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App seeks to halt spread of fake photos on social media

CAIRO — In a grisly set of photos zipping around Twitter this week, a group of men dressed in Egyptian military uniforms circle around two blood-soaked civilians, kicking them as they attempt to crawl away.

As the hashtag accusations escalated from #torture to #genocide, Egyptian media outlets argued over the photos’ authenticity. Some declared them fake, pointing out that a few of the “soldiers” pictured are wearing flip-flops. Others argued that the photos were taken within the soldiers’ own garrison, where there is nothing odd about wearing sandals.

Bahaa Hashem, a 24-year-old entrepreneur living in Cairo, would like to put an end to such quarrels.

He and two longtime friends, Zeyad Salloum and Belal Eid, both 24, have developed a smartphone app that identifies where and when a photo was taken.

The app, called Lens 42, is one of a number of new ventures launched to help halt the spread of false information on social media — a problem that’s particularly pressing now that 30 percent of U.S. adults report consuming news on Facebook. Increasingly, research shows, people are distinguishing less and less between mainstream and alternative sources of news and information.

Many companies, like Storyful, Emergent and Grasswire, attempt to debunk or verify stories after they’ve gone viral using a mixture of Reddit-style up-voting, computer algorithms and old-fashioned journalism. Lens 42, however, appeals to those who are posting the news, be they professional journalists or casual observers, to prevent rumors from spreading in the first place.

Photos taken with the Lens 42 app are automatically watermarked with date, time, and GPS location. The app saves photos anonymously on an electronic map, creating a database of verified pictures that unfolds in real time.

“Things can get taken out of context really fast on social media,” Hashem said. “If I take a picture and upload it to the Internet, five seconds later, millions of people may have seen it and shared it. Our app makes sure that stuff stays rooted in time and place.”

The friends came up with the idea for Lens 42 last summer after the military ousted former president Mohamed Morsi from office following massive public protests against the Muslim Brotherhood leader. As power changed hands, the men’s Facebook newsfeeds were clogged with photos of crowds lobbying against the coup and children who had been killed by the Egyptian military.

At least, that’s what the captions claimed.

Al Jazeera’s Gregg Calstrom later investigated the origins of one popular photo allegedly showing 120,000 people protesting in Alexandria July 2013. It was actually taken in Mansoura in November 2012. His first clue? Protesters were dressed in sweaters and jackets. Similarly, he found, social media users were sharing photos of death and carnage from the Syrian civil war as if they were taken in Egypt.

“There was this influx of conflicting information,” said Salloum, the company’s chief executive officer. “We didn’t know who to trust. We just felt lost.”

The mass media wasn’t much help sorting things out, he said.

In the instability following the 2011 revolution, state and private news organizations altered their news coverage to support whomever was in power, undergoing what the watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders dubbed a “Brotherization” when Morsi had the helm and a “Sisification” when President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took over. Since Morsi’s overthrow, 17 of the country’s state and privately owned daily newspapers have pledged not to “doubt state institutions” or “insult” the army, police or judiciary in a way that would “reflect negatively” on their performance. The state has openly prosecuted and jailed journalists who challenge the official narrative.

“Every news agency is biased in its own way,” Hashem said. “Unless you are there at the scene, you can’t be 100 percent sure what happened.”

Wavering faith in mass media is hardly an Egyptian phenomenon. Americans’ confidence in the accuracy of news reporting hit an all-time low in September, according to Gallup, with just 40 percent of adults reporting they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the mainstream media.

As more and more newsrooms turn to citizen photographers to break the news, fake and unverified content is snaking its way from social media channels onto mainstream airways. Mainstream media outlets, for example, have shared false and misattributed photos from Israel’s 50-day war with Palestine, Hurricane Sandy, and the death of Osama bin Laden.

Using a service like Lens 42 lends credibility to citizen journalists, Hashem said, and makes it easy for professional journalists to find verified photos taken at the scene of a big event. The team is currently working with journalists at organizations like the BBC to pilot the app.

“People used to say, ‘the camera can’t lie,’ ” he said. “We want to get back to the basics.”

Elizabeth Stuart is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. She studied journalism at Columbia University. Find her on Twitter @elizmstuart.