New Delhi District Magistrate Sanjay Kumar told the Delhi government in a report submitted last week that three of the seven video clips of alleged ‘anti-national’ sloganeering in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on February 9 were “doctored”. While visual forgery is as old as photography itself, the digital revolution, accompanied by the ubiquity of cellphones, has resulted in an explosion of manipulated videos.
Some of the best known of recent cases would be the ISIS video of the alleged beheading of journalist James Foley, who was probably murdered off-camera; Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s campaign video of rival Marco Rubio apparently saying the Bible had “not many answers”, when Rubio had in fact said the Bible had “all the answers”; and the ‘Golden Eagle Snatches Kid’ hoax that got over 40 million hits on YouTube.
A doctored or tampered video is one in which the actual visual or sound captured by a camera is manipulated to project an altered reality. This is done with reasons as varied as the minds behind them: to awe, entertain, shock, scare and often, malign.
Given the advanced technology available today, the scope and possibilities of visual creation are huge. A video can be made to lie through techniques ranging from the amateur to the extremely sophisticated — and its ability to appear authentic depends largely on that. Most fake videos, though, are made by dabblers with no special training and using basic editing tools — so it isn’t difficult for the intelligent layman to call them out.
So how can you tell a video is — or may be — fake?
* Most are of low quality, and shot in insufficient light. Thousands of YouTube videos of “UFO sightings” are dark and grainy, and it is difficult to tell what they are showing.
* Videos that defy logic and the laws of nature should surely be suspected. Many videos show fantastic activities or unbelievable phenomena, with some pretending to be cool tricks. A video showing NBA superstar Kobe Bryant making a clean jump over a speeding Aston Martin went viral in 2008. It was shot in an amateur style to make it believable, but was later reported to be a choreographed commercial for a brand of shoes.
* Watching a suspect video frame-by-frame could give it away. The eagle snatching the child video, if seen slowly, shows the child suspended in air even after the eagle is seen having let go. The child only falls after a lag.
* In cases where the audio is manipulated, a frame-by-frame viewing could show the lips being out of sync with the words being uttered.
* Creators of some fake videos add an unnatural shake to it. This is needed to make up for the fact that a lot of graphically altered videos are usually shot on a tripod to ensure surroundings remain the same. However, an overkill might appear as a shake at identical intervals. Sometimes, shakes are also intended to distract.
* Research, including cross-checking with reports of credible provenance, may help verify claims made in a video. A second aspect of research could be to look for separate elements that might have been possibly put together to create a composite video that presents a completely different picture.
* Like in most other aspects of life, it is always smart to look for the intention. If a video clearly tarnishes someone’s image, or even builds it up to an unusual degree, it could likely be presenting an exaggerated or forged version of events. Indeed, while videos, including stings, have exposed much corruption in recent years, many of them have also turned out to be doctored.
So, how does this layman’s guide apply to the JNU videos? Let’s use two examples: one showed by a TV channel that became the basis for JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest; the other in which Kanhaiya is “heard” calling for freedom for Kashmir.
The first is an unclear, low-quality video with extremely poor lighting which was shown with the specific intention of showcasing “objectionable” behaviour. That checks the first three boxes to suspect a video already.
Then, when the video is slowed down, one does not hear the alleged “Pakistan zindabad” slogan, even though the blurb on the screen says so. Instead, it sounds more like “Bharatiya court zindabad”. A producer with Zee News, the channel that showed the clip, quit last month saying the video was grainy and inaudible, but the blurb had still been “written in it to guide our viewers on what we felt was being chanted”.
Zee News has stood by its story. But even if the disagreement is seen as the channel’s word against its former employee’s, it would appear that the video is an inconclusive piece of evidence if one were to try to establish that the alleged slogans were indeed raised.
Again, the video is that of a crowd, with perhaps as many people in front of the camera as there are around and behind it — including many who cannot be seen, but only heard. There is no way one can attribute a specific voice to any person or persons in what was clearly a melee of slogans. Who said what in that babble is uncertain.
The second video manipulates the audio — taking visuals from one clip and the audio from another, and editing to sync the word azaadi in both. This is a pretty rudimentary trick, and if one were to slow down the video, it would be clear that the lips of the speaker do not accurately sync with the words at places. Research here would also have thrown up the presence of the two separate videos.
How does a professional diagnose a fake?
A forensic analysis establishes if a video is doctored. Specialised video software can reveal detailed metadata stored in each video file, such as the device used to shoot it, the date of creation, the size and author.
Software can catch violations of the laws of physics. For example, both the eagle and child in the eagle-snatching-child video ought to cast shadows in the correct proportion. This video was produced by Canadian animation students who modelled both the eagle and the child, and inserted them into video footage. There are other examples: a blast in a kitchen must, for example, have the same impact on all objects, not just on the actors, etc.
To be sure, a lot of fake videos are produced with the intention to entertain, and sometimes even announce themselves as fakes. But there are others that misuse technology and skills to cause harm or to malign. The makers of these videos exploit the fact that many viewers are gullible — or ignorant of the possibility of fraud. At best this is unethical, at worst — especially if it leads to serious ramifications including defamation and physical harm — criminal.