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

Sam Dubberley
May 18, 2017 · 7 min read

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.

To write this report Amnesty’s usual research was supplemented by several photographs and pieces of video captured by refugees inside the camp that was evaluated by the Digital Verification Corps — a network of volunteers based at four global universities trained in the skills required to conduct verification. For Amnesty, being able to assess this content and authenticate where it was filmed added weight to the research it did into the events of April 14th.

In total, we reviewed 21 images and six videos believed to have originated from the Manus Refugee Centre that night. Some of these images and videos, originally coming from refugees, have already been aired on mainstream Australian media (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Fairfax), posted on social media, or shared by refugee advocates.

Here is just a small collage of some of the photographs and videos Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps received and were asked to verify.

The purpose of this blogpost is to explain the steps we took to verify this content.

1, Eliminating Prior Instances

The first step to take in any investigation into any content we study in the Digital Verification Corps it to see if any content has appeared online before the supposed date of an event — in this case April 14th 2017. This is done by running each piece of content through reverse image search engines. Time and time again reverse image search saves the skin of the open source investigator. To be sure, we always run the content through the two most important image search engines — Google Image Search and TinEye, as they query different image databases, and we want to make sure they haven’t been indexed in one but not the other.

While reverse image search is primarily a tool for still assessing images (twenty-seven in this case), we also used it on the videos by checking the four keyframes indexed by YouTube. This is, in effect, taking a still frame from a video and treating it as an image. To do this, we use a tool built by Amnesty called the YouTube Data Viewer.

In this case, none of the images nor videos appeared online before April 15th 2017. At this stage we have no information that suggests the material existed prior to the event, and thus it warrants further investigation.

2, Corroborating the location

The next step is to determine the location of the images. This can be tricky in secretive or controlled locations such as the detention centre on Manus Island. It is a location to which journalists have had rare access. However, corroborating that the images were taken at the centre required checking against any images known to be from previous events. Although it’s use is now limited, Flickr can often be a good place to search for older pictures published by official sources. A quick Flickr search for “Manus Island Detention Centre” on the site brought up an album of images taken in 2013 by a delegation of Australian Green Party MPs that visited the Centre.

Flickr Album of Green MPs showing the conditions inside the Australian Government’s immigration detention facility on Manus Island in 2013.

This was a good start — and illustrates another good use for reverse image search. When looking for distinctive locations, it’s useful to use reverse image search to track down any images of that location. Reverse image search of the pictures taken by the Green Party member Sarah Hanson-Young allowed us to find further images published in the media. With this material, we were able to create a reference collage of what the buildings on Manus Island looked like.

Reference collage of buildings on Manus Island

Finding this corroborating information was key to unlocking what happened on the night of April 14th from afar.

3, Finding the Spot

Some of the media reports and additional information we found purported the shooting occurred at the Fox Compound. While the Fox Compound didn’t correspond exactly on any reference maps we uncovered, there was reference to a “Foxtrot Compound” in a 2014 map prepared by ABC News. This gave us an initial clue of where to search in satellite imagery, first using Google Earth Pro.

Fox Compound or Foxtrot Compound?

Searching for the geocode of Manus Island Detention Centre at -2.0378774 147.367698 provided us with a full satellite view of the centre. On Google Earth, we chose the most recent imagery of the location to review (in this case from 2014) and compared it to the annotated ABC map.

Google Earth screen capture of the area around geocode: -2.0378774 147.367698

We then zoomed in to the area around Foxtrot Compound to investigate further.

Google Earth screen grab of the area believed to be Foxtrot Compound at the Manus Island Detention Centre

In the red box above we see the Foxtrot Compound as identified in the ABC Australia 2014 map. What is very distinctive here are the four green-roofed buildings running north to south with three intersecting bars. These are encompassed by a fence to the south and to the west. Studying these buildings provided much of the corroborating information needed to determine the “where” of this event.

What do we know at this stage? We know that:

1, The Flickr album we found has pictures of green buildings;

2, Other images online from Manus Island Detention Centre show green buildings;

3, The event was supposed to have taken place in Foxtrot compound;

4, Foxtrot compound contains buildings with green roofs;

5, Social media images of the night of April 14th and the aftermath show green buildings.

We then turned to the shape of the buildings and the general geography detailed in the imagery, the corroborating image and the image of the events, to assess whether they triangulated. Upon closer investigation, we saw that they did, with imagery corresponding to features in the satellite imagery.

Foxtrot Compound compared (clockwise from left) from Google Earth imagery, prior press photography from 2014 and social media images of the events of April 14th 2017.

For instance, the roof shape (1) in the satellite image matches with the shape of the roof in the social media image and the AAP image. The window grills (2) match in the AAP image and the social media image and the fencing structure (3) matches with the social media image and the satellite image. The images above also match with the images found in the Green Party Flickr album. Finding these links between the different pieces of content that you know to be authentic and the piece of content you are trying to authenticate is a crucial verification step.

We conducted this exercise with much more of the content, allowing us to confirm that events also took part in other places in the camp.

For instance, this piece of video could be placed at the camp due to the curved roof of the building:

Manus Island Detention Centre — l-r: Screen capture of video shared from April 14th 2017, Google Earth imagery and second screen capture of same video shared from April 14th 2017

4, Any Other Clues?

Having determined to an acceptable degree that the content was from Manus Island Detention Centre, we then took the time to sift through the content looking for any other clues. For instance, we compared the fencing in the images from 14th and 15th April to the fencing in earlier images to show that they were the same in terms of spacing of the grills in the fence and the rivets in the posts. Looking for any clues that can help is so crucial.

One clue, for instance, that was present was a mobile telephone that was sitting on a table in one of the videos. The resolution was poor, but it was just enough to suggest some models of phone — and that it could have been a Samsung J7 that was available on the market only after April 2016.

Left: screen capture of video from Manus Island on 14th April 2017. Right: promotional of a Samsung J7 mobile telephone

We were unable to fully determine and confirm if this was indeed a Samsung J7 and with the evidence we had already confirmed, left it out of the final report — but, had we been able to do so, it would have given a stronger time-frame for when the images were taken. If it was, indeed, a Samsung J7, we could say that it was impossible that the video was captured before April 2016. Looking for these kinds of clues all makes up part of any open source investigation.

Changing the Official Narrative

Amnesty’s research into the events of April 14th 2017 on Manus Island Detention Centre changed the official narrative. This research was done sitting around tables and on sofas on different continents. As the power of this content as evidence increases in strength, knowing how to harness and use this power is crucial.

Lemming Cliff

A group of often beleaguered but optimistic experts and…

Sam Dubberley

Written by

Husband. Father. Social media, news & human rights. Manager of @Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps + research consultant w @HRBDTNews. Was @towcenter fellow.

Lemming Cliff

A group of often beleaguered but optimistic experts and practitioners in human rights research, development, and conflict. Find here original research into current events, prognostications for the future of human rights practice and enjoyment, and the occasional pretty picture

Sam Dubberley

Written by

Husband. Father. Social media, news & human rights. Manager of @Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps + research consultant w @HRBDTNews. Was @towcenter fellow.

Lemming Cliff

A group of often beleaguered but optimistic experts and practitioners in human rights research, development, and conflict. Find here original research into current events, prognostications for the future of human rights practice and enjoyment, and the occasional pretty picture

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