A 5-point guide to Bellingcat's digital forensics tool list

In the verification business, Bellingcat is a website on a hill.

The digital investigation outlet publishes deep dives on everything from the Syrian civil war to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. And for fact-checkers and other journalists, Bellingcat — whose name is derived from “belling the cat,” a seemingly impossible task — has an open-source list of tools that are essential for any online investigation.

At 16 pages, the list spans from basic tools like Twitter advanced search to complex website analyzers like DomainTools. In order to help parse through which are most most essential for all journalists, Poynter spoke with Christiaan Triebert, a digital investigator and trainer at Bellingcat, to compile a cheat sheet, divided into five subject areas.

1. Reverse image search. Whether you use Google’s service, TinEye or RevEye — the latter two which crawl several different search engines, including the Russian site Yandex — scanning the web for prior publications of a specific image is perhaps the most essential tool in fact-checkers’ arsenal.

“It just takes a matter of minutes, but it allows you to fact-check. And it’s so easy — it doesn't cost any time and anybody can do it.”

2. Geolocation services. When fact-checking images, videos and even some fake stories, finding out whether or not it actually took place in the place it depicts can often determine its veracity. To do this, turn to old favorites like Google Maps and Google Earth.

3. Video search. Similar to reverse image searches, this process relies on grabbing stills from online videos and searching the web for similar compositions. To do this, consider using tools like Amnesty International’s YouTube Dataviewer and the InVid browser plugin. (For more tips on verifying social media video, check out this tip sheet.)

4. Social media profile verification. First, obviously check the content that’s being shared. If it seems spammy, or if there’s a lot of content being retweeted on a variety of subject matters, that’s a big red flag that the account is a bot. Second, see how old the account is. Oftentimes spam tweeters are no more than a month or two old. Lastly, try using tools like Graph.tips, StalkScan and WhoPostedWhat.com to learn more about specific Facebook profiles and posts, or Treeverse and Twlets to visualize specific tweeters’ interactions.

5. Website analysis. When investigating potential fake news, a specific website’s metadata can offer big hints about the veracity of its content. Check a site’s basic information, such as who administers it and where it’s based, using tools like Whois.net. Determine a site’s reach and authority using tools like Open Site Explorer, which shows inbound links and most popular pages.

Have a tip or tool that didn’t make the list? Send it to us at factchecknet@poynter.org.