Myself and others at First Draft frequently receive emails from a whole range of people asking how they can start doing the sort of online open-source investigation and verification that they’ve seen us doing. The skills and methodologies used are all something that can be learnt through a little persistence, but here are a few pieces of advice to get you started.
When I first started my work I thought Twitter was a place where celebrities shared photographs of their food. After years of experience I now know that place is in fact Instagram, but to achieve that level of social media mastery I actually had to take the plunge and get on social media.
Joking aside, over the last few years there’s been a growing community of online open-source investigation fanatics on social media sites, and on Twitter in particular. There’s no better way to start learning than by finding some of the people discussing open-source material, and follow those discussions to get a feel for what people are already doing. This Twitter list of various experts and interesting people working in the areas of verification and online open source investigation is a great place to get started.
Once you feel brave enough, you can leap into some of the ongoing discussions with your own ideas, and even begin to build your own reputation among the communities that exist. Just keep in mind some of the groups involved with these discussions are less interested in facts and more interested in pushing an agenda. They are a minority, but they won’t take kindly to anyone applying evidence and logic to their claims.
A great example of where positive discussions can go is the recent ISIS social media campaign which, thanks to Twitter users, ended up being a PR disaster. ISIS supporters across Europe were encouraged to take photographs with the social media campaign’s hashtag on a piece of paper but inadvertently gave away their positions, allowing Twitter users to track down the exact location where each photograph was taken and inform the local police.
If there’s one skill that I believe is core to verification and online open-source investigations, it’s geolocation. Geolocation is using clues in photographs or videos to find the precise location it was captured, therefore verifying it is in the location claimed by the person sharing it (or finding the location if none is given in the first place).
There’s many examples of this in all sorts of investigations, and you’ll often see people on social media sharing their attempts. This will usually take the form of a pair of images: one is the image being geolocated, the other will be satellite imagery of the area, with lots of coloured boxes showing matches.