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Digital verification for human rights advocacy

Conversations with Data: #65

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Welcome to the first Conversations With Data newsletter of 2021.

With misinformation already dominating the headlines this year, there's no better time to inject open source information into your newsgathering.

Our latest Conversations with Data podcast features an interview with Sam Dubberley from Amnesty International. He talks to us about managing the Digital Verification Corps and the challenges of using open source information for human rights research and advocacy. He also provides some useful resources for journalists new to the field.

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Sam Dubberley below.

What we asked

Talk to us about your career. How did you get started in open source investigation work?

I began my career working in newsrooms. In 2002, I joined the European Broadcasting Union, where I worked as a subeditor, producer, editor, and later ran the newsdesk. I worked in breaking news and saw journalism transition from traditional news reporting to social media newsgathering.

In 2013, I did a fellowship at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, researching the impact of user-generated content in the newsgathering process. I examined what verification meant along with the ethical questions around using this kind of content. What did it mean for people around the world who now have increased connectivity, the power of a camera in their homes and a power to share that with the world? What did it mean for human rights?

In 2016, Amnesty International asked me to set up a programme called the Digital Verification Corps to help the organisation conduct research using open source information. There was a realisation that this power to tell stories and gather information and testimony digitally was something that the human rights movement had to engage with. I am also a fellow of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex where I am a research consultant for their Human Rights Big Data and Technology Project.

Tell us more about the Digital Verification Corps at Amnesty.

The Digital Verification Corps is a network of volunteers from four universities worldwide trained in open source investigation methods that help them verify data from social media platforms. Today, the initiative includes 100 participating students from seven universities. These include Human Rights Centres at the University of California, Berkeley (US), the University of Essex (UK), the University of Pretoria (South Africa), and the University of Toronto (Canada).

The students, who have a background in human rights law, volunteer to join the programme. We teach the students to apply new, digital methodologies when working with human rights documentation and evidence. The technical training they receive allows them to verify the authenticity, location, and time of videos and photographs from social media – skills have proven to be valuable for future research. The outcome of their efforts then helps Amnesty monitor and report on human rights violations.

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What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work as head of the evidence lab in the crisis response team at Amnesty?

There are so many different ways to approach that question. Finding the information and ensuring what you are saying is accurate is very challenging. Another hurdle is persuading researchers who are used to doing testimonial interviews to integrate new forms of data into their work. The impact of seeing the worst that humanity does to each other is also challenging. The traumatic side of the work is a very real one.

Scale has also become a big issue. For example, we put out a report in October 2020 around the 2019 protests in Chile. We used open source information, as well as field testimony to really show who was responsible for injuries. It involved going into great detail and identifying police officers who were on the streets and seeing the same person in video after video. You also have to be meticulous when you're doing that kind of research. To verify the videos, you have to go through it frame by frame and extract every small piece of information you can from a video.

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What resources do you recommend for journalists interested in open source investigation?

This week Amnesty is releasing two online courses on Advocacy Assembly, the multilingual training platform for journalists and activists. The courses provide an introduction to methods and best-practice of open source research, and the ways these new methods of information gathering can be used for human rights reporting and documentation. You can sign up for Open source investigations for human rights: Part 1 and Open source investigations for human rights: Part 2 in English, Arabic, Persian and Spanish.

While the content is very much focused on digital verification for human rights work, it is also relevant for journalists. Both courses feature a mix of expert voices, including archivist Yvonne Ng from WITNESS, Amnesty's weapons and military operations expert Brian Castner, and lawyer Lindsay Freeman from UC Berkeley Human Rights Center.

Amnesty also has a website called Citizen Evidence, where we place case studies when we publish a large report that involves open source information. The aim is to show a glimpse of how we do this work behind the scenes.

Tell us more about "Digital Witness", the book you co-edited.

Human rights NGOs around the world now need to know how to really build on the best information and integrate it into their research because it is so powerful. Through the Digital Verification Corps, we realised these resources did not exist. That's why myself, Alexa Koenig, executive director of UC Berkeley Human Rights Center, and Daragh Murray, from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex came together and decided to publish a book about this. It teaches the methods and best-practice of open source research and features contributions from some of the world's most renowned open sources investigators. It also offers a comprehensive range of topics, including the discovery and preservation of data, and ethical considerations, to provide readers with the skills needed to work in an increasingly digitised and information-saturated environment.

What advice can you give journalists new to open source information?

My one piece of advice is not to be intimidated by it and just go for it. I can imagine open source information can seem a bit mystical -- like there is some kind of magical techniques behind it all. Remember that it is just another way of doing research. As a journalist, it is just another way of looking for the who, what, where and when. So you can do it. It involves applying critical thinking skills in a slightly different way.

For instance, are there farmers protesting in India? Well, there's a lot of open source information around what's going on there. Use the resources out there to really build on what is out there. Given this space is so new, the opportunities are vast.

Finally, what are the challenges you see going forward in the sphere of digital verification in human rights?

Researchers and journalists have managed to understand how to search YouTube and Facebook. But the big tech companies are always changing things without consultation. So that becomes a problem. Yet people find ways around them all of the time. Remember that it is not so much the techniques that are important -- it is the way you think about the approach. It is how you develop an open source investigation mindset.

Everyone says geolocation is so important for open source research. Well, sometimes you can't locate it. So what else can you look at to show that something is authentic and shows human rights abuse? Focus on the mindset rather than rely on tools given these are always changing.

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Our next conversation

Our next Conversations with Data podcast will feature an expert talking about the new COVID-19 variants in South Africa and the United Kingdom along with how epidemiological surveillance works. We will also explore what this new variant means for vaccine programmes around the world.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.

Onwards!

Tara from the EJC Data team,

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