Are Grainy Videos Of Atrocities Real? This Tool Will Tell You

In places where only cell-phone footage can tell the story of a crisis, video experts are stepping in to make sure the footage is real.

Are Grainy Videos Of Atrocities Real? This Tool Will Tell You
[Image: Arrest in Bangkok, Thailand via 1000 Words / Shutterstock]

The shaky cell-phone footage was supposed to be from Nigeria, though Christoph Koettl was still trying to decipher the events unfolding on his screen. It looked like a soldier dragging an unarmed man down a paved road, shooting him, then leaving his corpse in a pile of more bodies off to the side.


Koettl, emergency response manager at Amnesty International, needed to find out when and where the killing took place. That’s when he noticed the road was paved and had a streetlamp in the shape of a key.

This month, Koettl and developers at Amnesty are rolling out a website that can train anyone to be a forensic expert to help analyze citizen videos. Koettl helped design the platform, called Citizen Evidence Lab, based on his own process that’s allowed him to verify hundreds of videos and pieces of satellite imagery in human rights crises over the last seven years. Thanks to a keen eye and a couple of tools he developed, Koettl was able to confirm the location of the extrajudicial killing in Nigeria; it was later included in Amnesty’s formal report.

“The level of detail and the richness of the data out of conflict zones in real time is enormous,” Koettl says. “I wanted to share how I was doing this work. It’s basically a skill share.”

Unlike what the organization Witness does with the Human Rights Channel, Koettl’s platform isn’t a place to upload video. Instead, it’s a training tool–one that walks human rights researchers and journalists through a “stress test” in order to evaluate videos properly. Another feature of the site is something Koettl calls the YouTube Data Viewer, a function that pulls out metadata and can show a researcher when the video was originally uploaded. The latter comes in handy when people download videos, upload them again later, and try to pass them off as originals from another scene.

The last time this happened, Koettl explains, was when someone tried to fake earthquake footage from Chile. The Data Viewer revealed that the new footage was actually shot from a different earthquake, and had been uploaded two years earlier to a tasteless “Harlem Shake” video.

Going forward, Koettl hopes to use the tool to train human rights researchers and journalists working for small organizations. He thinks citizen video will play a key role in disseminating information coming out of the conflicts in Nigeria, especially with Boko Haram. “I’m seeing a shift there,” he says. “Sometimes we get video that never makes it on the web.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.