Digital Verification and the Battle for Aleppo

Why reverse image search is a crucial skill for today’s human rights investigator

“Fact-finding is at the heart of human rights advocacy, and is often at the center of international controversies about alleged government abuses.” Philip Alston and Sarah Knuckey, ‘The Transformation of Human Rights Fact-Finding’.

When the news of Syrian government forces advancing into eastern Aleppo broke on the evening of December 12th, the Digital Verification Corps at Amnesty started searching social media for images and videos. While there are immediate actions we have to take for better protection of Aleppo’s civilians, we also have to gather sound evidence of war crimes to ensure long term accountability.

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Over the course of the conflict in Syria, social media has been one of the few ways of information gathering. It’s not perfect but we have to do it. In Aleppo it’s no different. As Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Research in Beirut, Lynn Maalouf, highlighted: “The reports that civilians — including children — are being massacred in cold blood in their homes by Syrian government forces are deeply shocking but not unexpected given their conduct to date.

A list of content verified or debunked in the Digital Verification Corps’ Check platform

The crimes committed by Syrian and Russian armed forces in Aleppo are undisputed. Reports from the last days of execution-style killings by Syria’s government forces point to war crimes. When using content from social media, we have to be as diligent in our research as with any other source, such as eyewitness testimony.

Through Monday night into Tuesday, we set up searches on social media. Some were geolocated to pick up Tweets sent from around Aleppo. We set up hashtag searches. We consulted long-pruned lists of social media sources we knew were reliable. All this let us collate content which we set about verifying in our collaborative verification platform “Check” — built by the amazing people at Meedan. There was a problem. Much of the initial content had to be dismissed because it didn’t depict events in Aleppo between Monday 12th and Tuesday 13th December 2016. Yes, some did. But mostly these were heart-breaking pleas from people trapped there. People who were asking if they’d make it through the night.

From Periscope User @Mr.Alhamdo

One of these was a harrowing Periscope message from @Mr_Alhamdo — a source of much reporting from within eastern Aleppo for several weeks. There were many more. These still needed verifying. We knew @Mr_Alhamdo as a known face reporting from Aleppo. But there were also other signals in the video to convince us of his message’s authenticity. We could check the weather in the video (audible sounds of rain throughout with a shot of the street at the end) with the reported forecast for Aleppo on December 13th — which confirmed rain. This testimony and others like it are important for fact-checking around what is happening in Aleppo in the absence of independent monitors.

But alongside these authentic testimonies and images there were many videos and images circulating on social media that did not depict events in Aleppo on the 12th and 13th of December. This is problematic for our fact-finding, of course, and for use in human rights reporting. Only rigorous and accurate documentation allows us to pressure governments and mobilize our supporters globally. With a little verification it’s possible to avoid spreading misinformation about a volatile situation on the ground.

All three of the images below [blurring was added by author] were debunked by doing something called reverse image search. This takes no more than 20 seconds and can help us avoid spreading misinformation in tense situations. [If you want to learn how to do reverse image search yourself, watch the short video at the end of this piece.]

1: Woman Mourns Murdered Children in Aleppo

Image blurring by the author

This image of a woman mourning dead children was tweeted and shared widely. While it may have happened in Syria, it did not happen on December 12th or 13th 2016. Reverse image search tells us that there are instances of this image on the internet from 2013.

2: Woman Murdered in the Streets of Aleppo

Image blurring by the author

Another image purportedly of a murdered woman in the streets of Aleppo following the advance of the Syrian Army. Reverse image search, however, tells us that this shows the murder of American citizen Lisa Akbari in Kabul, Afghanistan in December 2015.

3: The Assassination of Civilians in the Al Sakhur Neighborhood of Aleppo.

We are told this video purports to show the assassination of civilians in the Al Sakhur neighborhood of Aleppo. However, it doesn’t. Again, there are instances of this video on the internet as early as May 2016. There are other clues here too that need to be investigated. First, note that the quality of the video is very low. Even if this had been shared several times on December 13th, it’s unlikely the video would have lost such quality in such a short time-frame. And, referring back to the start of this piece, note the weather. In verifying the call of Mr Alhamdo, we noted the rain. In this video the weather looks to be sunny which should be an immediate alert to anyone thinking of using or sharing this image further.

That these images likely show crimes is not in doubt. But, they are not images from Aleppo on the 12th and 13th of December 2016. To work towards ensuring accountability for the crimes committed in Aleppo today, we need to be able to find and highlight factual content circulating on social media.

Reverse image search really is straightforward. Check out this video from our friends at First Draft to see how simple it is and how to apply it to any pictures you’re sharing on social media.

Video courtesy First Draft News