen told the BBC

"The little girl, probably two years old, cried in the presence of a stranger so the boy, who was maybe three years old or so, hugged his sister to comfort her."

"It was both moving and cute, so I quickly made a shot."

As the photo spread across social networks, people sharing the content created an elaborate back story. "Some people even weaved intricate tales about the kids," Nguyen told the BBC, "like their mother had died and their father left them". 

The photo spreading across social media networks revealed an increasingly important issue for news organisations: How can we verify content shared by the general public? 

“It’s very interesting in the last couple of years we’ve seen an absolute explosion in content on social media,” says the Guardian Witness’ UGC co-ordinator Caroline Bannock. With the proliferation of social media content, as well as the greater reciprocal dialogue between users and media organisations, journalists need to add social media content verification to their growing list of skills. 

Tight deadlines are often a factor that increases the difficulties associated with the verification of User Generated Content (UGC) says ProPublica’s Amanda Zamora. “The great advantage that we have is we are not on these daily deadlines where we’re asking for information and trying to publish it that same day, or very quickly,” Zamora says. “I think that that is when newsrooms get into trouble with verification when there is this pressure right to get the information out as quickly as possible.”

Verification Techniques & ‘Old Fashioned Journalism’

Bannock says there’s a variety of ways to go about verifying content. “It’s different levels,” she says. “There’s certain verification processes, you always check for copyright, you’re always going to check for copyright through Google reverse image search or TinEye.”

The more important the content the more it is essential to contact the source of the information Bannock says. “If it’s a piece of content that’s going to change a news story you have to, in my opinion, be in contact with that person or be absolutely sure that that image or video is safe,” Bannock says. “I mean there are ways of doing it.”

Bannock advocates for what she calls ‘old-fashioned journalism’.

“We’re lucky because we have access to active data for images,’ she says. “[Guardian Witness] has email addresses so we can call people and there’s no substitute for old-fashioned journalism, getting them on the phone if you can if you need to.”

Zamora agrees that following up with the creator of the content is essential. “It’s where the story starts for us,” she says. “We’re picking up the phone, we’re emailing, we’re following back up with people to get more information to figure out where they’re coming from, what the story really is, it’s not just taking what they’ve contributed as the final story.”

“We’re treating the tips and contributions that we get as leads,” she says. “We’re not treating them as the final story.”


Bannock says that The Guardian often collaborates with 'uploaders' to verify content. “Witnesses are pretty smart,” she says. “I remember in the Hong Kong protests earlier this year, people were helping by putting street addresses or street signs in the content so that we could actually see where it was, that made it easier for us.”

The verification of UGC is a labour intensive process Bannock says. “We were going through those steps of trying to work out whether they [the Hong Kong protests] were on that day,” she says. Verifiers need to ask: “Are there other reports going on in social media that this particular thing happened? It takes a long time. But if it’s a news-changing piece of content, it has to take that time.”

Fergus Bell, Head of Newsroom Partnerships & Innovation at SAM, and former social media and UGC editor at AP, says that there are a number of ways journalists can go about verifying content. “You can infer a lot of information about their location from the content of the post itself,” he says. “Whether it’s a photo looking at things in the background, the weather, if it’s a video.”

Bell says that search engines are an invaluable resource.  “There’s been situations of vehicles moving through the streets of Ukraine or Russia and you can follow that progress on Google Maps or Google Street View,” he says. “You can actually do the same route and there are actually people who do that in order to verify content on certain stories.”

Verifying it at its source

According to Bell, checking a social media user’s past content is especially important in UGC verification. “Seeing where someone has placed their bio, or the kinds of things they’ve posted about previously can often give a lot of information,” Bell says.

When you’re talking about things like verification of UGC, then a video and a photo is different to a piece of text,” he says. “We look at pulling information about the user from their own accounts, analysing their recent posts, analysing who they’re communicating with, their most frequent words in order to build up a case for who that person might be.”

“A lot of my work in my previous roles has been about verifying the role and the source of that content and by using technology to help with that it can provide a stronger case for verification.”

What happens if someone isn’t as active as another on social media? Does that make them less credible if you’re searching their profile and past content? “Not at all,” Bell says. “It’s about building up a picture of that person.”

“A good example is a tornado,” he explains. “Very few people happen to be in the path of a tornado more than once in their life.”

“If I’m looking at a YouTube account of someone who’s uploaded a fantastic video of a tornado, if that’s the only thing they’ve ever uploaded that is completely believable because they had to capture it and they had to share it,” he says. “Whereas if they uploaded 100 videos of tornadoes I wouldn’t necessarily believe that, I would think that they were scraping.”

“Building a picture, understanding who that person is and what might have motivated them to post and looking at how they would have posted in the past if at all is a clear way to verify that content and the individual.”

Protecting the Uploader

Safety of users who upload content is an important consideration. “I think what’s very interesting for uploaders now is that they’re completely bombarded and then they don’t know what they’ve got themselves into,” Bannock says. After the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year in Paris, a mobile video uploaded to Facebook went viral. The video showed the final moments of a Police officer shot dead by the two terrorists involved in the attacks. The uploader took the video down again, but the video was then widely shared across social networks and used by large media organisations. “We mustn’t forget that the situation was still ongoing, those people were not caught, the actual attackers were not caught for the next four days there were all these rumours going around Paris,” she says.

For Bannock, the video is an example of the need to work with users who upload content. “I think for this person, his safety was paramount and I think we haven’t quite worked out as news organisations yet about how to protect our uploaders, how to protect the people we engage with when we’re approaching them about their content.”

Guardian Witness does not publish anything before it is reviewed. This step Bannock says, is an essential safety measure for uploaders.

“Because everything is reviewed before it’s published we have that extra layer, that extra security being able to contact people who we think might be endangering themselves when they’re contacting us,” Bannock says. “So we contact them and we have that conversation with them.”

 “If someone sends something that could either endanger them or their security or we think it shouldn’t be published for other reasons we have a way of stopping that,” she says. “We have their email addresses so we can contact them and go back to them and ask them if they’re really comfortable with sharing their content.”

Users in dangerous areas are particularly at risk when they upload UGC to media organisations. Bannock points to the protests in Mexico late last year about 43 missing students. “As we all know Mexico can be dangerous for journalists certainly, but the citizen journalists, or the accidental journalists or ordinary people just involved in a march it can also be dangerous,” Bannock says. “So we were actually emailing people saying ‘do you want to have your real name on this content?’ We were able to actually engage in that security I think in a different way because we have that direct contact.”

The costs incurred by newsrooms to pay for foreign correspondents and freelance journalists - insurance, legal advice in negligence actions and safety training, for example - may deter newsrooms from sending journalists into dangerous areas. This takes us back to the early debates of citizen journalism - is there a risk that eyewitnesses and UGC could replace journalists?

“I don’t think you can ever substitute an accidental journalist or an eyewitness with a journalist or a photo journalist,” Bannock says. During the 2013 anti-government protests in Turkey Bannock was actively reigning in the actions of the users she was in contact with. “People were sharing content and getting right in the middle of the protests and I was saying to them actually ‘can you please think about your security and safety first? What you shouldn’t be doing is thinking about getting the content to us',” she says.

“We were sort of putting the breaks on people because if you’re an eyewitness you’re not a professional journalist and you might need other people help you to think about this...Journalists are obviously trained in those sorts of areas.”

Read more on this topic in the World Editors Forum's 2014 Trends in Newsrooms blog series, and in coverage of the 2014 World News Media Congress debates. See also new research by Eyewitness Media.

Fergus Bell will be speaking about UGC and other topics at:


Angelique Lu


2015-05-13 11:26

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