Collect, preserve, verify: how we monitor human rights and current events in Afghanistan
Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan’s media landscape has changed significantly. Journalists in the country have been closely monitored by the de facto authorities, meaning reporting on human rights issues has become more challenging and dangerous. Economic constraints have led to job losses in the sector and some news outlets closing down altogether. According to estimates, about one-third of journalists have left the country since the takeover, and several Afghan media outlets are now publishing from abroad. There are frequent reports of activists, journalists and protesters being detained by the Taliban.
These factors combined have led to a dramatic shift in Afghanistan’s information environment – the space in which information is produced and consumed. While local populations are left with limited independent sources of information, international organisations attempting to monitor the situation from afar have also faced challenges accessing reliable and up-to-date information on the country. Social media has proven essential for disseminating content and news, but misinformation is widespread, with footage and images often shared out of context, or old content repurposed.
Seeking to help address some of these issues, the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) established Afghan Witness (AW) in October 2021 to collect, preserve and verify information on human rights and current events in Afghanistan. The project’s main goal is to provide a reliable source of information for international organisations, policymakers, the media, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and to highlight the reality of life for Afghans living in the country.
The Afghan Witness Map
Information verified by the team has recently been brought to life in the form of the AW map, which the project launched in May 2023. Built in partnership with US-based non-profit C4ADS, the open source, interactive map documents evidence of human rights issues and current events in Afghanistan verified by the project since the Taliban’s takeover – revealing the extent of abuses, security incidents, protest movements and more. However, it’s important to remember that verified data alone provides only a snapshot of the situation and data recorded on the map is likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights abuses in Afghanistan.
Figure: Screenshot of the Afghan Witness Map. Available at: https://www.afghanwitness.org/
This article will introduce AW’s workflow and methodology and will explore some of the key features of the map, to illustrate how journalists, organisations and the public can use this verified database of media to support their research, analysis and reporting on Afghanistan.
The processes behind AW’s methodology have been developed and replicated across CIR’s other projects, including Eyes on Russia and Myanmar Witness. CIR’s methodology has been guided by best practices in the open source field and has been reviewed by leading practitioners.
Our workflow can be broken down into the following six steps:
Every day, AW monitors social media and digital platforms to collect data on human rights issues and current events in Afghanistan. This data is commonly referred to as user-generated content (UGC) – mainly images and videos – and is collected from open source social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram. To source relevant data, researchers conduct a combination of keyword, date-based and hashtag searches. They also closely monitor various accounts known to generate high levels of relevant content, such as Afghan news outlets or journalists.
Researchers come across a huge volume of content daily, often accompanied by claims of human rights abuses. Before an image or video can enter the AW database or a claim can be investigated further, analysts must check whether the content is old or new. A quick reverse image search flags up old images or videos that have been shared out-of-context or framed inaccurately. This is an initial check on veracity; content that appears to be new – or has not been recorded previously – will be analysed and investigated further at a later stage in the process.
While the sharing of old footage is not always malicious, false claims can spread rapidly. Debunking such content is not only a crucial step in the verification process but is also part of AW’s wider initiative of monitoring Afghanistan’s information environment and promoting awareness of how to identify mis and disinformation.
Figure: Example of an old video shared out-of-context, which circulated after clashes on the Afghanistan-Iran border in May 2023.
Any data that enters the AW database is archived upon entry by an auto-archiver (version of: https://github.com/bellingcat/auto-archiver). This collects the related media (photos, videos, audio), source code, and a screenshot of the original source and stores it on a secure server. The auto-archiver also gives each piece of data an autogenerated hash value (SHA3-512) using a hash algorithm, which is then publicly timestamped on Twitter. Should the data be tampered with, this would be visible in changes to the unique value string originally assigned to the data. For example, if an archived video is edited, the hash value would be different to the original value assigned to the footage when it entered the database.
Analysis and verification
Once initial steps to collect and preserve the data have been taken, analysts will examine the content for additional clues that can shed light on what is happening, why, and who is involved. Analysts use open source techniques to verify as many details as possible. When AW describes a piece of content as “verified”, it means that investigators have been able to confirm, with a high degree of confidence, the location and date of a piece of footage or a photograph. Occasionally, analysts are able to verify other details, such as perpetrators or victims, but this isn’t always possible.
If an image or video is taken outdoors, and there are buildings, landmarks, or geographical clues visible in the frame, these can be matched with satellite imagery, Google Street View, or other related media. This process is known as geolocation and allows analysts to pinpoint the coordinates of where a photograph or video was captured.
Figure: Example of geolocation. Analysts matched features visible in a video shared by Tolo News on Twitter with satellite imagery after an ISKP-claimed attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh province, in March 2023. [36.718402, 67.104815]
In some cases, chronolocation can be used to determine when the photograph or video was taken, though this process isn’t always feasible as it requires footage to be captured during daylight hours and a shadow cast to be visible. Other methods, such as conducting a reverse image search, analysing the content’s metadata, or identifying clues from buildings or other features in the frame may also hint at when the photo or video was taken.
Small details that may seem insignificant at first glance can reveal crucial details upon closer analysis, for example, clothing or insignia, dialogue, accents or dialect, and even facial expressions and tone of voice. During the verification process, analysts will triangulate their findings against other sources such as news reports or information from sources on the ground. AW treats all content the same way, regardless of whether it was shared by an established news outlet or a social media account with only a handful of followers. What is important is that the information can be verified, or – equally critical – debunked.
However, verification of a claim also relies on the availability of photographic or visual evidence. In some cases, it is possible to thread together several pieces of footage, filmed from various angles, to reconstruct an incident. This is precisely what AW did in an investigation into evidence of summary executions in the Panjshir Valley in October 2022, when we were able to conclusively link one group of Taliban fighters to the execution of ten men in the Dara District area. In other cases, visual evidence may be limited, meaning analysts can determine some details, but not others.
Figure: An investigation into extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, published by AW in October 2022.
The review process
After content has been analysed, it is reviewed by a senior investigator to ensure information is as accurate and reliable as possible. Data is also reviewed for privacy and safety to mitigate the risk of sharing footage that reveals identifying details of individuals, such as their personal details or location. A privacy tagging system is used to identify any footage that might compromise the privacy, security or safety of individuals, and footage flagged with a privacy tag will be redacted in the online map and any subsequent publications.
Figure: Screenshot of the AW database. Some columns have been redacted for privacy reasons. Please note, the above image depicts key columns, not the entire database.
While viewing graphic footage or images is a necessary part of the verification process, CIR is focused on ensuring there are several measures in place to regulate the risks associated with viewing traumatic content. When content is entered into the database, it is given a graphic content level category based on a ranking of one to five. This allows reviewers, investigators and those viewing the footage to prepare themselves for graphic imagery. Similar features can also be found on the AW map – a graphic content level is given to each piece of data, and any graphic imagery is removed from the preview box. The original source of the footage or image is still available to click on, but viewers get a chance to prepare themselves before viewing the content or can choose not to click the link.
Figure: Graphic content level categories used in the AW database, from 1 (none) to 5 (very severe)
Uploading to the Afghan Witness Map
Once data has been verified and reviewed, it can then be uploaded to the AW map. The map is regularly updated with new data. However, cases that feature privacy concerns will be uploaded without the footage, or in some cases, will have a delayed upload of several months.
It is worth noting that while data displayed in the map has been verified to confirm that the report/claim is consistent with the associated image or video, this does not mean all elements of the content are verifiable. For example, AW may verify a video showing evidence of an explosion in Kabul but may be unable to confirm how many people were killed, or how the incident unfolded.
Using the Afghan Witness Map
The AW map enables audiences around the world to interact with the project’s database of verified information on human rights and current events in Afghanistan. Its design and functionality have been based on CIR’s Eyes on Russia map, also built by C4ADS. The map is designed to make interaction with the data as simple as possible: data can be filtered by category, actor, or victim/target, a date range can be entered to narrow the search, and the search box can be used to type in keywords, such as a location. These search functions can be applied together or on their own.
Figure: Screenshot of AW map and filters; narrow your search by using the side panel to type in keywords, and filter data using the various tabs.
Each data point represents a verified piece of content. Hovering your cursor over a pin will display a brief description of the data’s characteristics, while clicking a pin will display a preview box of the entry’s details, such as the coordinates, and a link to the source.
Figure: Screenshot of the AW map and data; click on a data point to view the source.
At the bottom of the map, the timeline function can be used to assess how the data changes over time. Moving the brackets will enable you to adjust the period, while pressing ‘play’ creates a timelapse of the emergence of the pins. The ‘Draw on Map’ tool allows you to mark out specific areas on the map and search for events that occurred within those parameters. You can also increase or decrease the magnification of the map and search for only events within the map frame.
Figure: Overview of the AW map’s key features.
Reports, investigations, and media coverage
Our hope is that the AW map will become a launchpad for further investigations and analysis on Afghanistan, while allowing the public to visualise the extent of abuses, security incidents and protest movements.
Communicating our findings to audiences around the world is important – journalists can corroborate our data with vital on-the-ground testimony and can use our open source investigations to tell stories. Responsible, collaborative reporting can help illustrate the impact of the issues and incidents we monitor daily, while also promoting open source verification techniques as a crucial journalistic toolkit in the digital age.
Some examples of media coverage and collaborations can be found here:
A note on data that cannot be verified by Afghan Witness
AW comes across a high volume of claims on a daily basis. Content that can be verified is uploaded onto the map as a new data point. Many claims, however, are not verifiable, and therefore, do not make it onto the map. This does not necessarily mean they are not true, but that there is simply limited evidence available. There are several reasons for this: self-censorship and fear of reprisal are widespread, local journalists report limited access to the scene of security incidents, and in many rural areas of Afghanistan especially, access to the internet – or a stable connection – is scarce, thus limiting the amount of visual evidence surfacing on social media or via news outlets.
AW still archives unverified claims and takes them into consideration when analysing the broader human rights situation in Afghanistan. We record two types of unverified claims: footage of incidents that cannot be verified, as well as text-based claims collected from social media. Some of our unverified data is mentioned in our reports or is shared across our social channels but is always labelled by AW as unverified. As mentioned previously, verified data alone is likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights abuses in Afghanistan. Where possible, verified, open source data should be used in conjunction with the work of journalists and organisations on the ground, to increase accessibility to reliable information and strengthen accountability mechanisms.
Figure: An interactive map to monitor the Taliban’s announcements of public punishments - an example of data that is collected by AW, but which analysts are not always able to verify.
While open source and verification techniques are at the core of AW’s and CIR’s work, it is also important for us to remember the individuals behind each data point on our map. As well as the reports available on our website, you can also find a selection of stories based on interviews with individuals living inside Afghanistan or from the Afghan diaspora. These human stories are an attempt to support our open source work with experiences and testimonies from those on the ground. We believe these stories can shed light on issues and areas where open source may be limited, and, when combined with our open source investigations, can help raise awareness of the reality of everyday life for Afghans.