Below is the text of an article I wrote for the BBC College of Journalism website on verification processes for social media in BBC News, published 11 May 2011:
From Tunisia, via Egypt, to Libya and Syria, verifying and acquiring eyewitness/citizen journalist/user-generated content has become increasingly complicated as the material has become more sophisticated.
At the UGC (user-generated content) Hub in the BBC Newsroom in London, our process has become much more forensic in nature and includes:
– Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones.
– Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location.
– Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date.
– Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.
– Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories.
– Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.
That’s not an exhaustive list, but those are some of the most common things we do in BBC News.
This can take anything from seconds – as in the case of the eyewitness in Bahrain who pointed their laptop’s camera out of the window to prove they were near Pearl Roundabout – to hours, as we hunt for clues and confirmation.
During the battle for control of Zawiyah in March, taking our time, checking against existing sources and using our knowledge meant that we avoided running old material.
One clip appeared, linked to claims that it showed protests after Friday prayers on 4 March 2011. The location was one we had become familiar with. The clip appeared very soon after prayers and our suspicions were raised by the length of the shadows in some shots. The protester stripped to the waist and on their knees also seemed familiar to me.
Other outlets were running with it and there was a degree of pressure to verify it quickly. We soon had the answer when we found that one section had appeared in Ian Pannell’s report a week earlier.
We also made sure we alerted Libyafeb17.com, one of the main sources cited, to our findings so that it could reflect the correct information.
The expertise and local knowledge of both BBC Monitoring and BBC Arabic has been vital. They speak Arabic for one, and they understand accents, humour and nuance in a way we could never hope to match.
I can’t tell a western Libyan accent from an eastern one, but I know that there’s at least one colleague an email away who can. Likewise, when it comes to telling Homsi from Damascene dialect, there are people who can bring that knowledge to the process.
Around 3pm on 23 February, we were asked to verify video claiming to show bodies in the morgue of Al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi. BBC Monitoring was able to confirm that the accents were eastern Libyan, what the captions and voices were saying, and to give context to the likely date of the events. By 6pm, this verified material was in the system in time for the Six O’Clock News on BBC1 and the BBC News Channel, as well as BBC World News and our website.
There are few organisations which can call on the breadth of resource and knowledge that we can within the BBC.
Whereas a single shot from an individual’s ‘perspective’ used to be the most common form we received, now more material appears as an edited sequence of clips, whether from traditional news agencies, activist groups or individuals.
Some activist groups, in the absence of foreign journalists on the ground, have filled the space left by the traditional agencies. Shaam News Network in Syria and Freedom Group in Misrata, Libya, are examples of how a motivated group with an internet connection can take ownership of the narrative. It’s important to remember the context in which they exist, especially in terms of awareness of their partisan nature.
But, regardless of provenance – from the most established source to the individual who has only ever uploaded one clip – everything we see goes through the verification process before we give our opinion on it. If it says it comes from the social media sphere, we question it until we’re happy that the claims being made stack up.
Contacting witnesses has also had to move with the times and circumstances. Monitoring and blocking of mobile phones and landlines mean that we’ve become increasingly dependent on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services, satellite internet and satellite phones to speak to eyewitnesses.
Establishing relationships of trust with people in such precarious situations is a huge challenge and one we take very seriously. We have very clear guidelines for contacting people, with the goal that we should never expose them unduly to danger. We will never ask or encourage anyone to put themselves at risk to tell us their story.
We are hugely indebted to these people, as well as family and friends who put us in contact with them. Without them, much of the story of the ‘Arab Spring’ would never have been told.