How to help journalists (and yourself) by preserving online materials

As I write, I'm preparing for a large, contentious pair of rallies in Portland, Oregon.

I'll be on the ground, some of you will be watching it online. You may see something that you wish to preserve, and pass on to journalists. But online materials have a habit of disappearing, especially if they contain incriminating or discrediting content.

Here's a tip sheet on how to preserve online materials with tools and very brief comments, in a way that helps us report on these events.

The first thing to say tis that these are tools for desktop/laptop users. Mobile is tricker, and not ideal for preserving content beyond simple screenshot (further discussion of those below). If all you can preserve is a mobile screenshot, it sure is better than nothing! But we would need to find other ways of authenticating that information. (Not because we suspect you, in particular, are fibbing, but because screenshots are easily faked, and this is the way journalism has to work).

Second thing to say is you should prioritize staying safe online: use a high quality VPN, use encrypted email, use an encrypted note-taking app like Standard Notes, use 2 factor authentication, use a password manager, use encrypted cloud storage, encrypt your hard drive.

To save time, follow the recommendations and go through the checklist at Think Privacy.

If you preserve something make notes - record the date and time, any relevant URLs, who produced the content, and how you found it.

For video, the best thing to use is the free, open source tool, youtube-dl, which will allow you to download videos from YouTube, Facebook, and tons of other sites. It's a command line tool but as this tutorial shows, it's very easy to use, and very powerful.

For convenience on Twitter, there is a browser extension called Twitter media downloader for Chrome (and other Chromium based browsers) ands Firefox.

Another browser extension called downthemall will download all of the files on a web page, including images and PDFs - you can specify which files to download.

We get a lot of screenshots, which is great. But screenshots will generally need further verification, because they're easily faked. A tool like FireShot will capture additional context ((time, date, url) that a cropped screenshot done with your systems native tool (print screen or shift+alt+4) will not.

Even better than screenshots are archives, whose underlying technology means that they would pretty much stand up in court. We'll still need to try to confirm anything you give us in other ways, but archiving content with dedicated services creates a record that is extremely compelling.

There's a one-click browser extension, The Archiver, that will immediately save what you're looking at to the two major archiving services - and the Wayback Machine.

Archives are the gold standard of proof for us. Just remember a few things:

  • Wayback will not preserve stuff from Twitter or Facebook - will.
  • They can show a video was published on YouTube (itself important) but you should also download the video itself, which may not be playable on an archive site
  • Remember to copy and record the URLs of the archived pages from the archive site, so you can find the material later.

Feel free to reach out to me, or another journalist, but try to remember that a big rally day is very busy, and we may not respond immediately. If what your seeing is an emergency or a danger to human safety or human life, contact law enforcement first.

If you've already got a reasonable safety setup, it shouldn't take more than several minutes to get set up.

Take good care out there.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

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