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In Digital Research, Things aren’t always what they seem

Reflections from Digital Verification Corps (DVC) volunteer Adebayo Okeowo

The cure for fake stories is to simply counter it with the truth. But then what happens when individuals with questionable motives create false news based on inaccurate facts? This will require more than just a critical eye and a sharp mind. It will entail special skills, which is the solution being offered by Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC), a team I am privileged to be a part of.

It was midday a couple of months ago in Pretoria as we gathered for the first time as a team. We sat in groups of three and silently observed a YouTube video on our laptops. We had one task: verify if the video showing an airstrike in Syria was authentic. We came to the conclusion that the video was authentic and had not been manipulated. However, there was a complication: the locals in the video had claimed that they recorded and uploaded the video the same day the strike took place. But the time stamp on YouTube showed a different date.

This discovery potentially undermined every truth about the video and personally I was ready to dismiss it as being misleading. However, we were prompted by our instructors to probe further. Hence, we got busy using tools developed by Amnesty International in a bid to identify the precise time and day the video was published. The result of our investigation confirmed the narrative of the locals that an airstrike had indeed taken place. We discovered that there was only a disparity in the dates because YouTube did not reflect local Syrian time when the video was uploaded. A common mistake.

One clear lesson from this real life exercise was that things may not always be what they seem.

Double check, triple check the facts

It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is true from what is not. Many false pictures, statements and videos have been turned into “truths” due to widespread sharing without prior verification.

This is the real world and there is no delete button. Many times when fake news is circulated, even when it eventually gets corrected or retracted, it is usually too late. It has gone viral and the damage is already done. This underscores the extreme need for disseminators of information to do sound fact checking before popularizing any news because it may potentially turn out to be false.

Fake news is NOT harmless. Fake news has repercussions and these can be as significant as making the difference between justice and injustice. The goal therefore should not be about who gets to break the news first and draw more likes, views or re-tweets. The concern should be: who will I be hurting and what damage will I be causing if this piece of information turns out to be untrue. Sometimes, merely pausing and critically observing a piece of information will reveal the inaccuracy of a story.

The rule therefore should be: double check before believing and triple check before re-sharing.

The Digital Verification Corps

From Pretoria to Berkeley and Essex, we are working with researchers at Amnesty International to blow the whistle on inauthentic materials depicting human rights violations. But equally important is our work at using advanced digital methods to curate reliable multimedia data that can be used to demand accountability for human rights atrocities. The relevance of this work cannot be overstated, especially in an era where everyone with a cell phone camera is a potential news reporter.

I think I just made us sound like the latest super heroes in town. Maybe we are, even though we don’t have super hero suits nor do we have super powers. Nevertheless, we are a bunch of passionate individuals committed to making sure the truth is known about conflict situations, and undisputable evidence is provided to buffer accountability efforts by human rights activists.

Upholding the truth is now beyond a moral issue. It is what is required to keep our world safe, just and free.

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