By Tanya O’Carroll. Tanya is interning with our Cameras Everywhere Initiative. She is a Master’s candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University.
When a video was posted online in April showing Syrian protesters being brutally beaten by security forces in the town of Bayda, the Syrian authorities quickly responded on state TV. First they said the footage was fake; they then alleged that the video had been filmed not in Syria but in northern Iraq, and depicted the abuse of prisoners by American marines.
Within days of the Syrian authorities’ statement, one of the protesters captured in the original video released a video response. Holding up an I.D. card to identify himself as Ahmad Bayasi – a 22 year old Syrian national – he stood in front of Bayda’s town square, where he confirmed the events took place. Several others anonymously stepped forward to reveal signs of injuries as further evidence of what had happened in Bayda.
These two videos – one shot by perpetrators, one shot by a citizen and survivor of a violation fighting back against official lies– indicate the new avenues available for documenting and confronting human rights abuses. They also show that while abuses are more visible, they are no less contested.
Ahmad´s Story: Corroborating Video With… More Video
By seizing the power of citizen video, Ahmad Bayasi was able to do what the first video by itself couldn’t – provide context and further documentation to build a more robust case of the abuses committed by Syrian security forces in Bayda. In a relatively simple action, Ahmad was able to share testimony of his ordeal and by presenting his I.D. card, offer additional, very personal (and risky) confirmation that what he was saying was the truth.
Of course, Ahmad’s video alone was still not enough to “prove” the events had taken place in Bayda. Instead what he did was make it trickier for the Syrian government to stick to their original story. In the end, it was the actions of the Syrian government itself that lent credibility to the 22 year old and his video.
Following a report by a leading Syrian human rights group that Ahmad had been arrested and tortured, the government suddenly broadcast him in a news interview on state TV, ostensibly to show that he was alive and well. But this gave credence to Ahmad’s central claim – that he was indeed a Syrian from Bayda and that the video was not, as the channel had earlier alleged, from Iraq. Channel 4 News later reported on the Syrian government’s error and similar commentary was posted on Twitter.
Ahmad’s ability to communicate an alternative narrative to the Syrian authorities suggests that as video becomes easier to shoot, upload and widely share, it may also get harder for human rights violators to brush off videos like that from Bayda as fake.
The flip side of course is that in an online environment saturated with citizen video of human rights abuses, it is harder for journalists and human rights organizations to detect a digital fake and defend a digital witness. The job of sifting and curating online video requires new systems to be put in place.
Overcoming the Digital Fake: Validating and Verifying Citizen Video
The problem with one-off footage of a human rights violation taking place is that alone it does not always provide the viewer with necessary context – details that might visually identify when and where, and of who, they are taken. But while one video presents an invariably limited field of view, videos from more people, from more diverse perspectives and that include more context can be used to corroborate one another.
Using this logic, journalists and news agencies have begun to adapt strategies for dealing with the vast sea of data available today through citizen and social media. Mathew Ingram has written about how news outlets such as the BBC are employing fascinating approaches to verification, effectively forensic analysis in real-time, looking at weather and shadows to see if they correspond with the reported conditions at the time, checking that accents and language are consistent and verifying locations against maps and images. Equally, journalists like Andy Carvin have sought to corroborate incoming reports by crowdsourcing additional information from citizens on social media networks like Twitter.
Perhaps the most innovative curation tool for citizen video is Storyful, which was founded in early 2010 to help citizens and journalists discover, verify and deliver the most valuable content on the social web. During the Egyptian uprising, Storyful partnered with CitizenTube, YouTube’s news and politics channel, to provide a crucial editorial mechanism to all the video being posted online. Storyful relies on what founder Mark Little calls the human algorithm – a process of placing each source in the context of their wider behavior and status within an online community to determine veracity.
There are also new tactics in video forensics. In 2010 Situ Studios, an architecture company based in New York, put together a forensic video reconstruction of a demonstrator’s death at Bi’lin on the Israel-Palestine Separation Wall. By syncing three videos (shown below), shot from different perspectives, as well as using a range of other visualization techniques, the viewer gets a broader field of view of the moment when Bassem Abu-Rahmeh is struck by a tear-gas canister. Situ’s report prompted Israel to launch an official investigation into the death.
Combined with geo-spatial mapping and traditional video forensic techniques, like analyzing gunshots, such approaches can go a long way toward validating citizen videos, which alone offers only a partial – and even potentially misleading – version of events. Alongside them, more technology- driven initiatives are underway to provide technical verification and digital chain-of-custody of footage, which can help to disprove claims of digital tampering. We will be looking at this in the next phase of our work with the Guardian Project on the SecureSmartCam App for mobile phones.
Can Seeing Be Believing?
Many of the techniques for improving the verification of citizen video are still in their early days. Even employing sophisticated video forensics will not necessarily secure an admission of guilt from those implicated. Channel 4’s documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” – compiled from mobile-phone camera footage in the final weeks of the country’s 26 year civil war – included both new and traditional techniques in video forensics but has drawn consistent denial from the Sri Lankan government. Read about the case in our previous blog post Should You Believe Your Eyes? Allegations of Doctored Video from Sri Lanka.
Still, human rights violators may find it increasingly difficult to flatly deny a video’s authenticity with any credibility as more citizens like Ahmad Bayasi seize the opportunity to broadcast their side of the story online.
What do you think? With websites like Youtube increasingly inundated with citizen-shot footage, do you think it is getting easier to validate video of human rights violations? Or is information-overload making it more difficult to sift through and verify content online?