‘Visual Forensics’ For The Cellphone Ukrainian War

March 3, 2022

Near a week now the fighting in Ukraine, still reeling from the staged, bloody-incompetent war waged by Vlad Putin’s Russian-named army — the outcast drum beats steady toward the way-obvious aggressor. However, a conflict as seen in real-time with real people in shit-on-a-stick real situations that are horribly dangerous and scary.

Coverage of war maybe by people involved, journalists, chroniclers of the time by consequence.
Only minutes ago in this cellular age:

Jay Caspian Kang, in a long op/ed at The New York Times today, discusses the information cycle and modus operandi state of our current media regarding news out of the Ukrainian war zone. Go read the whole piece, of course, it’s brimmed with personal journalism experiences in this quickening-age of cell-phone/social media reality pumped into the airwaves by the shit in Ukraine — raw, personal, violent footage of the impacts of war in near real-time.
Although there’s a history to this technology (maybe starting with the Arab Spring), right now has a watershed feel:

There does seem to be something new this time about the speed and credulity with which these videos have traveled around the internet and the emotional response they’ve generated in the West.
Perhaps the most accurate thing to say about social media and the invasion of Ukraine is that it’s the first time that millions of people watched a war on their phones and felt almost morally compelled to believe every image of bravery, no matter how implausible.
Given the choice between seeing the footage on CNN or through their social media feeds, many now are choosing the latter because they believe it comes with an aura of authenticity and without the assumed “agendas” of the mainstream media.
For the first few days of the conflict, it felt as if the desire to figure out the truth on the ground had evaporated.
What replaced it was a fantastical vision that turned a brutal, terrifying and bloody invasion into the Ukrainian version of the film “Braveheart.”

Scraps of footage of blown-up television towers, Russian helicopters coming under what looks like antiaircraft fire, apartment buildings being hit with missiles and the stirring footage of the citizens of Kyiv arming themselves have been seen around the world.
Many of these are real, but many more have not been confirmed or verified. We might see what it looks like when an airstrike hits an apartment building, but we do not really know anything else.
Where is this building? Who fired upon it? How many people are dead? Is it even in Ukraine?

And contextual with the reach of this media, Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist, senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview at Vanity Fair this afternoon noted the social sight of Ukraine vs Russia; Volodymyr Zelenskyy vs Vlad Putin: ‘Well, also, it’s the classic thing of, like, look at the bad guy and look at the good guy. The bad guy’s in his huge palace, clearly sociopathic, probably unhinged, sitting in these unbelievably gauche rooms with these absurd tables. Then you have this guy who’s just, like, a nice, warm Jewish guy being very open and personable. I don’t think it’s spin. I think that’s actually what we’ve got here, and I’m not saying he’s perfect in any way, but he’s not, like, some weird politic manipulator. He is what he is, and that’s why people voted for him.

All this massive explosion of video from all directions has caused major news agencies to form teams of “visual forensics” to make sure the shit is real, and not some clipped-together dis/false information pissed-out by nerds from all over. In the modern age it’s near-about required:

Making sense of the huge pile of shit pulsating over the InterWebs — from The Washington Post yesterday afternoon:

Amid reports of fighting in Ukraine over the weekend, one video posted on social media captured an apocalyptic scene: multiple fires raging on a highway outside of an apartment building as smoke billowed and loud pops rang through the night.

It was gripping footage, but journalists who looked at it knew that many similar videos have turned out to not be what they seem: A clip of a supposed missile launch in Ukraine had actually been filmed in Turkey in 2016; an Instagram post purporting to show Russian planes over Kyiv actually depicted a Russian military flyover two years ago in Moscow.

The Washington Post only deemed the fire video worthy of publication after a “visual forensics” team spent hours analyzing it and cross-referencing it with maps and other social media posts — eventually pinpointing the exact street corner in Kyiv where the inferno took place.

Newsrooms are increasingly relying on such teams to sort through a torrent of images emerging from the conflict, separating genuine videos from misinformation.

Unlike typical newsroom investigations that rely on private data to uncover stories and verify incidents, visual forensics uses open-source, widely available materials, such social media videos and photos,
Google Maps, public databases and weather reports, or high-quality satellite images offered through paid subscriptions.

“This is a very rigorous process,” said New York Times visual investigations reporter Haley Willis. “We have similar verification standards as any other journalist. Very few journalists are going to write a story based on what one source is saying, unless it is the source. We’re the same: we wait for multiple points of corroboration.”

While some newsrooms have their own teams (The Post has seven people doing this work, and the Times has a team of 17), there’s also a large online community of independent sleuths sharing their findings with one another.
Bellingcat, a global investigative corps that’s been a pioneer in this kind of open-source work, particularly in Ukraine, has been helping to verify incidents on a crowdsourced map with the London-based nonprofit Center for Information Resilience.

Benjamin Strick, director of CIR: ‘“It’s like civilians are the modern-day reporters, and now it’s the newsroom’s job to go through the wealth of footage and check it out.”

And war continues with so many cellphone-videos to decipher.

Yet beyond space and time, here we are once again…

(Illustration out front: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Deux Saltimbanques: l’Arlequin et Sa Compagne,’ found here).

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