Eyewitness images and networked verification in the war in Ukraine

Project: Research project

Project Details

Description (abstract)

The project focuses on eyewitness images captured by non-professional sources during the war in Ukraine. Such images provide crucial insights into the war as they document events that are off-limits to professional journalists. The project will study which actors wield influence by transforming eyewitness images into visual evidence and how they are incorporated into news. It will also produce a search tool for Telegram to help journalists verify and contextualise visual material from Ukraine.

Layman's description

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, like other recent wars, has generated vast amounts of photographs and videos, primarily from non-professional sources. Ukrainians have captured footage of the destruction of their homes and infrastructure, providing documentation of war crimes. Soldiers have taken to posting selfies in front of city limit signs as a way of showing that frontiers have shifted. Disinformation has also been disseminated through images, such as when footage from previous conflicts is altered to appear as evidence of aggression.

Such photographs and videos, known as eyewitness images (Mortensen 2014), are often of unknown provenance or fragmented. Yet they are crucial for our ability to know what happens in the war. Many reporters are in Ukraine, but there are not enough to cover all locations, and many crucial sites are often too dangerous to reach. Information from official sources of belligerent governments is selective and biased. Eyewitness images have hence become an important resource for disputing official accounts, especially when cross-examined with other public information and techniques such as geolocation.

Though indispensable for the news from Ukraine, the functioning of these civic intermediaries is poorly understood. The circulation of citizen-generated images expands the journalists’ “capacity to witness” (Zelizer 2007), but it also creates new dependencies with actors that are, despite their bottom-up nature, “not outside the discursive struggles that permeate war conflict” (Mast et al. 2015, p. 597). We know little about which civic intermediaries have power and influence, in terms of being necessary nodes in the images’ circulation or being able to shape the news agenda. This project will produce pioneering research into how online networks transform eyewitness images into visual evidence, and how they become embedded into news.

We will furthermore produce a functional prototype of a search tool for Telegram for journalists that will help them verify and contextualise visual material from Ukraine. While Telegram makes public content easily accessible on its platform, it lacks a comprehensive search functionality that is available on other social media platforms. This lack of searchability makes it difficult for journalists and other members of civil society to understand the origins and context of images and other information shared on Telegram. Our tool will address this issue by providing reverse image and video search capabilities. This will allow journalists to search for important eyewitness images and see a timeline of the channels in which the images were posted, along with accompanying text descriptions.
Effective start/end date01/04/202301/01/2025