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Video Exposes Police Abuse in Venezuela (or is it Colombia?)

Screen shot of Twitter user sharing a YouTube video purporting to show police abuse of student protesters in Venezuelan city of Tachira, February 2014. The video was actually originally uploaded from an incident in Colombia in December 2013.

A tweet featuring a YouTube video purporting to show police abuse of student protesters in Venezuela, February 2014. The video was actually taken in Colombia in December 2013.

By Madeleine Bair and Vienna Maglio

On February 21, the end of a week in which mass protests in Venezuela resulted in hundreds of arrests and five deaths, a new YouTube video circulated among Venezuelan social media networks showing police officers spraying a water cannon at a young man tied to a tree.  The title described in Spanish the GNB—part of Venezuela’s armed forces—torturing a student in Táchira, a state along the Colombian border where clashes have been especially violent.

The problem was, we had seen this video before at the Human Rights Channel, the YouTube channel where WITNESS curates and contextualizes verified video by citizens and activists around the world. The same footage circulated among Colombian activists early this year.

The YouTube description of this version states that the video was uploaded from a mobile phone on December 29, 2013. Colombian media activists reported on the video, describing it as depicting ESMAD, or Colombian special forces, torturing a farmer who participated in the country’s widespread agrarian protests.

Using Google’s reverse image search, we found another use of the video, uploaded a month later, with the title, “Mexican police torture civil defence groups.” The video eventually was removed by the uploader after several commenters pointed out that it had been taken from a different context.

Media Manipulation Distracts from Authentic Footage

While it’s unclear who would scrape, re-upload and intentionally misidentify footage of police abuse and with what motivations, it is easier to imagine why so many activists, believing the footage to be true, would share the video among their networks. After all, the mistreatment of detained activists had been reported on by reputable sources. And given the attacks on journalists covering the protests, citizen reporting and social media have become critical tools to document and share news of the protests and abuse of authorities. But as Global Voices has reported, both opposition activists and media channels supporting President Nicolás Maduro have engaged in the dissemination of false, decontextualized, or misleading images.

One widely circulated Facebook thread condemned the alleged use of photos from Syria by anti-government protesters in Venezuela.

One widely circulated Facebook thread condemned the alleged use of photos from Syria by anti-government protesters in Venezuela.

The distribution of false images with hidden agendas not only fuels the political—and increasingly violent—divide, but also makes it difficult for those monitoring the movement online to separate fact from fiction.  And it places an extra burden on those trying to document the protests honestly.

This is why verification is at the core of the Human Rights Channel, which works with our partners at Storyful to make sure that we not only amplify authentic footage of human rights abuse, but also put a stop to the spread of misinformation.

Of course, fighting false rumors is only one challenge facing media activists in Venezuela. Many photos and videos of the protest movement may never see the light of day due to the reported confiscation of cell phones of detained activists and journalists.

Resources for Filming and Finding Authentic Footage

For those documenting the protests in anywhere in the world, following a few basic steps when uploading videos will help third parties verify that your footage is authentic. See here for a downloadable tip sheet on effectively uploading to YouTube. A few key pointers:

  • Title: Keep it brief and descriptive, including the date and location.
  • Describe: In the YouTube description, include greater context about the video, such as what happened before, during, and afterwards, and links to more information.
  • Credit: If the video was originally uploaded by a different user or on a different website, provide a link to the original video. That will help journalists or human rights monitors verify that the footage is authentic.

For those monitoring the protests online, and curating images documenting abuse, the Verification Handbook is a free online resource with tools and tips to determine the authenticity of online media. For a downloadable Spanish tip sheet on how to verify online video, click here. You can also subscribe to the Human Rights Channel on YouTube and follow us on Twitter for the latest on citizen video of human rights abuse.

Madeleine Bair is the curator of the Human Rights Channel, a project of the international human rights organization WITNESS. Vienna Maglio is an intern with the HRC at WITNESS who holds a MA in International Relations form The New School for Public Engagement. 

A version of this blog post originally appeared on WITNESS’ blog.

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