The Digital Verification Corps: Amnesty International’s Volunteers for the Age of Social Media

Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC) was set up in 2016 to address three main challenges. 

First, how can Amnesty find new ways to engage volunteers in the 21st century, in a way that their efforts make real, meaningful contributions to the protection of human rights in the digital age. 

Second, how can Amnesty confront the challenge of collating and verifying the overwhelming amount of digital content that exists in the world today, some of it depicting human rights abuses. 

Third, how does Amnesty assist in training the next generation of human rights researchers in the tools and skills needed to do this.

From these three challenges, the DVC was born. The network consists of  six universities – the University of Hong Kong; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Toronto; the University of Cambridge; the University of Essex; and the University of Pretoria – to train volunteer students to verify videos and photos of potential human rights violations from conflicts and crises across the world. The outcome of their efforts directly supports Amnesty’s research teams working to monitor and report on human rights violations globally.

What is the Digital Verification Corps

With more than 100 members at any one time, these DVC volunteers are the Amnesty letter writers of the 21st century.

Students come from different academic backgrounds, such as law and journalism, and are trained in open source investigation methods, allowing them to verify the authenticity, location, and time of videos and photographs posted on social media. This includes learning techniques such as reverse image search, geolocation, and shadow analysis. Amnesty researchers are then able to incorporate verified open source audiovisual information into their research reports, briefings, or press releases. Just as importantly, DVC students also advise Amnesty when a video is not what we are told it is – to ensure false information isn’t mistakenly used in Amnesty outputs.

Due to the graphic and disturbing nature of some of the videos that DVC participants necessarily watch, Amnesty prioritizes the mental health of everyone involved in the programme, training the universities and the students in vicarious trauma and how to recognize it. All volunteers receive mental health resiliency training and are supervised for signs of vicarious trauma throughout the programme.

The programme also benefits from its diversity. Based over four continents and 14 timezones, students can verify content from events in different languages, react to local crises or problems further away and, most importantly, learn from each other as they collaborate on projects or meet at one of the annual DVC summits.  

In November 2019, the DVC won the Times Higher Education Award for International Collaboration of the Year.

“We were incredibly impressed with the nature of the partnership, how it led to an impressive network of student investigators, and how it has delivered and continues to deliver data-driven evidence that can be used to prosecute war crimes and support society-building and social justice.”

THE Award Judges

Moving into the future, the DVC is aiming to expand its reach in two ways. First, it is looking for appropriate partners in locations around the world where it is not yet active. Second, it is also aiming to conduct research into new areas, such as the targeted impact of disinformation on human rights. With so-called “fake news” (which we prefer to refer to as mis- and disinformation) and new technologies, such as deepfakes or synthetic media, on the horizon, digital verification and the skills associated with it are an increasing part of the toolkit all human rights investigators require.