Since 2016, the Digital Verification Unit (DVU) has played a central role in the research of violations of human rights. Managed by Dr Matthew Gillett, Dr Erin Pobjie and Dr Elif Kuskonmaz, the DVU has enlisted the assistance of 25 dedicated students who tackle human rights violations using open sources like social media. Over the years, they have implemented a variety of projects, primarily in collaboration with Amnesty International and other NGOs, to address these violations worldwide using various open-source tools. Past projects have addressed issues such as hate speech crimes related to the Russo-Ukrainian war, drift backs in the Aegean Sea, and the illegal use of tear gas in protests.

In October, the DVU at Essex underwent a weekend-long training session. This event was hosted by Marija Ristic, the Digital Verification Corps Manager, and Ummar Bashir, the Programme Coordinator. The training aimed to equip the members with the skills, tools, and resources needed to engage in digital investigations spearheaded by Amnesty International and the University of Essex. Members learned crucial skills for conducting digital investigations into human rights violations using open source techniques, through a series of hands-on activities.

The key elements of any open-source investigation are discovery, preservation, verification, and investigative analysis. The first step of discovery involves using search engines and social media platforms to uncover evidence of potential human rights abuses related to the project at hand. Platforms such as Google, X (formerly Twitter), Telegram, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are searched and members are trained on how to use advanced tools for efficient investigation.

“The training weekend was a fulfilling and insightful experience. It was an exciting opportunity to learn new skills that we otherwise would not be exposed to.” - Lucie 

Given that these sources could be used in formal contexts, it is necessary to verify them in order to analyse their authenticity and exclude any misleading or manipulated content. For example, we were instructed on how to detect any deepfakes: manipulated videos created by Artificial Intelligence (AI) exploiting real content to change it synthetically in many ways. Although this technology is not yet fully perfected, its rapid development has created a new source of danger that must be considered when looking for content online. Part of our formation was also to consider and assess whether a video is actually unveiling violation of human rights and if the content could be used as proper evidence in concordance with the research project. 

“It was interesting to learn about deepfakes and AI and their impact on the open-source research world.” - Swann

Once we effectively understood how to find reliable and relevant sources, the second major skill we had the chance to learn was using geolocation tools to precisely pinpoint the content found using coordinates. This can be achieved by using the videos’ clues and other complementary methods such as reverse image searches and Google Earth, to help us be as precise as possible. We then discovered how to accurately chronolocate a video, by examining the weather or using shadows. All of these elements allowed us to comprehend how to correctly deduce the exact or approximate time period a video was taken. Mastering these technical skills was crucial for applying them effectively in real-life situations during our first project of the autumn term.

Another key topic addressed during our training session was the concept of vicarious trauma and the importance of resilience. Our line of work can involve investigations that expose our members to graphic or distressing content. Such exposure can, unfortunately, lead to vicarious trauma, an issue we take very seriously. Emphasising the importance of personal wellbeing, our training underscored an essential message: "Your wellbeing is as crucial as your contribution."

This message serves as a reminder that while our work is important, maintaining our mental health and practising self-care are equally vital. 

This weekend was very rewarding and fulfilling, equipping us with key skills to become confident open-source researchers. Despite occasional challenges and frustrations, we applied these competences during the initial weeks of the autumn term. The unique opportunity afforded as being a member of the DVU and the intensive training weekend enabled us to learn day-by-day. We are beyond grateful to Marija and Ummar, who took their time to visit us at the University and deliver their expertise to us. Their input has allowed us, as students from various disciplines across the University, to take tangible actions to help protect human rights globally and make an impact from our humble level. We are eager to start this term with a new project and cannot wait to see how our efforts will be used by Amnesty to support their crucial work.

“I was proud to take part in the weekend and to begin my tangible impact on the protection of human rights.” - Lina