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Fakegeo: How to Lie with Satellite Images

Do you know if this image is true? In the world of platforms, there is a new form of falsification – whether by images created virtually or even by lack of updates. How to train journalists to check this essential language?

At different historical moments, satellite images “wrote history with light”. Since the first photo of Earth where we could say “it's blue” in 1972, the world has become more of a world with “aerospace photography”.

There is a maxim in Cartography that says that “man is always manifested in geometric shapes”. This does not rule out satellite images, which are the greatest photo bricolages that mankind has ever known. The Google Earth virtual globe is a product possible thanks to the visual harmonization of hundreds of thousands of photos, at different times of the day (ideal light for satellite photos).

Journalism and Geoprocessing

Nowadays, Geoprocessing is the technique and science of producing and analyzing satellite images. This scientific sub-area of ​​Geosciences was present in Meteorological Journalism, from the 1980s onwards, and in Scientific Journalism, especially in the 1990s.

Satellite images are processed, selected and discarded. This is how a landscape feature is built. This process of “landscape statistics”, as defined by geographer Ricardo Castillo (Unicamp), crosses a historical period of strong popularization trends in rural and urban territories. Geoprocessing has been less and less the exclusive domain of cartographers and more and more of the interest of journalists.

In the last ten years the military term “geospatial”, or simply the prefix “geo”, has gained an intrinsic connotation of “innovation” for communicating events. One example is “geojournalism”, a branch of Data Journalism, a Brazilian movement created by an arrangement of independent journalists from São Paulo that has been adopted by different parts of the world, in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

The InfoAmazonia portal is one of the results of this movement of environmental journalists. With satellite images of long and short periods, the investigative reports are built guided by data from the region, either in the last 24 hours or in the last 24 years, to name two extremes of the approaches.

Fakegeo and fakenews

However, in addition to geojournalism, the popularization of computing resources also brings “fakegeos”. False information, generated with simple digital manipulation tools, has worried scientists. Engaged, researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tool for geospatial verification of deep fakes with the function of ensuring that an image is true, especially when this satellite photo is extracted from its context, that is, without latitude and longitude data to prove it the geographic fact represented.

Tacoma (USA)? No. It is a simulated image of a neighborhood in Beijing (China). (Source: University of Washington)

But after all, how can deep-sea journalism check the facts and fakes of satellite images? The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has listed a list of verified, publicly accessible and easily accessible image databases and some key instructions for accessing these websites.

At the front of the event

In 2021, another attack by Israeli troops on Palestine was highlighted in the international press, mainly because this time the press was a material target of the war. The Al Jazeera portal has produced a series of maps of Gaza in which they reveal as a “visual guide” the details of the territory at war with Israel.

Another real face of the conflict was the subject of a report on the BBC portal, which highlighted that the satellite images available for Google Earth in the Gaza area were blurry and not updated for day-to-day coverage of the army's attacks. to the headquarters of journalistic organizations in Palestine.

À esquerda, imagem de Gaza (Google Earth/ 2016); à direita, torre destruída (MAXAR/ 12 MAIO 2021)

It is concluded that it is necessary to train journalists in Brazil attentive to the possibilities that promote and detract from georeferencing, the policies of satellite image banks and the economy of the platforms that serve these photos of the Earth free of charge. Geopolitics cuts across all these themes. Currently, geopolitical knowledge is what defines, technologically, the limits of a journalistic organization or individual journalist, in their worldview and in their social practice.

Article by Antônio Heleno Caldas Laranjeira, published on the Outras Palavras website, available through the link

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