Verifying Images of the War in Ukraine

A brief, shaky video uploaded to Telegram on March 17 showed bodies on the ground in Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, which has been battered by Russian military attacks in the continuing war. The person behind the camera shouted that it was March 13. But could the date — and the content itself — be corroborated?

Christoph Koettl, a senior video journalist on The Times’s Visual Investigations team, was able to cross-reference the video with other footage and satellite imagery, matching architecture, damage and other markers to estimate when and where the video was filmed. After a thorough analysis, he was sure that the video was “absolutely legitimate.”

Across the internet, fake videos of the war in Ukraine are popping up, spreading misinformation and, sometimes, propaganda. Often, the videos are from past conflicts: For example, footage from when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014 has spread online, under the false claim that it’s from the current conflict. Even video game footage has been passed off as real events on platforms such as TikTok.

Before The Times can use footage from independent sources for its Ukraine reportage, its reporters and editors make sure they can verify its authenticity. The Visual Investigations team, which produces in-depth video journalism, such as how a U.S. military drone struck the wrong target and an analysis of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, finds and analyzes many of the files.

Below, learn how Visual Investigations verifies content from Ukraine.

Finding footage

The Visual Investigations team relies on a combination of open-source reporting — the use of publicly available information — and more traditional, on-the-ground journalism from Times reporters in Ukraine and other trusted sources for videos from Ukraine.

Times reporters and editors regularly scour social media sites like Telegram, Facebook and Twitter, searching for keywords and locations to find videos or images from the war.

“I would say more than 75 percent of the information that I’m looking at is on Telegram,” said Evan Hill, a reporter for Visual Investigations. The messaging app is popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, much like WhatsApp is in other parts of the world.

The team pores over dozens of videos each day. When one appears to have merit, reporters and editors take a closer look.

Confirming that a file is current

To confirm that the footage is current, the team runs stills through Google Images or Yandex, a Russian search engine. This process is called reverse image searching. If the material has appeared online before, it will very likely show up in the search.

Having some familiarity with important buildings, uniform insignia or even the artillery being fired can also help when trying to figure out whether a video is authentic.

“I have worked with a lot of footage from ’14 and ’15,” said Dmitriy Khavin, a senior video editor, referring to the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict. Flags, he said, help indicate if the footage he’s reviewing is old or new. “What flags were they flying then? I know they’re not flying these flags now.”

The team takes note of specific markers. For example, in the current conflict, Russian forces have marked their vehicles with a Z or V — a unique “giveaway,” said Mr. Koettl, that footage is from the current war and not the conflict in 2014.

If the team determines that a video is fake, it alerts other Times staff members and posts comments on social channels to warn users that the content is unreliable.

Pinpointing the location and date

Next, the team must verify the date and location of a video. Comparing landmarks or matching structural damage with visual references such as satellite images or other photos and videos, as Mr. Koettl did for the Mariupol footage, often provides enough context to pinpoint a precise area.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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The state of peace talks. Pessimism about Russia’s willingness to tame its attacks in Ukraine is growing amid mixed signals from Kremlin officials on peace talks and reports of new strikes near Kyiv and Chernihiv, where Russia had vowed to sharply reduce combat operations.

A humanitarian corridor. A humanitarian corridor to allow people to leave the besieged city of Mariupol, and let aid  inside, appeared to be close to being implemented. The International Red Cross said the corridor could begin on April 1.

Rising energy prices. OPEC and its allies, including Russia, decided to stick with its plan of modest monthly increases in oil input. In response to rising oil prices, President Biden announced he would release up to 180 million barrels of oil from emergency reserves over the next six months.

Putin’s advisers. U.S. intelligence suggested that President Vladimir V. Putin had been misinformed by his advisers about the Russian military’s struggles in Ukraine. The Kremlin later dismissed the assessment as a “complete misunderstanding” of the situation in Moscow.

That process can also involve using both satellite imagery and social media posts. High resolution satellite imagery may be pulled from tools like Google Earth, or are acquired from private space imaging companies. Websites that provide satellite images collected by intergovernmental organizations are another source. Some of these resources have older images, but they can still be helpful “in establishing where something was filmed so that we can confirm or poke holes in what’s being alleged,” said Haley Willis, a reporter for Visual Investigations.

The Visual Investigations team used satellite imagery to determine that Russia was staging troops at Ukraine’s border to prepare for an invasion: A satellite image of a field hospital gave an early indication that Russia was preparing for something other than a military exercise.

Determining “when something was filmed is much more difficult,” Ms. Willis said, “especially when stuff is happening every single day.”

To verify a precise time, the Visual Investigations team uses websites like SunCalc, which estimates a time of day a photo was taken by measuring the length of shadows in the image. Matching the image to CCTV and security camera footage can also help, since that footage includes a date and time stamp, although those time stamps are not always 100 percent accurate, Ms. Willis said.

Using the video to inform reporting

After these steps, which can be relatively quick or take several hours, depending on the video, Visual Investigations updates The Times’s live blog on the war and uses the material for its own reporting.

“We’ve got so much stuff that we want to get out there, and the blog, as of right now, is the best way to do that,” Mr. Hill said. “Now we’re trying to figure out what are the bigger stories that we can bite off and cover.”


Tracking Russia’s Latest Military Movements Around Ukraine

Videos, satellite images and social media posts reveal the scale and intensity of Russia’s military deployments near Ukraine’s border.

U.S. officials are warning that Russia could invade Ukraine in a matter of days. Russia says its buildup of troops and weapons is part of planned military exercises. Satellite images, social media videos and photos show the scale and intensity of some of Russia’s latest deployments. The situation is volatile, and Russia’s military movements continue to cause fear and confusion. Satellite imagery from Sunday shows the arrival of new equipment, and vehicles being repositioned at a site just 17 miles from Ukraine. U.S. officials and independent military experts say at least half of Russia’s battalion tactical groups, which are designed for ground combat, have been deployed near Ukraine. Vehicles transporting short-range ballistic missile systems called Iskanders appear to be moving closer to the border, as seen here in Western Russia in February. Satellite images show that these types of weapons were also moved to a site in Belarus in January, putting them within range of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. And in mid-February, there was a new addition to the site: a field hospital. Another field hospital was also set up in Crimea, the part of Ukraine that was seized by Russia in 2014. In the same area, satellite images show a new camp for troops, which could indicate a higher level of military readiness. And in Belarus, videos show this Krasukha-4, one of Russia’s most powerful electronic warfare systems, about 50 miles from Ukraine. It has a range of up to 186 miles, and is typically used to interfere with military aircraft radar systems. Russia has also deployed helicopters, and more than half of these ground-attack aircraft recently arrived at an airfield in Belarus. It is also moved landing ships from Northern Europe that can transport tanks, armored vehicles and troops. Russia says 30 of its ships are taking part in live-fire exercises, but the fleet is also effectively blocking Ukraine’s ports, and further encircling the country.

Videos, satellite images and social media posts reveal the scale and intensity of Russia’s military deployments near Ukraine’s border.CreditCredit…Image: Maxar Technologies; Graphics: The New York Times

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