How YouTube videos are helping human rights researchers

Human rights activists and researchers are using YouTube videos in their investigations to report about human rights abuses. The ubiquity of mobile phones and the more extended access to the Internet is facilitating sharing videos or images that can serve as evidence of war crimes, violations of human rights and abuse. This kind of content is shared fast, multiplied and can easily be modified. Thus verification and authentication processes are key for researchers.


Since 2012, Amnesty International has been developing its platform Citizen Evidence Lab and facilitating methodology guidelines to use free open source digital tools for digital video or images verification and more recently, training volunteers worldwide through their Digital Verification Corps project. Other common efforts from organisations like The Engine Room, Benetech and Amnesty International are also contributing to create a comprehensive framework for human rights researchers and guide them through the process.




In the last years, citizen media has been used in the research for evidence of human rights abuse as nowadays, anyone with a cell phone camera can film any events happening around them. Activists, journalists, bystanders, or even armed groups and perpetrators are video recording evidence of different forms of violence and, often, sharing them on social media or uploading them to other digital platforms like YouTube. Amnesty International has successfully used digital video and digital tools in reporting about human rights violations in Nigeria or Burundi and has shared their lessons learned.


Little I did know that this low-quality, 35-second clip was only the tip of the iceberg

says Christoph Koettl about an investigation of killings perpetrated by armed groups in Nigeria (Koettl, 2015). Koettl, Founder and Director of Amnesty International Citizen Evidence Lab, knows very well the importance for human rights researchers to develop a specific framework and methodology for verification and authentication.


Both, Koettl’s guidelines and DataNav handbook, agree on which are the critical steps in the verification process. Firstly, the collection and preservation of the digital files, considering ethical obligations, data security and avoiding to alter the metadata. Secondly, verification of the source to prevent inaccuracy in the research process. It is vital to identify whether the video has been already published on the Web, track down the original source, find other websites hosting the same video, or find out if it is a manipulation of a previous version.


Digital tools like Data Reviewer or Stress Test analyse frame-by-frame the video content and are available at Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab. This process becomes a basic filtering of videos and saves a lot of work time for researchers. Next step is confirming the location and date which are are basics for the confirmation of the context where the events have happened.


Koettl remarks the fact that digital videos, depending on which platform they have been uploaded to, can present different location and date metadata as it can be modified by the user, although it is not always accurate, tools like Google Earth, geo-tags, satellite imagery etc, can be useful for researchers to clarify that information. Also, an in-depth and frame-by-frame content analysis is significant to identify a location, “details such as inventory numbers of weaponry or military vehicles can be crucial evidence to identify specific units, and most importantly, command responsibility”, says Koettl (Koettl, 2015; Koettl, 2014)


Citizen media and user-generated content are not replacing traditional documentation processes in human rights research but are opening new ways for researchers to get to information and evidence that usually they cannot get to, nor journalists or humanitarian aid workers. Digital videos and digital data are not only serving researchers to report on human rights abuses but in some cases, they eventually could be used in courts and war crimes trials. They are opening new opportunities for researchers and providing a new level of detail on their investigations.


However, in a digital world that it is continuously changing and as data security is not always provided, the field faces few challenges that should be taken into consideration. For instance, frameworks and guidelines can quickly get outdated due to the constant and fast changes the digital industry is facing. Besides, experts highlight the need for a commitment from the tech industry to make location and date data more transparent when uploading content to their platforms. Also,  promoting data security when collecting and keeping sensitive materials related to human rights violations, or preserving the privacy of those appearing on the videos. Last but not least,  introducing self-care plans to prevent secondary trauma in human rights researchers caused by being exposed to extremely graphic and distressing content (Koettl, 2016; The Engine Room and others, 2016).


*Credit Featured Image: C.Koetl, Citizen Evidence Lab, Amnesty International





The toolbox mentioned above is available at Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab [here]


KOETTL, Christoph (2014): Real vs Fake: How to authenticate YouTube videos for human rights work, Amnesty International [here]


KOETTL, Christoph (2015): How technology helped us expose war crimes in Nigeria [here]


KOETTL, Christoph (2016): Human Rights in the Digital Age: CGHR Practitioner Paper #1. Citizen Media Research and Verification: An Analytical Framework for Human Rights Practitioners, Centre of Governance and Human Rights, University of Cambridge


The Engine Room, Benetech and Amnesty International, (2016): DATNAV: How to navigate digital data for human rights research [here]