How to fact-check online photos and videos – 9 tips
Hundreds of millions of photos and videos are uploaded to the internet every single day. This wealth of online documentation allows us to discover and verify all sorts of things, but it can also lead us astray. A simple search is not always sufficient to find a reliable photo or video, so here are nine tips that will help you dig a little deeper.
1. Reverse image search photos
On Sept. 27, 2014 at 11:19 a.m., a jihadist from The Netherlands tweeted this photo:
The person, Muhajiri Sháám, claimed that Dutch and British “martyrs” were buried in this grave. But where and when was this? If you drag and drop a photo into Google Images, the search engine will determine whether the photo has been published before.The same is possible with Yandex, which also sorts results by resolution. This helps to find new details you may not see in your version.
The photo from the Dutch jihadist had been previously published by several jihadi Twitter accounts. There was only one tweet before Sept. 27 from a propaganda account (@ibnnabih). This source placed the event two days before Sháám’s tweet.
2. Ask for the source
Don’t rely just on tools. The search seems to end with @ibnnabih (account now suspended). You can never prove a negative: If something is not there, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I asked @ibnnabih where he got the photo from. This is what he said:
@Mrsad_JH, also a jihadist propaganda account on Twitter, posted the same photo three days earlier than the Dutch tweet:
Google and Yandex missed this tweet. Without asking, the search would have ended with @ibnnabih and not @Mrsad_JH. More research of this type allowed us to find a photo that could be geolocated at Kafr Derya, where Jabhat al-Nusra fighters had been killed in battle by a cruise missile.
3. Reverse searching videos
Is a video of Russians bombing Syria fake or not? It’s a lot of work to search for stills of original videos in Google or Yandex Image search, especially from live feeds. Take your best shot with the Youtube Dataviewer. It extracts four thumbnails from any YouTube video and allows you to do a reverse image search. The tool also gives you the exact upload time, which sometimes differs from the time you see in YouTube.
4. Finding vanished material (1)
People take down websites, social media accounts and other online content all the time. That makes it harder to find it, but not impossible. Let’s look at a concrete example: Prince Louis and Princess Tessy of Luxembourg divorced this year. The princess then closed down her Instagram account. The Internet Archive, the first place to check, had nothing.
But with this search trick, you might have a chance. The web address of her account was Instagram.com/tessy_de_luxembourg. It's possible that people referred to that link (1) or reposted stuff and gave credit to the original source. Whatever happened, we need to exclude everything on Instagram (2) to see if the link pops up.
It did. Her designer had reposted this photo:
5. Finding vanished material
Online content can be taken down altogether, but as often as not it shifts location as websites are redesigned or moved. This phenomenon, called “link rot,” make older photos or videos harder to access.
A while ago, I wanted to find documents of bids for drilling in Iraq before 2011 and the logo of the oil company. The problem is that the only site I knew about, http://www.noc.oil.gov.iq, was launched in 2012.
How do I know what the link was in 2012 or earlier? Searching for “iraq north oil company site:iq” on the Wayback Machine did the trick. This backdoor of archive.org does one thing very well: It helps you predict the full URL of a website
that is no longer online. Besides providing two previous
versions of the website, it indicates how many documents, photos and
audio have been saved for each.
6. The art of knowing where you are
The location of shaky videos can be hard to pinpoint. I love a nerdy little tool called Hugin that lets you stitch this kind of video footage into a panoramic photo, which can then be the start of a journey through Google Earth. I explained this process in more detail in “Inside the trenches of an information war.”
If you want to learn geo-location skills, check Geoguessr or First Draft News but read “Verification and Geolocation Tricks and Tips with Google Earth” first, an introduction by Eliot Higgins.
An excellent tool to find out more about any photo is Imgops. It reveals possible GPS-coordinates, date of publication, date that the picture was made and more.
It's important for you understand which timezone the metadata is referring to. The Dutch newspaper NRC had to correct itself after declaring that the iconic photo below (from the White House Situation Room during the mission to kill Osama bin Laden) was taken five hours before it actually happened. The reporters had misunderstood the date stamp.
8. Photoshopped or not?
Even news photos are slightly altered with Photoshop. Izitru detects patterns that indicate heavy editing. Unfortunately, the moment your photo is not an original photo from a camera, the tool flags it as suspicious. FotoForensics is more granular (see their FAQ) and will usually spot the most heavily edited photos with ease.
9. Processing hours of videos
Recently I had to watch four hours of YouTube videos to see if somebody mentioned the word “mujahideen.” The only problem was, I only had one hour to do it. I managed to beat this constraint by downloading the YouTube channel with a free tool called 4kdownload. I can download 4 hours of video in just 23 minutes.
Soundbite finds any word or phrase in audio and video files. It processed the four hours of YouTube video’s in just 10 minutes, giving me enough time to search for the keyword I wanted. Each time the keyword is spoken in the clip, it will show me the precise moment (see below).
Henk van Ess
March 21, 2017
Henk van Ess is obsessed with finding news and stories in data. He is a guest lecturer and trainer and travels around Europe conducting advanced Internet research workshops. His projects include “Facebook Graph Tips”, Fact-Checking the Web” (CSI Internet), Verification Handbook, Handbook Datajournalism (Dutch), Da Google Code (French) Richtig Recherchieren (German). He is currently visiting professor at the Axel Springer Akademie in Berlin.