Determining whether a scene actually occurred where a social media user claimed to have done so, also known as geolocation, has become an important part of social media post verification. In this article, we take a look at some essential geolocation tools and walk you through some case studies from the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
The main tools
It might sound simple, but some of the best tools for pinpointing where a photo or video was taken come from Google.
Google Maps and Google Street View: Google lets you see what a road looks like, allowing you to compare it to what you see in a photo or video.
After a coup took place in the African nation of Guinea in September 2021, many people circulated this video showing American soldiers, claiming it offered evidence that the United States had participated in the coup.
In the video, you can see a very distinct looking building and an electric antenna.
An eyewitness told our team that the scene took place in the Bambeto neighborhood. We used Google Street View to browse the streets of this neighborhood and found the exact location here.
The maps also contain another hidden treasure. Blue dots indicate geolocated photos taken by ordinary people and uploaded. By clicking on these images, you can also see a 360 degree view of the area. This can also help you check where an image was taken or, indeed, if the area has changed since the image was taken.
Sometimes, Google Street View and these 360 degree images can also be used to date an image. For example, Google Street View keeps a timeline where you can look at images taken in the same location at different times.
Then, once you’ve geolocated an image, you can use the history to see how the area has evolved over the years. You can use these clues to determine when an image was taken.
Google Earth and Google Earth Pro: Using these tools, you can see amateur photos that have been geolocated and get good satellite views, sometimes in 3D.
You can go even further with the latest version of Google Earth Pro available for download. You can see satellite images of a place recorded at different times (thanks to one of the icons above: the clock face and the green arrow). Using this tool, you can also mark certain locations on the map (using the yellow dot icon).
For example, in May 2022, when tensions skyrocketed between NATO members and Russia, a video began circulating online that some claimed showed Finnish tank transport across the Russian border. A building with a red chimney could be seen next to the cisterns.
By looking at Google Earth Pro, you can see which way the train was traveling, which turns out to be far from the Russian border.
Google isn’t the only search engine with mapping tools. Sometimes, by looking at the map functions of search engines like Yandex and Bing, you can get some additional information that may accompany what you see on Google.
There are other tools too. Wikimapia, for example, has filters to find certain locations. For example, if a video was shot in front of a hospital in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, you can apply the “hospital, clinic” filter to the map to see a selection of these places.
Geolocate a person using Twitter
you can use Tweet Deck to determine where certain tweets have been posted.
For example, if you want to watch tweets posted within a 50-kilometer radius of Tunis, simply type “Tunis” in Google Maps, then right-click on the map. From there, you can select “More information on this site”, which will allow you to get a geolocation code for Tunis (this should appear at the bottom of the page):
Then, on TweetDeck, use the keywords “geocode: 36.807515,10.179146,50km” in the left column (without spaces):
The results show all tweets posted by people who have geolocation enabled and who tweeted within a radius of 50 kilometers from Tunis.
Some tools like the Map of a Million Tweets allow you to see all the locations that people have tweeted in the past 24 hours. You can also see all tweets posted in the last five minutes using the “Time Filter” tool.
So … why is geolocation important?
Determining where an image was taken or a tweet was posted might seem like an activity only for the most avid Internet investigators, who have hours to look for clues. But, in many cases, determining where a video was shot can have a real impact, especially when it comes to human rights violations or damage to the environment.
For example, in January 2022 our team investigated extrajudicial killings in Nia Ouro, a town in Mali’s Mopti region. We were able to verify where the videos of the massacre were shot using satellite imagery. In turn, we were able to verify the claims made by eyewitnesses that it was the Malian army that carried out the killings.
There are a few other tools that allow you to go even further with geolocation. The Flightradar24 website offers real-time information on commercial and private aircraft flights using information from surveillance systems around the world.
The MarineTraffic website is a collaborative project that allows viewers to follow maritime traffic around the world in real time. Using the information on the site, the FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to investigate overfishing carried out by Chinese vessels in different locations.
Sometimes, geolocation of an image can be a collaborative effort. This is the nature of the OSINT community (which stands for “open source intelligence”), which brings together social media users to pool their knowledge and solve difficult cases.
If you want to hone your geolocation skills, you can follow the Twitter account @quiz timewhich often posts challenges, inviting followers to try and geolocate the photos or videos they post.