Editor’s note: From how a video is sourced through techniques used to fact-check what the video claims to represent, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response and Prevention Team provides a detailed look at the process in this three-part blog series. Part 1 discussed how citizen video is sourced. Part 2 covered how to create a panoramic image from video stills and analyze it in order to corroborate the location where the online video was shot.
Here in Part 3, the final one of the series, we discuss how to use tools like Google Maps to corroborate location in videos through geo-location mapping, verifying critical facts of time and place.
The video being used throughout this case study is the following, originally found on YouTube user msaken hanano‘s channel.
Geo-locating the video
Armed with our analysis and sketch, we can now use the satellite imagery available via Google Earth to verify the location of the video. Searches in Google Earth and Google Maps with the Arabic word Hanano (هنانو) indicate that there are number of different places in Aleppo named Hanano: a monument, a street, a military barracks, and a semi-suburban district labeled Hanano City — this last one looks like the most likely candidate, with its high-rise apartment buildings.
Let’s start our search looking for mosque domes in this neighborhood, since these are easy to pick out from above.
We can eliminate these three mosques for any number of reasons, such as that they are not near a wide street, they are not diagonally aligned to the grid, or they do not have a nearby minaret opposite from the street.
The above mosque looks more likely, with nearby high-rise apartment buildings, a diagonal alignment and wide street adjacent. However, the median in the street here is not present in the video, and the minaret is closer to the street than the dome is, unlike in our stitched photo.
This one looks very promising: a large dome, near a wide street, oriented diagonally, with minaret further from the street than the dome, and smaller domes nearby. This is where using Google Earth — rather than Google Maps, Open Street Map, or Wikimapia — really comes in handy: we can rotate the orientation to match the video’s orientation, and check if the elements from our picture and sketch match up.
Bingo! The scale and accuracy of our drawing is off, of course, but all of the key elements seem to be in place: open spaces are correctly situated and there is a collection of low buildings surrounded by trees in front of the mosque. We have confirmed that the scene in the video is indeed from the Masaken Hanano neighborhood.
To see what confirmation we can find for the event, let’s look at historical imagery—another helpful feature unique to Google Earth that lets you see imagery from different dates for the area you are looking at. This part of Aleppo happens to have a good selection of imagery, which can be supplemented by a Google Earth layer available from the AAAS which regularly recorded pictures of Aleppo during 2012 and 2013. The above images come from 2011, but scrolling forward in time, we find that Google has imagery dated from 9/20/2012, just under two weeks after the upload date of the video.
Not only can we see the destruction that matches perfectly with the video, we can also confirm which building the videographer was filming from and even make out a backhoe working to clear away the rubble! By experimenting with Google Earth’s historical imagery, I found the building to be intact before the upload date and destroyed after it, thereby confirming the date of the incident (or at least narrowing down the time).
Other videos from the same YouTube account uploaded the same day offer more details. This video results in the following street-level panorama, offering further corroboration of the event and location: buildings, orientation, trees, and minaret all match with our earlier placement. In this video the narrator also claims that the bombing resulted in ten deaths and dozens of wounded.
This next video shows the crushed body of “the martyr Khalid Al-Saaghir, age 27,” pulled from the rubble. [WARNING: Extremely graphic content.] Though the location and context is not especially clear in this video, we do see rubble at the edge of an open area with trees, which is consistent with what we have concluded so far. We also get a glimpse of an unfinished building in the opposite direction from the rubble:
The shadows of these reinforced concrete pillars make for a clear confirmation of that building as a nearby location from Google Earth imagery.
My hope is that this case study of video verification could be useful not just for journalists and researchers but also for activists who are filming on the ground. While new tools such as InformaCam can attach crucial metadata (such as exact coordinates and time) to video, the more citizen journalists know about what kind of footage can be easily verified, the more effectively their videos can help advocates and investigators bring perpetrators to justice.