BERKELEY — As politicians in Washington and elsewhere throw allegations of ‘fake news’ at reports that don’t fit their preferred narratives, a team of about 100 university students from around the world are wrapping up their first year of a program that helps strike back at those claims.
UC Berkeley launched the first university-based open source investigations lab last year to document and verify reports of human rights violations for international advocacy organizations and courts.
The goal? To teach students from across the campus — computer scientists and lawyers, anthropologists and sociologists — to use social media and other tools to corroborate or disprove reports of abuses at refugee detention centers, dubious arms sales, and brutal murders around the world.
What started out as a small-scale project last year has grown to include students from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, the University of Pretoria in South Africa, the University of Toronto in Canada and, soon, Cambridge University. This week, they are meeting at UC Berkeley to share what they’ve learned.
Working with advocacy groups like Amnesty International, the students use social media and other tools to answer questions many people don’t think about before they hit share on a powerful photo. Was it really taken at a particular protest in a particular place? Is it really depicting what this person says it’s depicting?
The students are essentially detectives, using geolocation techniques and reverse image searches to piece together bullet-proof information that will stand up in court or online. In the process, they learn, as Tokollo Makgalemele, a law student from Pretoria, said, “You always need to know what you’re being fed.” At the same time, Amnesty International, international courts and other groups can build stronger cases and attempt to navigate what has turned into a firehose of information — some of it real, some of it fake.
“There’s more and more information coming out,” said Christoph Koettl, an Amnesty International worker who has helped train the students in how to verify information. “They grew up with a laptop,” he said. “The students are super easy to train.”
Berkeley has been working with international courts for decades. But the timing of this particular project is no coincidence. In the last decade or so, there’s been a proliferation of smartphones, said Alexa Koenig, executive director of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and co-manager of the school’s investigations lab. That lets everyone be a human rights investigator but it also creates space for lots of misinformation and a need for what has come to be known as digital verification.
Koenig had been frustrated by what she saw as a disconnect between human rights and technology. At the same time, Amnesty International had been stepping up its use of tools like YouTube and Facebook and mulling over the idea of training students to help with the work. Partnering, Koenig said, was “perfect symbiosis.”
In the last school year, the students have helped verify information in Egypt, Syria and other countries where access to hard facts can be a challenge. They’ve helped force officials in places like Papua New Guinea to change their accounts. And they’ve raised new questions in places like Mexico.
“It felt very cool being able to use the tools we were given,” said Adebayo Okeowo, a law student from Pretoria.
“A lot of it has to do with getting yourself out of your head,” added Haley Willis, a Berkeley student. It’s about learning to shed biases but not ignoring information that could provide vital context, she said.
There’s interest in scaling the project — bringing in more students who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds that could prove useful. The trick will be to do it effectively. “The key to scaling is going to be some sort of train-the-teacher method,” Koenig said.
Finding ways to effectively hand off the work, which, as the students have learned, takes long, sometimes tedious, stretches of time, will be crucial since participants will come and go, graduating and moving on to other things. There are also time zone differences and security concerns to contend with. It might be faster to share a Google document, but in some cases, students are opting for burner computers and old school flash drives instead. And sometimes there’s the sheer emotional toll of combing through graphic, disturbing footage over and over again looking for clues.
But as those in power try to wield an ever-growing world of social media to their advantage and evade accountability, the work feels more crucial than ever. Nickie Lewis, a Berkeley student, felt compelled to participate, in part, because she lost a friend in a Paris terror attack, and she’s all too aware how events that might seem distant can hit close to home. “These things aren’t far away from us,” she said.