Eyewitness Media and Verification

One of the focal points of the REVEAL project is the verification of eyewitness media (or user-generated content as it is still commonly referred to.) The project team develops algorithms and interfaces that are to aid in verification of content residing in social networks, evaluates the legal situation when it comes to social media analysis and processing, and looks at the market in the journalism and enterprise field. This post documents the state of affairs in the area of eyewitness media –and investigates what it means for journalism.

The growth of eyewitness media

Content posted and residing in Social Networks by "ordinary citizens" has reached enormous dimensions. This has been further facilitated by the constantly increasing number of smartphones with Internet access. Nowadays, it is possible to "report" from almost anywhere in the world, and do so as events unfold, often before professional journalists arrive at the scene of an event (e.g. a political demonstration, an accident, a natural disaster etc.)

Fake image of Hurricane Sandy, 2012.source of manipulation is unknown

UGC in news discovery and reporting

Numerous examples illustrate these developments: they range from the events in conflict or war zones (e.g. the war in Syria) to natural disasters (e.g. Hurricane Sandy) to fatal incidents such as the downing of Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps or Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that was brought down in Eastern Ukraine.

In all these cases, Social Networks were used heavily as events were unfolding and afterwards, and information of all kinds subsequently made the rounds (from facts to propaganda to deliberately misleading information).

While it can be beneficial for journalistic reporting to draw on these relatively "new" sources and materials that are being contributed via Social Networks, using it in the storytelling process also has its dangers and pitfalls. Content can be made to represent something that it is not, or simply be manipulated by those propagating and sharing it.


Serving vested interests

The reasons for producing and spreading inaccurate or wrong information can vary. It can serve particular aims, goals and vested interests (e.g. political, commercial, ideological, marketing, propaganda etc.) or simply be done "for the fun of misleading", or to create attention.

All the above brought a core journalistic necessity and skill back on the agenda: the need to verify content. A new (or better: added) skill set is thus emerging: checking and verifying material that is being circulated in Social Networks before it is used in the reporting process or for situation assessment.

The importance of verification

Verification in itself is nothing new for the journalistic profession. It always has been (or should have been) a core journalistic task both in newsgathering and reporting. What is new, however, is the need–and challenge–to deal with the increasing amounts of digital content circulated via Social Networks, including its verification.

At present, verification of Social Media content is a comparatively small domain, considering overall newsrooms sizes. It is mostly done by specialists and is not yet something that is dealt with appropriately by the majority of journalists.

Verification challenges

One problem being the lack of relevant skills on the side of journalists, another aspect is having access to and knowledge of tools that can assist in the verification process on the system side.

In order to handle Social Media content in a responsible, accurate and timely manner, support is needed. This also becomes obvious when we look at the way Social Media content is currently being verified.

Presently, journalists mostly use a varying set of tools for particular verification tasks. Almost all these tools have originally not been developed for the journalistic profession. They range from tools for image verification such as TinEye or Google's Reverse Image Search to geodata tools such as Panoramio, Google Maps or Geofeedia, to more general tools such as Wolfram Alpha, people checkers (such Pipl or and advanced searches (e.g. on Twitter), to name but a few.

Quick debunking of fake Social Media content by collaboration via Twitter.Twitter / BBC

While such tools can certainly be highly beneficial for certain aspects of Social Media content verification, one issue at present is that the overall process is rather time-consuming and involves a fair bit of manual work. The abundance of tools for different purposes adds to the dilemma. Furthermore, there are no established and commonly agreed upon practices or standards yet when it comes to dealing with the verification itself, and the sourcing or crediting of information from eyewitnesses.

Tackling some of the verification challenges with REVEAL

All the above, including the (market) research that has been carried out in projects such as REVEAL, indicates that there is a clear need for tools and solutions that facilitate and speed up the verification of Social Media content, providing results that are as accurate as possible, thereby assisting in verification tasks.

So while there is certainly room for improvements and advancements on the technical side (i.e. advancing algorithm-based verification solutions that are easy to use and require relatively little expert skills) it also needs to be stated that–at least in the near future–there will always be a role to play for humans, aka journalists (e.g. for cross-checking with other sources, talking directly to an eyewitness etc.).

Opportunities and challenges

In sum: content that is being shared by eyewitnesses via Social Networks offers great opportunities for storytelling and journalistic reporting. It should be one of the core jobs for journalists to make sure that manipulations, hoaxes or false information does not make it into the information distribution cycle. If inaccurate information is being circulated, a role for journalists should be to debunk and raise awareness of it. If errors occur, they should be corrected transparently.

Verification tools that are geared towards journalistic needs and take journalistic requirements into consideration can make great contributions here. There is a definite market potential for such tools and solutions. In REVEAL, we are working on the development on some of these solutions, while also raising awareness for the need of proper verification, including existing obstacles.

Recommended resources

If you are interested in further material on the topic of verification and dealing with user-generated content (aka eyewitness media), the following non-exhaustive selection is recommended for further reading as well as hands-on trialling:

Author: Jochen Spangenberg (@Jospang)

Note: This post was prepared in the context of the author's keynote speech at the "Web Multimedia Verification" Workshop (#wemuv2015), co-organized by the REVEAL project. The workshop took place in conjunction with the ICME Conference in Torino, Italy, on 29 June 2015.

Jochen Spangenberg