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.