Source Verification: Notes for Activists Using Photo and Video in Protests

Source verification of digital information has risen to prominence with the Iranian election protests that have been ongoing since Saturday, 13 June, 2009. This does not just apply to alleged information distributed through social media, of course, as it also applies to mainstream media who, like the BBC, have been found to use doctored photos of protests showing a massive rally for Mir Hosein Mousavi that was actually a rally in support of the winning candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an attempt to convince rapid readers who do not make time to fact check, or cannot check facts, it has become a habit for some who use Twitter to precede their tweet with the word, “CONFIRMED,” without any indication of how the information was confirmed, when, and by whom. “Citizen journalism” and civil society politics are both going to get damaged unless we take away some lessons from this conflict.

One of the recurring problems, having now spent some more time viewing YouTube and flickr streams for the Iranian protests, is that of verifying visual documentation. One can lie with images just as easily as one can lie with words and statistics, and there is no returning to the optimistic and naive positivism of the 19th Century when it comes to the then widely assumed veracity, accuracy, and verisimilitude of the mechanically produced image.

The latest example I have seen is of an apparently desperate effort to come up with some sort of evidence to support Mousavi’s still unproven claims of electoral fraud, now a week later. One YouTube video (below), which is usefully blurry and does not indicate time, location, or indicate who the person involved may be, tries to show a single person in a room marking some ballots, which could well have been facsimiles produced with a colour printer. This is supposed to show us that votes were fabricated, and, that the perpetrators were foolish enough to record themselves doing it and then even more foolish to lend their video to others. It does not show the ballots being stuffed in boxes, nor is their any evidence that this was recorded during the elections.

Keeping in mind that there is absolutely no fool proof mechanism for averting any doubts about the credibility of one’s video, especially when using digital media and some wonderful special effects packages that anyone can master — see this video…

there are some basic steps that any person can take to boost the credibility of a video, especially when the video is meant to document an event of critical importance with sharp disputation concerning the numbers of protesters, their location, and so forth. If too many doubts accumulate, then the authorities, and the mainstream media, can begin to poke holes into any claim of a mass movement taking shape on the streets. In that spirit, let me offer some suggestions for your consideration, and please feel free to add, detract, and amend, in your comments below.

1. AUTHENTICATE THE DATE/TIME OF YOUR PHOTO/VIDEO. Activist photo and video developed to document and support a protest movement does not need to be pretty or experimental — so do not be shy of having your video or photo camera impose its date stamp and time counter on the image. In video, leaving the time counter running is very important as it can be used as evidence of when a video was edited, and how much was left out. Date stamps can be altered in-camera of course, so I would also recommend that one learn a lesson from hostage takers and kidnappers: show a close up of the masthead, date, and main headline of a leading local newspaper, and then zoom out slowly to show the subject of your video — let’s say it is a protest march.

One of the main problems with the Tehran protest videos, and the mainstream media have been quick to point this out repeatedly, is that one does not know for certain on which day a video was taken, and the difference can between the events of one day and the next can be of critical importance. Some Middle Eastern journalists have been quick to analyze protest photographs and found in some cases that pre-election rally photographs were being recycled and used to show evidence of support for Mousavi’s post-election protests.

2. THE WEATHER. As has already been done with videos on YouTube, concerning the especially momentous events of this very day in Tehran, some have said “it is raining in Tehran, your video shows sunny skies”. To further authenticate the date that a video was taken, especially when the video is distributed online (which affords for additional documentary evidence), provide a link to a weather service that indicates the weather conditions for that location on that day.

3. THE SURROUNDINGS. A video showing people at eye level, rushing past, while panning the camera, obscures the location of the event being recorded. Slow down. Get an unusual or well known landmark that can be associated with that location, within the frame of your image. Even better is visual information on features of the surroundings that can be used to attest to time and place (garbage that has not yet been picked up, broken street lamps, etc.). You want people to know that your video was taken on X Street in Y City (on Z Day), so they cannot claim it is taken from somewhere else, perhaps more obscure and less politically relevant location.

4. TAKE IT EASY! The camera is not meant to be an extension of your flickering eye movements, accompanying your eyes in whichever direction they move. In other words, do not use your camera to look. Too many videos are out there that show a rapid sweeping from side to side, even up and down, blurring and obscuring everything, and revealing little to nothing. Pause and gain control. Keep the camera study, and do not think that your eye must remain glued to the viewfinder at all times.

5. GETTING A VIEW OF THE SIZE OF A DEMONSTRATION. One of the first things that will be disputed is how many people came out to protest, where the quantity can then be assigned with a qualitative assessment: “So few people, it must be that they are losing support or have lost credibility”. Being able to convincingly show how many people are at a protest march can involve incredible leg work. Here are a number of options, and the more of these that you can follow the better (and note that some apply to video only):

(a) Get to a high location, like the roof of a building, or the top of a hill. First, try to see if you can fit everyone within a single frame, the whole mass. Second, position your camera at the front of the march, hold it steady, and do not move until the end of the march passes by. This allows reporters and others to do a much more accurate headcount. Let others edit the footage for the purpose of fitting it into a news slot or whatever, but do not stop recording at any point, and do not edit the footage that you supply to news media.

(b) If using a video camera, at street level, get to either the very front or the very back of the march, and slowly walk the entire length of the march with your camera facing the protesters. I prefer to do things the harder way, which can be a real physical struggle, and that is to start from the back and walk to the front: that way only the backs of the heads of the protesters are recorded, which makes it more difficult for the authorities to identify people than when you get them full face. If using a photo camera, get segments of the march, and use those at the back of the segment in one photo for the front of the segment of the next photo, so that some sort of seamless continuity can be reconstructed. If using a cell phone video camera, you will likely not have enough storage space to follow this option, therefore try (a) above.

If anyone can think of other ideas to add, or would correct or amend what is presented above, or even argue that some of the options above should not be used, please provide feedback below.

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20 thoughts on “Source Verification: Notes for Activists Using Photo and Video in Protests

  1. M!ke Tay!or

    While I knew these feeds needed to be scrutinized, I never would have thought that the BBC would make such a careless error in their reporting while using these unverified sources.

    As much as I’d love to start waving the conspiracy flag, I think we should keep in mind that this is a learning experience for both the people on the ground level of Iran as well as the media outlets charged with processing the large volumes of information being collected. It’s no excuse for sloppy reporting, but this type of media coverage is sure to improve in quality and accuracy as time goes by.

    Here’s an interesting video from that is strikingly relevant despite being filmed in May, before the Iranian protests started.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks Mike. Indeed the Clay Shirky talk on TED has gotten a second life thanks to the Iranian upheaval. I also agree that this has been a learning experience for all — for me too, as just a couple of weeks ago I would have resolutely defended alternative information networks using Twitter. Personally I don’t think the BBC was deliberate in its choice of photo, my inclination is to believe that someone passed this on to them, and some editor failed to verify the photo.

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  3. Ibn Qawqaz

    Great advice….

    Twitter is worse…There is almost no easy, simple way to verify that people Twittering alleged “news” are even in Iran at all….In fact, most people, particularly those reporting and regurgitating unfounded rumors and claims, seem to be outside of the country. Apparently they don’t see the irony of supporting a movement for openness and honesty by fabricating “news” and spreading disinformation.

  4. Alex Reynolds

    In the zeal to cast a glamorous pallor on the kind of copy-paste, Twitter “journalism” we’re seeing this week, the take-home lessons from #amazonfail were quickly forgotten.

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  6. Pedestrian

    As an Iranian, I hold the Iranian Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB) MOST responsible in the spread of false and fatal rumors.

    If they had a shred of decency, none of these other outlets would have been relevant to begin with.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Of course, you are very right. The drive towards other media networks has to do, at least in part, with many people’s frustration worldwide with the “official” news and mass media message management. I am worried about social media being penetrated by state institutions, and about our possibly doing an even worse job than the mainstream media. That doesn’t let the IRIB off the hook, or any other agency, and I hope no one thinks that I would argue that the protesters are the exclusive or even primary source of any misinformation.

  7. Fred Stiles

    What does it matter? Iran needed a reform for the longest, this is it, hopefully.
    The Militias use guns, murder, beating…can u call that as unfair as doctored opposition rallies?
    Who gives a crap about a couple of fotos or ur doubts of their legitimacy?
    Where were you asking teh Iranian dictators about their legitimacy? Have you ever challenged anything you have seen come from Iran? But here you are challenging protesters?
    You stupid, self-loathing tool!


    1. Pedestrian

      Why does it matter?
      Because you write “this is it, hopefully
      Why are you hopeful? And how do you know this movement is what YOU think it is? How are you going to keep it honest and humane?

      In the past few days, I’ve seen photos of the Bam earthquake spread around claiming to be photos of the past few days. Photos, names, bank statements and addresses of people are emailed to us, and the emails claim these names belong to the militias and that they will soon be killed.

      I am one of those protesters. Don’t we claim to be fighting fraud, illegitimacy, LIES?
      If we don’t hold ourselves leagues MORE responsible than those we are claiming to fight we’ve become the good ol’ pigs of the farm already. Long before the battle has even been fought, won or lost.

    2. Maximilian Forte

      A bit hysterical, showing a weak argument, and a frail temperament. Sucks to be you.

      Who gives a crap? We do! Those who don’t want to take anyone at their word, at face value. Obviously you have something to lose from people who lack the desired level of gullibility.


      (…but first, learn how to write)

  8. Bob Bateman


    It matters for the same reason that historians use footnotes to support their statements. The footnotes, good ones anyway, help other people (usually other historians) make sure that the underlying evidence is what the historian says that it is. It is much the same for those in the “hard sciences.” What you are seeking is something that is verifiable, because then the community can (if needed) repeat the research, and then it may be accepted as true.

    Modern American journalism has tried, for about the past 100 years, to do much the same. (Canadian too Max.) They try to impose firewalls between reporters and editorialists, and between reporters and the business of the newspaper. That way, in theory, you can trust what you are reading. I qualify that to US/CAN, because in the British press there is no firewall in reporters keeping their opionions out of news. Thus, in the UK one tends to buy one of the six national newspapers based upon your personal ideology, and if you read the papers coverage of the same events you’ll note that one cannot often tell what is ‘fact’ and what is reportorial or editorial opinion. BBC, IMO, stands somewhat apart on this count, so don’t lump that in with the Brit tabloids I’m referring to here.

    We’ve seen the same thing starting to leak into our (US/CAN) markets with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Same phenomena in effect. (BTW Max, I think BBC just effed up. Wasn’t deliberate. Better example is the image of the Ahmadinijad support rally that was released by Iranian govt and forwarded to the world through FARS. Deliberately photoshopped to make crowd look bigger. )

    Max is on the mark here with suggesting simple things that those in Iran can do to help increase the reliability, and therefore the credibility, of their de facto forays into ‘new media journalism.’ The world is changing, or more accurately the technology is changing, and it seems to be overwhelming our news outlets abilities to be truth/fact filters so that (mostly) only facts get through in their work. Bloggers/twitterers/FBers, etc, are filling the gap, and Max is merely suggesting how they might do so better, for their own benefit.

    Bob Bateman

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Very well put, Bob, many thanks. I agree with you, I don’t think that the BBC produced that photo deliberately (somebody did of course, but I suspect — I do not know one way or the other — that the BBC was being sloppy in not verifying). One can also be fairly certain that an Iranian state agency is very keen to control information and imagery. In the case you noted, the excess was unnecessary: Ahmadinejad has had huge rallies, there is no need to fill in the blank spots and make them look “huger”. They have had photos of missile tests, three missiles in the photo fairly distinct, and a fourth one that is a clone of one of the others — again, unnecessary excess that, when revealed, makes the entire set of missile tests look less believable.

      Bob you understood the piece exactly as I intended it, which was not meant to be read as “anti” any demonstrators anywhere, but as anti-sloppiness when we are concerned about citizen journalism being taken seriously and not just as a mask for propaganda. In a conflict, all sides lie and/or repeat falsehoods because they do not know better. Citizen journalism, and activist media do not have to hold themselves to low standards. If they do, then they cannot defeat the charge that all of their media products are suspect, baseless, or fabricated, and that can do them far more damage in the end. Moreover, there is an overall slide downwards in standards almost everywhere in the information and culture industries in North America, perhaps Europe as well, with too much taken for granted and not critically examined. That I have to defend, in my classes, that no, mermaids do not in fact exist, they are mythical creatures, or that I have to defend why I think that 9/11 was not an “inside job” (very popular among students by the way), tells me that something seriously problematic is happening in our culture. The Internet itself seems to function more as a conspiracy medium than anything else, except perhaps pornographic image delivery, so we all need to be more careful than ever. Unfortunately, it seems to be that too many of us are becoming more careless than ever, at the worst possible time.

      (I know, we could also have had this debate become more squarely the focus of our discussions of John Stanton’s articles about HTS on this site. Most professional journalists would reject his work, I tended to defend it as a whistle blowers’ log because in some cases I received the identical messages by phone, email, and on this blog, that he reproduced in his pieces, and these were HTS people. HTS managers also harshly warned employees not to speak to Stanton, and that confirmed that they also knew that these were in fact insiders who were speaking to Stanton — in that case, mainstream media has to explain why it would exclude their voices. By the way — and this is going off topic, maybe not — you have to be one severely pissed off HTS employee to contact the likes of a Max Forte! HTS made matters worse by never publicly denying anything reported in Stanton’s articles, a very serious failure on their part, since his articles have come to dominate the information landscape about HTS far more than anything else. What is also true is we had no way of fact checking what HTS insiders said was true — on the other hand, that’s what blogs can be good for, as informal collective editorial rooms where we thrash out these reports, like happened here, and happened thanks in part to you too Bob.)

  9. James Lockridge

    Neda Salehi Agha Soltan becomes a symbol of Iranian resistance
    June 23, 2009

    Regarding the video of Neda Salehi Agha Soltan being killed in the protests the Times Online had this to say:

    “The authenticity of the video, and the source of the bullet, cannot be verified independently but that hardly matters any more because millions of Iranians and hundreds of millions of others around the world firmly believe the story to be true.”

    P.S. sorry for the cross post, my message is more appropriate for this section.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I was interested in seeing a couple of the major mainstream media houses (that I can remember, The Daily Telegraph and the Associated Press), printing concerns about the possibility that the video may not have been authentic — in other words, they have felt more stung about the reproduction of unverifiability than about the prospect of offending the emotions of a great many people for whom “Neda” has become iconic. However, from what I gather, this person actually did exist and there was a funeral for her in Tehran, at which the authorities were present to block any large gathering from taking place — incidentally, I don’t know where the media got their sources for that.

  10. James Lockridge

    I think half the battle is not about the authenticity of the images and videos, but the meta data or more simply the descriptions surrounding them. The seemingly authentic images allow protestors, supporters and agents (I mean that literally, CIA, SIS, etc.) to blend together and say: here is an authentic video or photo, let ME tell you about what happened.

    By using authentic content and changing the meta data the AP and others have a leg to stand on if it is ever revealed that the story is different than what was previously printed.

  11. Bob Bateman


    Frankly, I never much had a problem with most of what Stanton was reporting, or where. What problems I had with it was mostly along the lines of what we’ve just discussed, the “how” of his reporting, which some journalists probably would look down upon as well. Some of what he produced looked rock-solid, some of it was hyperbolic (in that it appeared he was injecting a wee bit much opinion, when the facts as he reported them were damning enough), which may be a function of his background/training/education. I don’t know. I haven’t googled him.

    I too think that the HTS structure, be that the former contractor controlled side of the house, or the DoD controlled side, essentially screwed up by not dealing with Stanton’s stories/allegations early on. Had they reacted early, and opened their doors to him, the tone (and personally I think the reliability) of his subsequent writing might’ve been different. FWIW, this is not uncommon at all. Most bureaucracies tend to clam up when criticized, as we all know. But it may be particularly pronounced inside my profession, and especially among those of my branch. (I am an infantryman.) You see it all the time in Brigades and Divisions within the military context, and it takes real serious concentration by people in charge (meaning at the top) to break that inclination. In no small part it is due to the perfidious Dolschtoss Legend that took hold in the US Army/Marines post-Vietnam.

    In reverse, those who buck that false line can do goo. It’s one of the reasons that Petraeus has always had such good press, the man actually allows reporters inside, to see things for themselves. In his case though, now that he’s SO high up, he can’t have the same effect he once did at a lower level by getting officers of my rank (Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel) to do the same. There are now too many layers of lower generals between him and officers in command of battalions and brigades.

    Yes, it certainly can hurt, a lot, when you get bad press. But as I’ve said on NPR and other venues, when we (the military) screw up, it costs lives, and we should not be allowed (or allow ourselves) the luxury of vanity and pride when human lives are at stake. Any human lives. One screw up that is not noticed (or if noticed, not reported on) can mean that the unit doesn’t take corrective action to prevent the same mistake from happening again. At the most extreme end of this spectrum, it’s why I would like a reporter to be with every company/battalion everywhere in combat, because when a reporter is there, obscenities like My Lai don’t happen.

    Hopefully your recommendations for how citizen-journalists-witnesses can make their materials more reliable will get broad reading.


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