In this episode of Declarations, Sam Dubberley from Amnesty International talks to Aurelie Skrobik and Matt Mahmoudi. Sam heads Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC), part of the organisation’s Crisis Response team. Set up in 2016, the DVC maintains a network of university students across the world, trained in the tools of digital image and video verification. Through this network, Amnesty ensures that the place, time, events and people captured in the content used in their reports and advocacy can be pin-pointed exactly. This is increasingly important in our era of fake news, where the legitimacy of human rights organisations is often called into question. For Aurelie, who has been part of the DVC since 2018, the DVC isimportant as it is “the first step to denouncing and reacting to human rightsabuses”.

Whilst open source/user-generated content grows in terms of quantity and relevance, most people lack the media literacy skills and time to engage critically with it: “The virality of things means that what we know, and equality what we don’t know, gets lost.” To face this challenge sectors withaccess to more resources are able to set up dedicated initiatives, such as the VisualInvestigation Lab at the New York Times. For human rights organisations, the process is bottom-up. Sam describes how training university students in digital verification skills, individuals who will then go on to work for other human rights organisations, means Amnesty is “planting the seeds” for the future, spreading these skills throughout the field. This is a “valuable contribution from Amnestyto the human rights space”.

Depicting the pain-staking verification process, Sam and Aurelie use examples from Syria and Sudan to illustrate the tools and processes used in digital verification. In some circumstances this even involves triangulatingweather and location data to analyse shadows in the images. Through this, analysts can pin-point the exact time at which the content was captured. Of course, this process is not quick and Sam notes that the not all videos can be subject to this level of scrutiny. However, in cases where only 1 video exists of a human rights abuse, maximum effort goes into verifying all aspects of what is shown.

Picking up on the goal-orientated dimension to this work, Matt asks about the role of gamification in this space. Both Aurelie and Sam acknowledge the game-like highs and lows of the verification process, but consider that gamifying the process is not the same as making the game “an end in itself”. Faced with the prospect of deep fakes, Sam recognises the risk it poses to organisations like Amnesty. However, like any tool for a human rights researcher, digital verification is only used when it fits the research question posed, and is always combined with a wider set of tools and sources in order to answer the question. It is a challenge these organisations will have to face, but it does not render digital verification tools useless. Neither does it mean that fostering wider media literacy skills is without value for human rights organisations and those working within the human rights space.

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Sam Dubberley heads the Digital Verification Corpsat Amnesty International and is co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub. He has over ten years’ experience in broadcast news and was head of the Eurovision News Exchange from 2010 to 2013. As a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Sam co-authored a global study exploring the use of user-generated content in TV and online news outputs. He has also published research on the impact of user-generated content with Eyewitness Media Hub and First Draft News.