Category Archives: Verification Corps

Tracking French military vehicles in Egypt

Amnesty International has found evidence of Egyptian security forces using French-supplied Sherpas and MIDS vehicles to violently crush dissent in the country between 2012 and 2015.  Part of this research involved Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps – a network of volunteers trained in social media verification based at universities around the world.  DVC members at the University of California, Berkeley and the Universiy of Toronto analysed over 20 hours of video footage and several hundred photos of events in the country.  The audiovisual material that the DVC teams verified formed an integral part of Amnesty International’s report – Egypt: How French arms were used to crush dissent – that outlines these findings.

Nickie Lewis, DVC lab manager at the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, explains how one of these videos was analysed.

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Open source information was an integral part of the methodology used in an investigation by Amnesty International to show that armored personnel carriers supplied by France were used with deadly effect by the Egyptian security forces to violently and repeatedly disperse protests and crush dissent in the country between 2012 and 2015.

In our investigation open source information discovery and verification techniques were key.  This was a year-long investigation to show that Sherpas and MIDS vehicles supplied by France were used during some of the bloodiest incidents of internal repression in the Egypt since 2012. To do this, we needed to verify  hundreds of videos and images posted to social media sites, alongside news organizations’ reporting.

On 14 August 2013, just over a month since Mohamed Morsi had been ousted as Egypt’s president, security forces used grossly excessive lethal force to disperse two sit-ins by the former head of state’s supporters in Cairo and Giza. It is believed that Egyptian security forces killed up to 1,000 people that day. Security forces began the dispersal at around 6 am, but took several hours to disperse the largest sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. To do so, the security forces used tear gas, shotguns and live ammunition. Video cameras captured this violence, including one video filmed along Youssef Abbas street in Nasr City near El Zohour Mosque – very close to the Rabaa Square. In this video, a Sherpa LS can be seen being used to support the deployment of the central security forces – with police officers clearly visible firing on demonstrators.

In this post, we focus on this video as a case study to demonstrate how the Digital Verification Corps verifies content, which was done by identifying the where, when, who and what of each video mentioned in the report.

WHERE

One of the most challenging elements of verification is locating where a video was captured. This is known to open source investigators as geolocation. To do this, the investigator will scour the content for notable features – this can be building structures and fixtures or business and street signs. In this video, the notable features include a railroad track that appeared in the video at 1:20.

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Image 1: Railroad

At 4:27 into the video, a mosque it can be seen.

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Image 2: Mosque (yellow) and minarets (purple)

Cairo is a megatropolis. If we searched on the tool we use the most for geolocation – Google Earth Pro – looking at all the mosques of Cairo to find these particular structures, we would have to look for hours, trying to find the metaphorical needle in a haystack. We could save ourselves time by narrowing down the geographic region of where the events took place in Cairo. Working with the assumption that the video was taken on August 14 in 2013 in or near Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, we studied the satellite imagery around the square in Google Earth with the hope of finding either the train tracks, or the mosque. The Google Earth search directed us to the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, as shown below, which narrowed our region of concern.

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Image 3: Screen shot from Google Earth Pro showing Rabaa Al Adawiah Mosque, Cairo (image from 07-May-2018)

We then searched around the surrounding area of the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque to find those notable features. We saw a circular shape on the map, and when we zoomed in, we believed that it was the mosque and the green-roofed building.

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Image 4: Mosque (marked in blue) from image 2

We referred back to the video and confirmed that it was the mosque and building shown in the video, by identifying the green circular roof and pointed feature on top of the one building next to a minaret. The GPS coordinates of this mosque are 30.069245, 31.318389. We can then ascertain that this video and the events depicted in it, occurred around this area.

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Image 5: Side-by-side comparison of the mosque with satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro and the video

WHO

It is not enough to just know the location of the video; it is as equally important to verify and identify the groups of individuals present in the video. We also had to confirm that Egyptian security forces were present around our geolocated area on 14 August 2013.

As with geolocation, we watched the video to spot uniformed officers. Once we found these, we looked at these officers’ uniforms to identify distinct accessories or unique characteristics of their outfits that we could use to verify that they indeed belonged to the Egyptian security forces. At 1:23 in the video, we see officers dressed in all black uniforms with a distinct mark on their right arm. About 20 seconds later, we see one of these officers turn to reveal the word “Police” (in Latin script) written on their back.

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Image 6: screen shot security officers
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Image 7: screen shot uniformed police officer

When we were learning about the political context of the video, we knew came across several images from news articles that helped us identify these men as Egyptian security forces. However to corroborate those articles, we did an internet search of “Egyptian Police August 14, 2013” for more images. We came across an image from a BBC article, which shows a man in all black with the patch on his shoulder that says, Egyptian Police. However, the screenshot from the video is not clear enough for us to identify if it is the same patch from the BBC article’s image. Yet, the fact that these men were next to the man with “Police” written on his back and all are participating in the same act– shooting — lead us to conclude that these men were all part of the Egyptian police or security forces.

We see these men, or men dressed similarly to them, appear in the video again at 6:00 minutes, which will become relevant in the WHAT section of this post.

 

WHEN

We also had to be sure that this video was filmed on the date we are told it is. For this video, YouTube stated that the video was uploaded on August 14 2013 and the uploader stated in the caption that the video displays events from August 14, 2013. However, this information alone is not enough, we need to verify that this video took place on August 14, 2013 with corroborating evidence. We performed an internet search of “Cairo, Egypt August 14 2013 news” to explore if reliable news organizations covered events on this day. That search yielded results to articles from the New York Times, the Guardian and Reuters, all of which reported on Egyptian security forces shooting – and killing civilians – near the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on 14 August, 2013.

WHAT

As briefly mentioned above, some of the vehicles that he Egyptian army used that were shown in the video were from the French manufacturing company, Renault Trucks Defense*. It is important to note that other armored vehicles present in the video were Egyptian manufactured. Again, when we watched through the video we came across multiple armored vehicles, but for the sake of brevity here, we will go through the steps on how to verify a single armored vehicle in the video.

At around 6 minutes into the video, the officers identified as being in part of the Egyptian security forces are seen next to two large vehicles. Here, we identify the smaller green vehicle in the screenshot below.

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Image 8: screen shot green armored vehicle

The verification process for vehicles is similar to geolocation.  The goal is to identify the distinct features of the small green vehicle to then try to find and match those distinct features with a named vehicle from reliable sources. We were unfamiliar with international military vehicle models, so we resorted to an internet search to help. At first, we chose “Egyptian army vehicles” thinking that it would provide a list of vehicles that the Egyptian government has used in the 21st century. However, no such website with that specific information existed.

Next, we decided to broaden the search and chose the phrase “Military and Army Vehicles”, which provided this website that lists various of models. We diligently searched through this database, trying to find a vehicle that had similar features to the vehicle in the video. Truthfully, this work can only be done through trial and error, thus can take hours to do. However, we finally came across a vehicle that had a distinct feature coming off the top of the vehicle, two side mirrors, an angled windshield and similarly placed headlights. That website said that this vehicle was manufactured by Renault Trucks Defense [Renault Trucks Defense changed name to Arquus Defense in late May of 2018]. To double check the credibility of that website, we went to the Renault Trucks Defense website and found the vehicle on their site. Indeed, this vehicle in the video and the one from Renault Trucks Defense website both have the same features as shown in the coloured boxes below. The Renault Trucks Defense website states that this vehicle is a Sherpa Light Scout.

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Image 9: screen shot of Sherpa Light Scout from video compared to screen shot from Arquus Defence website

By verifying various aspects of  video and shown through this case study, the DVC team was able to demonstrate that the Egyptian security forces were using a French-manufactured armoured vehicle, Sherpa Light Scout, around the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo on 14 August 2013. This case study represents one of the ways that the DVC members conducted open source investigations to provide evidence of French armored vehicles being used by the Egyptian regime in various human rights violations.

For more on Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, please see here and here.

DVC teams from the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program contributed to the research on this project.  Youstina Youssef and Haley Willis managed the  Human Rights Investigations Lab/Digital Verification Corps team at UC, Berkeley and Bethanie Pascutto and Alexandria Matic led the team at the University of Toronto.

* This post was updated on October 23rd 2018 to reflect the teams and managers involved in the project.

 

 

 

In the Firing Line: How Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps changed official narratives through open source investigation

On April 14th 2017, a shooting occurred at the Manus Island Detention Centre in Papua New Guinea, where over 800 refugees and asylum seeker are detained by the Australian government. There were media reports that shots had been fired into the Centre — endangering the lives of those detained there. Manus Province police commissioner David Yapu didn’t agree. “The soldiers fired several gunshots on the air causing great fear and threats to the local and international community serving at the centre” he said, in the immediate aftermath of a shooting.

Amnesty International decided to conduct research that is presented in a report — In The Firing Line: Shooting at Australia’s Refugee Centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea — published on May 15th. After it was published, Commissioner Yapu changed his position. “Some of the shots were fired through the compound and some of the bullets penetrated through the walls”, he conceded the same day. Continue reading In the Firing Line: How Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps changed official narratives through open source investigation

In Remembrance of Will Moore, Friend of Amnesty International

Cross-posted with Lemming Cliff

By way of minor prologue:

I knew Will Moore for just shy of 20 years. I knew him as a professor and mentor. I knew him as a Ph.D. dissertation adviser and a collaborator. And I knew him as a close friend. For much of the last 20 years, when writing anything — a blog post, an academic paper, a press release — Will would loom in my mind as an audience, often intrusively. In that place, he prompted thousands of keystrokes (disproportionately backspace), always to the benefit of clarity, precision, and efficiency.

But he will not read this, and I cannot manage — though I’ve tried — to pretend that he will. It is for that reason — more so than any sense of grief or lack of time and space — that it has taken me 2 weeks to formulate the simple and understated words below. He’d hate it.

Will Moore (right), September 2013

I write them on behalf of a grateful Amnesty International and, ultimately, a grateful human rights movement.

This month, the human rights community lost a friend and scholar with the passing of Professor Will Moore.

As a scholar, Will made immense contributions to the study of political violence and to that which was once treated as an epiphenomenon of politics and conflict: forced displacement and human rights. In the study of repression and human rights, Will and his growing cadre of students and colleagues made important methodological progress into the study of compliance and abuse, especially related to torture and ill-treatment. He contributed to the study of human rights actors, be they the state, dissenters, or even human rights organizations, with important implications for the work of securing dignity and protection for persons, everywhere.

His scholarly work was read in Amnesty International, and I suspect elsewhere in the human rights (practice) community. It informed thinking, strategy, and encouraged self-reflection. And in no small part as a result of his efforts, the important work of rigorous, scientific examination of human rights dynamics will continue. A new generation of political scientists, un-tethered from constraints of geo-political primacy in the academy, will produce knowledge that can make a better world — if we so choose it.

As a result of Amnesty International’s outsized role in producing human rights data, Will sought to know and understand the organization. And in the process — beyond the important work of creating generalized knowledge about repression — he became a friend of Amnesty International.

Will launched the Citizen Media Evidence Partnership (CMEP) while at Florida State University, a joint project with Amnesty. The Citizen Media Evidence Partnership ultimately became the Digital Verification Corp, a now-global network of colleges and universities that are uncovering and verifying human rights abuses as they unfold, ensuring that human rights struggles are not lost in a digital sea.

Continue reading In Remembrance of Will Moore, Friend of Amnesty International

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

Embarking on the path of verification

Here at the Citizen Evidence Lab we’re pleased to announce the launch of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps.  This initiative is being launched with Human Rights Centers at three universities. The University of California, Berkeley in the USA; the University of Essex in the UK and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.  The goal is for this to become a wider initiative to train future human rights investigators in the techniques and skills required to verify content that depicts potential human rights abuses found on open social media platforms. With more and more people around the world connected by mobile technology, this is a resource that human rights researchers just cannot ignore – and that includes the researchers at Amnesty International. Continue reading Embarking on the path of verification

New Data and the Importance of Collaboration

New data streams have revolutionized every industry.  It’s no different for human rights.  No different, also, is learning to understand how these work to leverage them for the greater good.  That’s what Amnesty’s Alt-Click project is about.  How do we take the great opportunities out there – micro tasking, social media streams, large databases – and use them to help achieve the mission of Amnesty International.

One of the ways we’re doing that at the Citizen Evidence Lab is by setting up our Digital Verification Corps.  It’s a big challenge – we’ll be working with Amnesty volunteers to find content in social media streams and to verify videos and photographs to help Amnesty researchers monitor and report on human rights violations.  Thinking about all of this while listening to other organizations share their own experiences of different data streams was so important  That’s why we’ll also be using this platform – www.citizenevidence.org – to share our experiences as we build the Digital Verification Corps over the next few months.  We’ll write about our successes, our failures, content we have been able to verify, content we’ve debunked in the hope that this can help other organizations with their own challenges around how to use social media data streams.   Continue reading New Data and the Importance of Collaboration

Job: Verification Corps Community Manager

Open source research and verification is becoming an increasingly important aspect of research, including for human rights groups. At Amnesty International, we have always relied on the amazing work of volunteers, something that will only expand in the digital age. Over the last couple of years, we had a small group of volunteers to help us with verification of social media content. Now we want to take this project to the next level and are hiring a part-time consultant to build up and manage this community. If you have experience with building active and resilient (online) networks and communities, and have an interest in digital verification work, this job is for you.

The Citizen Evidence Lab Verification Corps is a volunteer network of students, young professionals and other supporters that assist in the discovery and verification of open source content. The aim of the project is to support Amnesty International’s research function by creating a network of volunteers who can triage and validate images and videos of potential human rights abuses.

Download full consultancy description (pdf)