The instinct to believe what we see has made video a driving force in news coverage, and a powerful tool for manipulation. The video below is the most recent, and disturbing, example.
The video, titled “SYRIAN HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout,” was posted on the YouTube channel of Shaam, a reputable aggregator of Syrian citizen videos. It shows a young boy running through sniper fire. At one point, he appears to fall down, faking death, and get back up to help a girl escape.
Despite featuring some common traits of citizen videos of the Syrian war—shaky camera moves, voices repeating “allahu akbar,” and rubble in the street—seasoned viewers were skeptical. The English title is inconsistent with other videos uploaded by Shaam, which are usually in Arabic and provide more context about the footage. Who is this “Syrian Hero Boy”? Where and when was this filmed? No details are provided.
While many journalists were working to analyze the video frame by frame or investigate the video’s origins, “Syrian Hero Boy” went viral. It was picked up by the NY Daily News and The Telegraph, which reported that “it is thought the incident took place in Yabroud – a town near the Lebanese border which was the last stronghold of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Experts tell the paper they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.”
By the time the BBC tracked down the filmers–a Norwegian film crew that produced the video in Malta with more than $40,000 of funding–it had deceived upwards of five million viewers.
An Epidemic of False Footage
It’s hard to imagine what inspired these filmmakers to create a hoax of a situation that is devastatingly real. Whatever their motivations, they aren’t the first to mislead the media and the public at large with online video. The fact is, false footage is uploaded to YouTube every day, shared on social media, and in many cases, reported in the news. Most cases go unnoticed because they are either caught before they make an impact, or they are never caught at all.
Several versions of the above footage were uploaded this year, described as taking place in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela.
I keep a list of these types of videos to use when training human rights workers and journalists on video verification. Their eyes widen when they see that outlets ranging from the Washington Post and Al Arabiya to every TV news channel that has asked its audience to send in storm footage has been deceived by faked, manipulated, or recycled videos.
There are also the attempted hoaxes. I received a call recently from a news outlet whose Mexico correspondent had received photos purporting to show the missing Ayotzinapa students. Earlier this year, a human rights researcher inquired about a video sent from a trusted source, described as showing atrocities in South Sudan. In both cases, the footage was shocking enough to merit a major report if proven authentic. For both, a Google reverse image search revealed that the images were in fact old, anointed with a new description like a fresh coat of paint.
Addressing the Verification Challenge
Verifying videos is rarely an easy process, especially when we see how easy and common it is to re-appropriate old videos or use digital effects to fool viewers. WITNESS and other organizations have been working to develop “proof modes,” or ways to give filmers more control over their metadata, so that it can be used to help viewers verify that what they’re watching is authentic. Journalists like Andy Carvin, Eliot Higgins, and the reporting team at Storyful go to great lengths to investigate inconsistencies, as they did to determine that the “Syrian Hero Boy” video was faked.
But for the average viewer, video imparts a sense of authenticity that requires no further proof. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we think, and once we’ve seen it, we share it on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and it often winds up in the news before it’s determined to be authentic. A Tow Center for Digital Journalism study published this year found that while news organizations are upping their use of citizen footage, only a small number of staff are equipped with the skills to verify that it’s real.
But What If It IS Real?
None of this, of course, helps filmers who are genuinely documenting their communities and the human rights abuses they witness. In many cases, that is precisely the point of false footage—to cast a shadow of doubt on all citizen reporting.
That’s what has angered so many about the “Syrian Hero Boy” film. Despite the filmmakers’ good intentions, their video will support the agenda of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, who have always tried to discredit reports by Syrian filmers and activists. “The film calls to question,” states an open letter to the filmmakers signed by dozens of journalists and others, ”both ethically and professionally the work being done to document these crimes inside Syria.”
The truth is, countless manipulated videos, and their circulation on social media and trusted news channels, have already done just that. We will never be able to stop pranksters, activists, propagandists, or “filmmakers” from misleading the public with fake or falsely contextualized images. Our only defense is better tools and practices—by filmers, uploaders, viewers, and tech companies—to verify that what we see is real. (See below for resources on verifying online footage.)
If the point of this exercise was to shine a light on Syrian children heroically surviving wartime, as the “Syrian Hero Boy” director has suggested, I’d like to point his crew and audience to Syrian citizen media outlets that document the war firsthand. Among the hundreds of videos uploaded from Syria each day, one can easily find moments of heroism among children, men, and women living through the war, such as the video below from the Aleppo Media Center, showing residents returning to their neighborhood after government airstrikes late last month killed 15 people, most of them children.
With the help of our partners at Storyful, we’ve curated hundreds of verified videos from across Syria and the refugee diaspora on the Human Rights Channel. It can be a time-consuming process to make sure the videos we feature are indeed what they purport to be. But without knowing for certain what a video documents, we risk using it in the wrong context, undermining the credibility of authentic footage, and stripping human rights videos of their value altogether.
Resources on Verifying Video
The following resources offer guidance, tools, and best practices for verifying online or open source footage. If you use a tool or strategy that isn’t listed here, please share with us in a comment below.
- Authenticating Open Source Video – a WITNESS tipsheet (also available in Arabic)
- Citizen Evidence Lab – a resource by Amnesty International for verifying human rights footage
- Open Newsroom – an online community managed by Storyful for collaborative verification
- Verification Handbook – An online guide featuring best practices and case studies
Top image is the purported first photo of the head and neck of the Loch Ness Monster, published in 1934 and revealed as a fake in 1975.