Determining whether a scene actually took place where a social media user said it did – also known as geolocation – has become a major part of verifying social media posts. In this article, we take a look at some essential geolocation tools and walk you through a few case studies from the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
The main tools
It might sound basic, but some of the best tools for locating where a photo or video was taken come from Google.
After a coup took place in the African nation of Guinea in September 2021, many people circulated this video showing American soldiers, claiming that 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 electrical antenna.
An eyewitness told our team that the scene took place in the Bambeto neighbourhood. We used Google Street View to scroll through the streets in this neighbourhood and discovered the exact location here.
The maps also contain another hidden treasure. The blue dots indicate geolocated photos taken by everyday people and uploaded. By clicking on these images, you can also see a 360-degree view of the area. This also can help you verify 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 maintains a history where you can look at images taken of the same location at different times.
So 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 establish the period when an image was taken.
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 moments in time (thanks to one of the icons above – the clockface and the green arrow.) Using this tool, you can also mark certain locations on the map (using the little yellow pin icon).
For example, in May 2022, when tensions had skyrocketed between the members of NATO and Russia, a video started circulating online that some said showed Finnish tanks being transported to the Russian border. Alongside the tanks, you could see a building with a red chimney.
By looking at Google Earth Pro, you can see which way the train was travelling – which turns out to be away 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 can go alongside with what you see on Google.
There are also other tools. Wikimapia, for example, has filters for finding certain locations. For example, if a video was filmed in front of a hospital in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, then you can apply the filter "hospital, clinic" to the map to see a selection of these locations.
Geolocate a person using Twitter
You can use TweetDeck to determine the location where certain tweets were posted.
For example— if you want to look through tweets posted within a 50-kilometre radius of Tunis, then just type "Tunis" into Google Maps, then right-click on the map. From there, you can select "More information about this site", which will allow you to get a geolocation code for Tunis (this should pop up at the bottom of the page):
Then, on TweetDeck, use the keywords "geocode:36.807515,10.179146,50km" in the left-hand column (without any spaces):
The results show all of the tweets posted by people who had their geolocation enabled and tweeted within a 50-kilometre radius of Tunis.
Some tools like the One Million Tweet Map allow you to see all of the locations where people have tweeted over the past 24 hours. It’s also possible to see all of the tweets posted in the last five minutes using the "Time Filter" tool.
So… why is geolocation important?
Determining the location where an image was taken or a tweet was posted might seem like an activity for only the most passionate internet sleuths, who have hours at their disposal to look for clues. But, in many cases, determining the location where a video was filmed can have a concrete impact, especially when you are talking about human rights violations or damage to the environment.
For example, in January 2022, our team investigated extrajudicial killings carried out in Nia Ouro, a town in the Mopti region in Mali. We were able to verify the location where videos of the massacre were filmed using satellite images. In turn, we were able to verify claims made by eyewitnesses that it was the Malian Army that had carried out the killings.
There are a few other tools that make it possible to go even further with geolocation. The website Internet Flightradar24 features information in real-time about the flights of both commercial and private planes by using information from surveillance systems across the globe.
The website MarineTraffic is a collaborative project that enables viewers to follow marine 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 several locations.
Sometimes, geolocating an image can be a collaborative effort. That’s the nature of the OSINT community (which stands for "open source intelligence"), which brings together social media users to pool their knowledge and solve tricky cases.
If you want to hone your geolocation skills, then you can follow the Twitter account @quiztime, which often posts challenges, calling on followers to try to geolocate photos or videos that they post.