How we discovered the truth about YouTube’s Syrian ‘hero boy’ video
is social media editor at BBC News. Twitter: @chrishams
It’s one minute and six seconds of shaky video footage, apparently documenting yet another moment of violent drama in the Syrian war.
The video, whose original posting on YouTube has now been removed, is titled “SYRIA! SYRIAN HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout” - in Arabic “Syrian hero boy”. It rapidly spread through social media, starting on Monday 10 November.
At first sight it contains many of the hallmarks we’ve come to expect in these visceral snapshots of the conflict: the grainy, washed-out picture; the roughly constructed buildings; the rubble and rubbish of war spread around.
The film starts with a man running, under fire, from a building on the far side of some kind of square, before vanishing out of the shot. The camera then pans left to show a boy, on the ground. He gets up. More shots ring out. Apparently hit, he stumbles, and falls to the ground. Next, as the now-familiar cries of “Allah Akbar!” (“God is great”) ring out, the boy seems to miraculously get to his feet, before vanishing behind a burned-out car; emerging a few seconds later, holding a girl by the hand. The pair run off, out of sight, as gunfire continues to echo around.
As news of the incredible video spread, many news organisations noticed and ran with it in online articles.
Here at the BBC we’re lucky to have a User-Generated Content Hub, the world’s first newsgathering operation of its kind. It has almost 10 years of experience in finding and verifying photographs and video captured by people unrelated to the newsroom that can help us with our journalism.
Alerted to the video on Tuesday morning, 11 November, duty UGC Hub producer Bernadette McCague consulted with expert colleagues in BBC Monitoring and elsewhere.
We have a well-worn checklist when we approach content like this, but there’s no scientific formula that can help us get to a definitive answer. Every video or picture is different. It takes a mix of technical know-how, experience and, often, instinct.
We normally want to speak to the person who filmed it - plainly not possible in this case, as it often isn’t with Syria video. Next we turn to the contents of the video. The visible terrain appeared legitimate, as were the words being spoken, in Syrian accents. Some kind of box or container visible through most of the footage has the words "hungry for freedom" spray-painted on it. A flag of the opposition Free Syrian Army is painted on a barrel lying nearby.
Even as we translated the Arabic heard on the video and looked for other clues, the producers working to verify it noted that on one of the most widely shared YouTube versions there were comments questioning whether it was real. Similar comments were seen in a discussion thread on Reddit. Although that’s not uncommon with Syrian video, as both sides engage in a fierce propaganda war, the volume seemed high - but that wasn’t conclusive in itself.
Ultimately, no-one internally could say for sure whether the video was real or not - which isn’t unusual with content like this. BBC News frequently runs video where we haven’t filmed it, or obtained it directly ourselves, and can’t vouch for the source. We signal this to audiences by saying we haven’t been able to ‘independently verify’ it.
But in this case there were enough doubts - especially over possible dubbing of the voices, and the moment the boy is ‘shot’ - for the UGC Hub to advise that the video shouldn’t run on BBC News outlets.
As the Syria ‘hero boy’ video racked up more than five million YouTube views over the following days, the raging debate about it was covered by the team behind BBC Trending, which reports on stories trending around the world.
Then, hours after their story went up, there was a stunning development, as Anne-Marie Tomchak of BBC Trending explains: “We discovered that the video was made by a group of Norwegian film-makers in Malta earlier this year.”
The aim was to generate a discussion about children in conflict zones.
Tomchak continues: “A lot of research and investigation went into standing up the claims made by film-makers about the time and location of the shoot. We examined film rushes showing behind-the-scenes footage and photographs of the crew on location. Social media sites were scoured to find what the production team were posting online at the time. And we contacted the Norwegian Film Institute who confirmed that they partly funded the film under the working title ‘Enough’.”
It tallied with information given by the film’s director and producer.
“We also spoke in great detail with the film-makers about their approach in making the film go viral before writing an article about it on the BBC website.”
In the aftermath, many questions were raised about the method used by the film-makers to draw attention to what is undoubtedly a worthy cause. There were outspoken attacks on the director, who was accused of being "reckless", "irresponsible" and "deceptive".
Certainly from our point of view, as our teams are daily watching and processing the most violent and distressing imagery from places like Syria, anything that adds to the reservoir of fakes, hoaxes and staged video isn’t helpful.
It’s also yet another salutary lesson for all news organisations about the need to keep a cool head and not run something ‘because it’s out there’. BBC News has previously had its fingers burned, and there’s always the risk it could happen again considering the volume of material we deal with. But this episode is a reminder of the imperative to verify such material and only run it if we’re confident it’s real.
In the words of my colleague Amira Galal of BBC Monitoring’s Middle East team: “The only thing certain in this scenario is that there’s nothing certain in Syria” - a sentiment that could apply to most user-generated content.