by Beth Jackson
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become essential to promoting human rights in the digital age. Movements such as Black Lives Matter have successfully used social media to communicate, organise and share crucial information with the world. A significant amount of footage has been shared over social media in the past few weeks, helping to draw attention to the issues and to generate support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but not all of it is what it seems.
Widespread misinformation, inaccurate posts and misleading videos have gone viral. For example, a doctored photo of the White House with all its lights off was shared all over Twitter. The photo, also shared by Hilary Clinton, was found to have been taken in 2015. Photos of a teenager’s dog bite injuries were used in fake Facebook posts claiming Black Lives Matter protesters had attacked people with machetes, and videos, supposedly showing police officers in the US looting, thrived online before being debunked.
Freedom of the press – as enshrined within Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the right to “seek, receive and impart information” – is crucial in order for journalists and human rights defenders to hold governments to account. Fake news causes confusion, distracts from important issues and impacts the democratic role of a free press. It makes it more difficult to trust information and makes people hesitant to share content which genuinely needs attention.
It’s important to keep a critical mindset when sharing posts online and always question the authenticity of what you are tempted to repost. So what can you do?
Here are some ways you can check information you find online:
Check the original source:
It’s easier than ever to share someone else’s content on social media but it is important to follow the chain back to the original tweet.
Example: This video was retweeted with a caption that implied the incident had occurred after George Floyd’s death on 25th May. It had been liked by over 11,000 people and retweeted over 6,000 times. But when clicking on the original account it was shared from, the author of the tweet, who is also the person in the video, admits it was, in fact, from January.
Check when it was first posted:
If you can’t find the original source through social media, a quick and easy way to check when the content was first posted is to do a reverse image search. You can go to images.google.com or TinyEye and upload a photo or video still using the camera icon and it will show you where this photo has been uploaded before.
Example: These photos were shared widely on social media showing police officers injured at Black Lives Matter protests in London. The images were also shared by the Police Firearms Association account with the caption “all in a day’s work”. However, a quick reverse image check shows that these photos were not all from the recent black lives matter protests. In fact, three of the six were from previous UK protests dating back to 2016. A reverse image search on this photo shows it was originally used in a 2016 article by the Mirror about violence against police at a David Cameron protest.
Check the story:
Have news outlets shared the content or posted about the event?
Example: Videos from protests that go viral are usually picked up by news outlets who should verify them before reporting on them. However, this alone does not prove a post is ‘real’. For example, Fox News shared doctored images of the recent protests. Cross-check stories with reputable news sources before sharing.
Check the replies:
On many occasions people are quick to point out ‘fake’ videos in comments. Although comments alone don’t prove if a video is ‘fake’ – and claiming that real videos are fake can be a deliberate tactic – they can be helpful in giving a starting point to conducting your own research.
Example: Numerous videos of firefighters setting themselves on fire to “fight police officers” in France were posted recently, giving the impression they were part of recent protests. In the comments of one video on TikTok, it was pointed out that the original image was from January. A quick search shows that this is true and the photo was from a protest over working conditions and pay – totally unrelated to the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Check the background:
Many videos and photos have been posted that were actually from entirely different countries than quoted in the captions. Keep a critical mindset and look out for clues in the background of the video. Ask yourself questions. Are signs on buildings in the language you would expect? What’s the weather like and does it correlate to the time of season or time of day? Does it look recent? What uniforms are people wearing? In light of the current pandemic, are people wearing masks?
Check the location:
Geolocation can be a really useful tool when verifying posts from social media. It means identifying where that video was filmed or the photo was taken using tools such as Google Earth. Geolocation can also be helpful in building a picture of what has happened by searching for local news articles and other videos from the same location.
Example: There were numerous posts and stories that both police and other groups were planting bricks to escalate violence in the protests. The White House account tweeted (now deleted) that ‘Antifa and professional anarchists’ were staging bricks to instigate violence. In one hour, the video accompanying the tweet had 1.3 million views. However, BBC Reality Check geolocated the video and found pictures from 24th May with the same pile of bricks in the same place.
There isn’t one sure-fire way to spot fake news but by evaluating the evidence in front of you and asking questions before sharing, you can prevent yourself from contributing further to misinformation.
For more information on the techniques discussed in this post, including geolocation and reverse image search, you can take a look at the Human Rights Centre Clinic’s Introductory Guide to Open Source Intelligence and Digital Verification, and visit Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab for up-to-date information on open source investigations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Jackson is a postgraduate student at the University of Essex where she is pursuing an MA in Theory and Practice of Human Rights. She holds a BA (Hons) in Multimedia Journalism and is currently a part of the Digital Verification Unit at the Essex Human Rights Centre Clinic.