How to geolocate a video or image, in 5 steps

When the BBC published an in-depth investigation about a video from sub-Saharan Africa in the fall, it blew up online.

The video, which depicted a group of soldiers shooting two women and two young children, was posted on social media. Users claimed that it took place in Cameroon, but the government denied it in July, when the video first went viral.

“We thought it was important to at least try to find out who was responsible for the killing of those women and children,” Daniel Adamson, a series producer with the BBC’s Africa Eye unit, told Poynter at the time. “We suspected there was enough in the video to geolocate it, so we took a close look.”

After a weeks-long investigation, Africa Eye was able to determine where the video was, when it was shot and who the soldiers were — all using digital tools that anyone with an internet connection can access.

While geolocation sounds like something that only trained investigators can do, it’s important for journalists, fact-checkers and news consumers to become acquainted with it in order to avoid spreading false information online. And with the right set of digital tools, anyone can learn to verify images and videos. Here’s a list of tips.

1. Ask for help. Something journalists don’t do enough of is leverage their audiences. When presented with an image or video that you need to verify, ask your readers to help you figure out where it is. Only do this if the visual has already gone viral on social media, though, so you avoid amplifying potentially false information.

2. Slow videos down. When you’re picking apart key frames of a video, it can be hard to make out what exactly you’re looking at. Use free tools like iMovie, InVid and VLC to slow down the transitions and get a better look at any landmarks or identifiers there might be.

3. Figure out the location. Even the grainiest or poorly lit photo or video will have some distinguishing characteristics in it. If you know the country, state or city that a visual is purported to take place in, look around on Google Earth to see if any of the landscape matches. Supplement what you find with satellite imagery from Sentinel Hub, if you have the budget.

4. Narrow down the time. Looking at the metadata of a photo using ExifTool can help you figure out who created a visual when and where — but it doesn’t always work for content posted to social media platforms, which routinely strip out metadata. If this is the case, analyze the shadows in a photo or video and use SunCalc to determine what time of day and year it was shot at.

5. Don’t skip the details. Clothing, objects, logos and signs can all very extremely useful when trying to verify the background of a visual. When in doubt, consult Michael Bazzell’s OSINT (open-source intelligence) training guide. It has a variety of tools to help continue your digital sleuthing, including a Facebook Graph search tool.

For more tips on verifying images and videos using geolocation, check out Bellingcat’s digital toolkit. Have a tip that didn’t make either list? Send it to us at factchecknet@poynter.org.