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Citizen journalists are documenting COVID in the world’s conflict zones to stop disinformation

In conflict zones, fake news is rife. A new project uses citizen journalists to report vital coronavirus stories and technology to help identify misleading sources of information.

Citizen journalists are documenting COVID in the world’s conflict zones to stop disinformation
Dr. Eiad Radoun, medical coordinator, Watan Organization. [Photo: Fared Alhor/courtesy The Soufan Center]

Before the pandemic even hit, 2.8 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian need in Idlib, the current epicenter of the Syrian humanitarian crisis. But, the onset of coronavirus could be catastrophic a country already in a deep humanitarian crisis. In June, it was reported that, in Idlib, there was approximately one doctor per 6,800 people, and one intensive-care bed per 20,000 people. As of June 14, only 177 people in the whole country had tested positive, indicating a severe scarcity of tests. And there’s a shortage of ventilators, with only 100 in Idlib’s health clinics.

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On Western mainstream media, we rarely hear how the virus is affecting developing countries, and exacerbating already appalling conditions in the world’s most vulnerable conflict zones, like Syria, Yemen, and Libya. “The United States and the Western world has been so focused inward, that we haven’t taken a close look at what’s happening on the ground in some of these major humanitarian crises,” says Emerita Torres, director of policy research programs with The Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to human security around the globe, and with particular interest in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).

[Screenshot: Truepic]
The Soufan Center is teaming up with Truepic, a photo and video verification platform, with a joint goal to expose Western audiences to the plight of civilians in conflict zones during the time of COVID-19, through a series of character-driven stories on different countries in the MENA region. The ultimate aim is to get the attention of policymakers and humanitarian organizations to deliver urgent aid to COVID hotspots around the world.

The project will use team of journalists in the U.S and Europe, connected with a growing network of citizen journalists on the ground, who are the key to finding nuanced stories and reporting in “nonpermissive” places where it’s hard for Western journalists to report, due to ongoing violence, war, terrorism, geopolitical crises, or generally inhospitable environments. “A country like Yemen, which has already been devastated by conflict, will be ravaged even more [by COVID-19],” Torres says.

[Photo: Fared Alhor/courtesy The Soufan Center]
The dissemination of news from these areas is challenging, in the best of times. “CNN cannot just go into Idlib and fire up a live feed,” says Mounir Ibrahim, Truepic’s vice president of strategic initiatives. During COVID-19, when most of the world has become nonpermissive, foreign journalists can’t easily enter these countries and report, so they rely on citizen journalists on the ground, who are culturally and geographically adept, to capture media assets and conduct interviews.

[Screenshot: Truepic]
But propaganda, fake news, and disinformation are rife in these areas as well, which makes a deadly virus even more dangerous for misinformed citizens. Russian and Chinese state media, for instance, have been using Arabic broadcasters to propagate erroneous claims that the coronavirus is a military-made chemical weapon from a U.S. lab, which has led the United Nations to describe this moment in time as an “infodemic.”

Image manipulation is the backbone of fake news. Ibrahim saw this firsthand when he worked as a foreign service officer and key Syria adviser for the U.S. Department of State for eight years. “I noted how easy it was that bad-faith actors could use digital images to undermine reality on the ground,” he says. Any fake image risks casting doubt on all images originating from that particular region or on that topic, a concept dubbed as the “liar’s dividend” by legal scholars Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron.

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So, when reporting in conflict zones relies on crowdsourced images, their veracity is imperative. Truepic is deployed to counter these fake narratives, speedily detecting altering, rebroadcasting—like someone taking a screenshot or photo of another photo—and more sinister image fraud like deepfakes.

Um Muhammad, 28 years old. Mother of three from Idlib. [Photo: Fared Alhor/courtesy The Soufan Center]

In the new initiative, the citizen journalists tasked with reporting on the ground will capture images or videos of interviews they conduct using Truepic’s software. The system does 22 verification checks in real time, including analyzing the device integrity, the image data encryption, time, and location, and looks for signs of rebroadcasting. Within 10 seconds, the software can offer an assessment of whether an image or video is real.

[Screenshot: Truepic]
James Blake, a journalist and humanitarian, will collect the information from the citizen journalists, and use it to write the collaborative stories on the different countries, all of which will also include a video. For Blake, Truepic is indispensable for ensuring journalistic credibility and reputation. “There are too many reputational risks of putting your name to something from a conflict zone that’s not verified,” he says.

Of course, Truepic can’t guarantee that the information from the source is trustworthy, but when combined with rigorous fact-checking and cross-referencing, the software is “an added element that helps close the trust gap,” Mounir says. The team wants to harness it to restore trust to citizen journalists, which has been damaged by the rise of fake news. It can also increase the wealth of reporting: one or two trusted journalists in Idlib can bloom into 100 if their work can be so easily verified.

The first piece, which is now live, focuses on Idlib, the breakdown of its healthcare system, and it tells the story of a group of young people making ventilators from scratch. An upcoming story covers Lebabon’s hunger crisis, and the team also wants to explore the rise of modern-day slavery during the pandemic-caused economic fallout in that country. Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq are also on the roadmap.

“The idea is to shine a light on what’s happening within these humanitarian crises, and to call on the international community to step up and to do something about this,” Torres says. “And to lift up those stories, because otherwise, they’re just not going to be heard.”
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