Alejandro Alvarez

Let's Verify: Bridge crossing in Venezuela

Alejandro Alvarez

Every time news breaks there's bound to be a flood of misinformation as people reflexively tweet unsourced and unverified images. As a journalist who lives on Twitter, I want to make sure what I'm sharing is really new and accurate. I do that by using publicly available imagery and info to verify what I find.

Let's run through that process with a tweet I saw this morning. 

Before sharing those photos myself, I want to be sure they show what the tweet claims. @arabthomness probably didn't take these photos - his bio says he's based in Amsterdam, he seems to aggregate content from other sources a lot, and he hasn't tweeted anything else on Venezuela recently. For all we know they could actually be years old and taken on the other side of the world. So I'll start off by verifying they were actually taken in Venezuela. 

There's a few important clues I can get by looking closely at those three images. I want to find a border crossing between Venezuela and Colombia that:

  • Is a straight, probably multi-lane bridge (A)
  • AND has a few streetlights/poles but no suspension arches or towers, (B)
  • AND is on a river, (C)
  • AND is in a mountainous region. (D)

I can also get even more specific evidence by looking at one of the other images, showing one end of the bridge with:

  • A tall, rectangular metal structure that looks like the back of a big billboard, (E)
  • A horizontal billboard, (F)
  • Trees on either side of the road (G)

So I know I want a region that's on the border, is mountainous, has rivers, and has a major roadway running into the border. Through a few Google searches for Venezuela's geographyroadways, and border checkpoints, it's pretty clear there's only one area that meets all of those criteria: a small region in the country's northwest centered roughly around the city of San Cristobal

Now that I've got a rough idea of where this bridge might be, it's time to move in closer. With publicly available high-resolution satellite imagery and Google Street View, I can start zeroing in on the more specific details we've noticed in those photos.

Using Google Maps, I can see there are three border crossings in the region I'm interested in. Let's take a closer look through Street View:

  • A is a bridge crossing in Puerto Santander. It's got a metal arch structure which the bridge we're looking for doesn't, so I can immediately cross that one off.
  • B is a highway bridge near San Antonio del Tachira. It doesn't have any arches or towers and has some familiar objects in the backdrop - I'll save this one for a closer look.
  • C is another arched bridge near Arauquita. I'll eliminate this one too.

Let's get a better look at B through Street View:

...and let's compare what we're seeing in Street View to one of our photos:

We've got a match!!!

I now know this photo was taken at the Puente Internacional Simon Bolivar along the Venezuela-Colombia border.  The only discrepancy is the ad on the billboard being different, but given that the Street View image is dated in 2014, it's pretty safe to assume it was swapped in the two years since.

But when was it taken?

Dating these particular images is a little more difficult than finding where they were shot. Since I don't know the original source of this image, and there isn't anything in the images themselves with a date or time, I'll have to settle for a certain degree of conjecture. Still, there's some sleuthing I can pull off to bring up my confidence that this wasn't taken at some unrelated mass gathering in the same place ages ago.

There's one useful tool I can use right off the bat to see if these photos are old. Using Google's reverse image search, I get no matches for any of our three images - meaning there's a good chance they haven't made the rounds on the web before. Still, I'll want to investigate a little more just to be sure.

You'd think a huge number of people trying to cross a border for food and water is newsworthy, so there's bound to be somebody reporting on it. A few Google searches are in order here. 

As it turns out, just a search for "Venezuela" brings up hits on a rush across the border for supplies from widely recognized reputable sources like the Chicago Tribune and the BBC.

The Tribune's article is about the situation in San Antonio del Tachira - the same Venezuelan border town we concluded our photos were from. It even includes a photo that pretty closely matches ours, with similar weather conditions and even the same white tent in the middle of the bridge.

Since Venezuela hasn't experienced any similar crises since digital cameras came around, I can now assume beyond all reasonable doubt that these photos are recent and show what the tweet claims they do. Verified!