Gaza, Syria, Ukraine: How to Debunk Fake Images?

A Q&A with Craig Silverman, author of the Verification Handbook

27 August 2014


Whether it is an image from Gaza or the video of James Foley's execution, how can you, as a journalist, make sure that it is a fake or not? If you need some extra skills, the Verification Handbook is here to help you (free and available here): it is a MUST READ for any journo. We had a chat with Craig Silverman, one of the authors of the Handbook. He was one of the moderators at the GEN Summit 2014 on the very interesting session 'From Fact-Checking to News Verification: Humans vs. Robots.'

In the recent news, what caught your eye?

Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, launched a new site called Bellingcat, which is doing what he calls citizen investigations about things going on in Syria, Ukraine and other parts of the world. A significant portion of the content there is how-tos on verification. He has done some excellent work.

Recently, he looked at photos and videos of the Islamic State and using Google Maps and other free tools he determined the location of the Islamic State training camps in videos and pictures. 

Amnesty International also launched Citizen Evidence, a verification website, and a free tool called the YouTube Data Viewer, which enables you to get the exact upload date and time for a video, and get the thumbnails. 

One other example is that in Gaza we saw a lot of images floating around, and these were often old images being reshared as new. This is one the most common things we see: images are taken out of their context and reshared. It has been the case in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

The other breaking news to mention is when MH17 was shot down in Ukraine. Not too long after, there was a report that started in the Australian press that there were 100 pr more AIDS researchers on that flight. That story has spread all over the world, but to this day that number has never been confirmed by the conference or anyone else.


Do you think journalists fail at verification?

On the most basic level, verification has always been a part of journalism. We are always trying to verify the accuracy of the information we are given from sources, or that we gather through other means.

So we've always needed to perform verification. But today, in looking at where the information comes from and the fact that so much of the information journalists deal with is already public because it exists on social networks or other places, there seems to be a real need, a real urgency, to provide journalists with some up-to-date best practices tools and case studies to perform verification, particularly with user-generated content (UGC).

I think that journalists know that verification is important but there is a big skills gap: how do I deal with a video that has suddenly appeared online, or with a photo that has gone viral? How do I judge the credibility of a piece of online content in general?

The stuff is just out there already and it is on social networks, or it is already sort of being reported by someone and you have to figure out how to apply the right tests, the right process to figure whether it is something that is credible or not.News organisations have to really communicate what their values and culture are when it comes to handling viral content and UGC. Journalists in some newsrooms have been given guidance; there is an absolute imperative for leadership in newsrooms to say 'We're just not going to repeat, retweet and reshare, we are going to apply some level of discipline, verification and restraint to what is out there and add some value to it by doing that.'

They need to provide the training so journalists can execute on that. There is a lot of work to be done. 

Is social media amplifying rumors or good at debunking them?

Social media is kind of a misinformation accelerant, and at the same time, it is potentially the best rumor-smashing tool. Networks are very efficient at spreading info whether it is true or false. It is not their role to discriminate. This creates a fantastic opportunity for journalists and media organisations to play that role: we have to be present, be the ones who will help filter, verify and make sense of information for people.

I also think there is an additional role for us to model some of the behavior for people, and help them understand how can they also participate in helping spread good information.

Verification Handbook Canva

How should a newsroom act when a mistake has been made?

There is a pretty long history in the press of offering corrections. When we make a mistake we correct it publicly. It is even more important today when the mistakes we make can spread around the world in a matter of seconds. We have even more of a responsibility to think about how we correct our mistakes, and to work hard to prevent making them in the first place. It is pretty much impossible to do journalism without making mistakes; it involves humans, processes, technology and all of these create opportunities for error. 

The first thing is: publicly admit the error. Admitting it is a really effective way to build trust. People know we are not perfect. Not being accountable for our mistakes destroys trust. We need to be transparent and open. Also, in a multi-channel world, you need to think of offering multi-channel corrections: be clear, say what was incorrect and offer the right information, and think about where the piece of content was distributed.  [For more information, see Craig's presentation]

Is it important to be right or to be fast?

There has always been a tension between speed and accuracy. Too many people view them as opposing things, but some organisations value both. If you treat them both equally, you realize you cannot be fast without being accurate. It is complimentary.

When you get it wrong, that’s what people remember; when you consistently get it right, this is when you build a real audience. I also saw form working on the Handbook that organization with a clear verification process are able to do it quickly. So you can be both fast and accurate.

There is also a strategy element. The people who put things out right away without verifying it will often get a short term traffic bump. But if you are the person applying a verification process and saying that information is not true, then chances are you'll probably get more traffic and value in the long term.

Verification Handbook Cover

The Handbook has an exhaustive list of tools to pick from. Which one are you favorites?

  • Reverse image search (TinEye or Google Image Search): take an image and see where else it appears else online
  • Google Maps / Google Earth: this is useful to confirm what you see in a video or photo, but also what somebody is telling you during an interview. 
  • Spokeo, Pipl.com, WebMii.com: these are people search tools that enable you to track down the person who might have shared a photo/video, when you need to get a phone number, or find where somebody exists online.
  • EXIF reader: upload a digital photo and it will give you all the metadata.
  • Twitter advanced search: this is useful to do things such as to figure out where the first tweet came from about a particular event, and more.

Could you tell us the golden rule of verification?

You have to verify the source and the content of a piece of information.


The Verification Handbook is produced by the European Journalism Center, an independent, international, non- profit foundation dedicated to the highest standards in journalism.

It is also available in Portuguese, and will soon be available in Arabic
, Spanish
, Ukrainian
, Japanese
, Croatian
, Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, Greek and more. By the end of the year, a new edition will be focusing on Investigative Journalism.

Craig Silverman is an entrepreneurial journalist and the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a Poynter Institute blog about media errors, accuracy and verification. He has also developed a course on digital age verification for the Poynter News University. Craig serves as director of content for Spundge, a platform that enables professionals to grow and monetise their expertise through content. Craig previously helped launch OpenFile, an online news startup that delivered local reporting in six Canadian cities. He is the author of Regret The Error: How media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and his work has been recognised by the U.S. National Press Club, Mirror Awards, Crime Writers of Canada and National Magazine Awards (Canada). He tweets at @craigsilverman.