A brief, shaky video uploaded to Telegram on March 17 showed bodies on the ground in Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, which has been battered by Russian military attacks in the continuation of the war. The person behind the camera shouted that it was March 13. But could the date – and the content itself – be corroborated?
Christoph Koettl, a senior video reporter with the Times Visual Investigations team, was able to cross-reference the video with other footage and satellite images, matching architecture, damage and other markers to estimate when and where the video was filmed. After a thorough analysis, he was sure that the video was “absolutely legitimate”.
On the Internet, fake videos of the war in Ukraine appear, spreading disinformation and, sometimes, propaganda. Often, the videos are from past conflicts: for example, footage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has leaked online, under the false claim that they are from the current conflict. Even video game footage has been presented as real happenings on platforms such as TikTok.
Before the Times can use images from independent sources for its reporting on Ukraine, its reporters and editors make sure they can verify its authenticity. The Visual Investigations team, which produces in-depth video journalism such as how a US military drone hit the wrong target and an analysis of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, finds and analyzes numerous files.
Below, find out how Visual Investigations verifies Ukrainian content.
The Visual Investigations team relies on a combination of open source reporting – the use of publicly available information – and more traditional field journalism from reporters from The Times of Ukraine and other trusted sources for videos from Ukraine.
Times reporters and editors regularly scour social media sites like Telegram, Facebook and Twitter, looking for keywords and locations to find videos or images of the war.
“I would say over 75% of the news I look at is on Telegram,” said Evan Hill, a reporter for Visual Investigations. The messaging app is popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, just like WhatsApp in other parts of the world.
The team looks at dozens of videos every day. When one appears to have merit, reporters and editors take a closer look.
Confirm that a file is current
To confirm that the images are up to date, the team browses still images via Google Images or Yandex, a Russian search engine. This process is called reverse image search. If the material has already appeared online, it will most likely show up in search.
Having some familiarity with prominent buildings, uniform insignia, or even fired artillery can also help determine if a video is authentic.
“I worked with a lot of footage from 2014 and 2015,” senior video editor Dmitriy Khavin said, referring to the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The flags, he said, help indicate whether the footage it examines are old or new. “What flags were flying then? I know they don’t fly those flags anymore.
The team takes note of specific benchmarks. For example, in the current conflict, Russian forces have marked their vehicles with a Z or a V – a unique ‘gift’, Koettl said, these images are from the current war, not the 2014 conflict .
If the team determines a video is fake, it alerts other Times staffers and posts comments on social media warning users that the content is unreliable.
Find the place and the date
Next, the team must verify the date and location of a video. Comparing landmarks or matching structural damage with visual references such as satellite images or other photos and videos, as Mr. Koettl did for the Mariupol images, often provides enough context to identify a specific area.
This process may also involve the use of satellite imagery and social media posts. High resolution satellite images can be extracted from tools such as Google Earth or acquired from private space imaging companies. Another source is websites that provide satellite imagery collected by intergovernmental organizations. Some of these resources have older footage, but they may still be useful “to determine where something was filmed so we can confirm or punch holes in what’s alleged,” said Haley Willis, reporter for Visual Investigations. .
The Visual Investigations Team used satellite imagery to determine that Russia had deployed troops to the Ukrainian border to prepare for an invasion: a satellite image of a field hospital gave a first indication that Russia was preparing for something other than a military exercise.
Determining “when something was filmed is much more difficult,” Ms. Willis said, “especially when things are happening every day.”
To verify a specific time, the Visual Investigations team uses sites like SunCalc, which estimates the time a photo was taken by measuring the length of shadows in the image. Matching the image to CCTV and security camera footage can also help, as those images include a timestamp, although those timestamps aren’t always 100% accurate, Ms Willis said.
Use video to inform reports
After these steps, which can be relatively quick or take several hours, depending on the video, Visual Investigations updates The Times’ live blog on the war and uses the material for its own reporting.
“We have so much stuff we want to post, and blogging, right now, is the best way to do that,” Hill said. “Now we’re trying to figure out what are the biggest stories we can bite into and cover.”