The Documentalist

Verifying Social Media Content: The BBC Approach

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on May 25, 2011

One of the challenges faced in digital activism is knowing whether or not digitally-generated documentation of abuses is valid.  Materials circulated via social media can be particularly tricky because content can be lifted from other sources or doctored.  Thus, organizations that wish to maintain a reputation of presenting accurate information need to invest significant time in determining that the digital materials they post is accurate–a process known as “fact checking” in the field of journalism.

BBC’s method for verifying social media

#bbcsms: BBC processes for verifying social media content“, an article published by Alex Murray on the BBC College of Journalism Blog details the process that the newsroom in London engages in as reporters cover the events of the “Arab Spring.”  As stated on the blog, some of the methods engaged for verifying social media content for accuracy and veracity include the following:

At the UGC (user-generated content) Hub in the BBC Newsroom in London, our process has become much more forensic in nature and includes:

– Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones.

– Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location.

– Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date.

– Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.

– Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories.

– Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.

The article further notes that this is not the full extent of their activities; rather, it is a list of their most common practices.  Following these practices, verification can take as little as a few seconds and as long as several hours, but key to their success in reporting these events is that the BBC has an Arabic division with people who can distinguish accents.  This allows reporters to determine whether a particular audio or video clip originates in eastern or western Libya, for example.  The article also reports that correspondents pay attention to details like shadow length in images to verify the reported time of day, or draw from personal knowledge of locations for determining that a place is accurately reported.

Implications for human rights documentation efforts

Though human rights groups often do not have the same monetary and infrastructural resources that a professional organization the likes of the BBC has, they can rely on several of the steps listed above to help verify content they wish to disseminate for awareness-building and activism.  For example, field workers should be able to draw on their familiarity with events and locations to verify that video or photograhic material indeed represents these places and events. Grassroots groups can also draw on their own knowledge of local linguistic differences to confirm that speakers’ accents or colloquialisms captured in footage are typical of the area where an event is reported to have happened.

A further implication of adopting some or all of the steps outlined in Mr. Murray’s blog post is that doing so will allow groups to attach important metadata to digital items so that they can potentially serve as evidence in legal cases or as part of memory and advocacy building projects.  Knowing that events are accurately portrayed, as well as having good time- and date- stamps from the devices that produce the materials, will go a long way toward creating a body of materials that will support human rights work for the long-term.

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