| Magazine Feature |

Verify, Then Trust  

         Forensics expert David Notowitz zeroes in on lies and disinformation

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Personal archives

During these days of so many agenda-driven fake news reports coming out of Gaza and Southern Lebanon, it’s more important than ever to ascertain that the video you’re watching isn’t some doctored-up Hamas-sponsored clip. That’s why David Notowitz, a nationally recognized audio and video forensics expert, is determined to help you fight the lies and spot the misinformation before you start believing it yourself


IN mid-December, a video allegedly showing Israel Defense Forces soldiers running over civilians at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Gaza blew up online. One headline read, “Bulldozed & Buried Alive: Israel Army Slammed for Deadly Raids at Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital,” while Al Jazeera put out a piece called, “People ‘buried alive’ outside Gaza hospital during Israeli raid.”

The only problem with the story? It was completely false. A fact-check by Reuters found that the alleged video was actually from Egypt in 2013, when authorities used a bulldozer to disperse a Cairo sit-in by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

The bulldozing video is just one example of the many false videos, images, and news reports that have been widely spread in the war of information happening online since the war against Hamas started on the ground.

Since October 7, David Notowitz, an audio and video forensics expert and founder of the Los Angeles-based National Center for Audio and Video Forensics, has made it a point to fight the misinformation and educate people on how to spot AI images, deepfake videos, and false news reports. He appeared on Fox News to discuss the Gaza hospital bombing headlines, telling the audience, “The first thing to think about when you’re looking at videos, stills, images, documents, anything coming in, any news form, is: Do you trust the source? Is this source proven to be someone that you can generally trust over the long term? I think that’s going to be the bottom line now.”

Notowitz has also written op-eds for publications where he talks about spotting misinformation and the importance of sharing these conclusions with family members, friends, and members of the larger Jewish community.

“Anybody with a computer can post whatever they want and act with authority online,” he says. “Since October 7, there has been an unrelenting campaign against Israel. There are nefarious and coordinated efforts to undermine Israel’s positive image with a barrage of fake videos, false headlines, AI images, and misrepresented footage.”

As an audio and video forensics expert, Notowitz spends much of his workday analyzing footage and evidence to bring truth to light, both for clients facing charges and attorneys who need assistance with cases. Notowitz, who was actually in Israel this Yom Tov and feels deeply connected to the Jewish homeland, says the proliferation of misinformation in this war is deeply disturbing to him on a personal and professional level.

“In a world drowning in misinformation, we must seek out the truth,” Notowitz says. “We need to question the information presented to us and be skeptical about what we see.”

Caught in the Middle

Notowitz grew up in Northern California in a Conservative Jewish household, with parents who were proud Jews and ardent supporters of Israel — and that had a profound impact on him. Still, growing up, he was one of only a handful of Jews in his public school, and it wasn’t until he attended University of California, Santa Cruz that Notowitz was exposed to many Jews his age.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It opened my eyes. I wanted to explore my Jewishness more.”

Notowitz was majoring in filmmaking, with dreams of becoming a famous documentarian. As a child, he had driven all around the United States with his parents in their motor home, and he hoped to spend his career traveling the world and producing movies.

“Now that I’d met so many other Jews, I thought it’d be really interesting to combine my interests in Judaism and film,” he says. “I wanted to go to Jewish communities and learn what it means to be Jewish.”

Shortly after graduating college, Notowitz started working in the industry. The first documentary he was involved with was called The Last Klezmer, featuring Holocaust survivor Leopold Kozlowski, one of the few remaining klezmer experts in Eastern Europe.

The next film he worked on with the same director was Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years, which highlighted the once-thriving Jewish community in the Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains and the Holocaust survivors who still lived there.

Notowitz, who was 27 at the time, traveled with the director to shoot footage in the mountains, where he met members of the small but devoted Jewish community.

“I was interested in Jewish people and trying to understand them,” he says. “I wanted to find these remaining communities, to ask them questions and find out: Who are the Jewish people? What are my roots? Who am I?”

In Carpati, Notowitz found a group of Jewish farmers, Yiddish speakers who lived close to nature. They lived simply, milking cows, keeping chickens in their houses, and churning their own butter, and they were devoted to their Judaism.

“They’d all go to this little shul,” he remembers, and he admired their faith. “They had emunah, and they knew way more about Judaism than I did. They were praying and reading in Hebrew, which I couldn’t do.”

But Notowitz wondered if Judaism was a dying religion. The Jews he met in Europe were mostly elderly, so these communities would soon be gone.

“As Ze’ev, the main character of the documentary said, ‘In ten, 15 years, you’ll need a candle to find a Jew here.’”

At this point, Notowitz was living in Los Angeles and hoping to make it big in Hollywood. Though he loved filmmaking, he’d seen the dark side of this dog-eat-dog business firsthand, and he started to question the direction he was taking.

“I saw a lot of bad behavior in Hollywood, where people would yell at each other or just be horrible to one another,” he says. “I saw a director throw a chair at the technical director in the middle of a live newscast because he’d made an error and cut to black for one second. That was just one of the examples of many bad middot I witnessed.”

While the young filmmaker had always connected to the cultural side of Judaism — such as Israeli dancing and music — he didn’t know much about Torah Judaism or what involvement in the community would entail. But he knew he wanted more.

Notowitz heard about the Pacific Jewish Center, a synagogue on the Venice Beach boardwalk that was attracting irreligious young people and helping them connect to their Judaism with classes and Friday night dinner. When he saw a frum home that first Friday night — and soon after, others like it — he knew he was on the right path.

“I said, ‘I want a home and a family like this,’” he remembers.

Notowitz attended a lot of Pacific Jewish Center and Aish Los Angeles classes, noting that the role models there were so different from his film business colleagues.

“I saw how they would interact with people in difficult situations — like if a distressed homeless person came through the door, they reacted so beautifully, which was very powerful and not what I expected — and I saw how wonderfully they interacted with their wives, kids, and other people,” Notowitz remembers. “I didn’t expect rabbis to have such well-rounded lives, and I loved the brilliance of the rabbis’ discussions and their depth of knowledge.”

Still, even though Notowitz knew he wanted to become more observant, he held onto his dream to make it in Hollywood.

“I wanted that life, but I also wanted to be a filmmaker,” he says. “The productions would happen over Shabbos. I couldn’t tell a producer to move a shoot. I was going back and forth in my mind, and I kept pushing the Orthodox stuff aside.”

Yet Notowitz increasingly felt the pull to be in synagogue on Shabbos instead of on a film set, and as he slowly took on more, his connection to Judaism and Torah grew.

One landmark week, Notowitz was asked to be a cameraman on a shoot with actor Jimmy Smits, a big television star in the 80s.

The only problem? Filming was on Saturday.

“It was the biggest thing I’d ever been offered,” Notowitz says. “I was so torn.”

While Notowitz wanted to say yes, something was stopping him.

“I asked the guy in charge if he could change the day of the shoot,” he says. “He said, ‘No, we already changed it from Rosh Hashanah.’ I told him I couldn’t do it. The guy hung up on me, and that was it.”

There and then, Notowitz solidified his decision that he was no longer going to work on Shabbos. That prompted his journey into a different type of filmmaking.


Seeing Is Not Believing

Now a Torah-observant Jew, Notowitz wanted to carve out a career that would allow him to work in film but also support his wife, whom he’d married in 1997, and their family — including covering his children’s Orthodox day school tuition. He started making wedding videos for couples, as well as professional videos for local cities, corporate clients, and businesses.

One day in 2001, Notowitz received a call from a close friend who was a criminal law attorney.

“I need your help on a case,” his friend said. He wanted Notowitz to analyze VHS (videotape) footage, prepare it for court, and then testify about what he found on the tape.

As a cameraman and video editor, Notowitz had been working hands-on with film, audio, and video projects for years; he knew details of these technologies and how to study and manipulate them.

“That’s a strong foundation that most people don’t have today,” he says.

Notowitz spent several weeks inspecting and dissecting the video his friend sent.

“I was nervous about testifying,” he remembers of his first day in court. “The client was facing massive repercussions for his career and personal life.”

After Notowitz presented the evidence to the court, the judge asked, “How do I know you didn’t manipulate the video to support your client?” referring to Notowitz’s friend, the defense attorney.

“I said, ‘Because I don’t lie,’” Notowitz says. “Afterward, in the hallway, my friend said that was exactly the right answer to reassure the judge that I didn’t fake evidence to help him.”

Another few years passed, and Notowitz again heard from his attorney friend who needed help with a high-profile, national case.

In time, Notowitz started to develop a reputation as an expert in video analysis, and other attorneys started calling. With that came the dawning realization that there was potential here.

“This was something I could actually do for a living,” Notowitz says, and he transitioned from wedding and corporate videos to an audio and video forensic expert.

In 2007, Notowitz opened the National Center for Audio & Video Forensics. His workday generally consists of a variety of federal, state, civil, criminal, and family law cases. He now works out of his new office in Hollywood, Florida (the Notowitzes moved during the pandemic), as well as the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles, where Notowitz still has several employees.

In one of his most high-profile cases, Notowitz worked with an internal investigation arm of the Minnesota government to get to the bottom of an event that made national headlines.

Back in the summer of 2018, Minneapolis cops allegedly shot an unarmed black man, Thurman Blevins, in the back. It was a widely covered incident, and news organizations ran inflammatory headlines. The community devolved into chaos, with angry protestors taking to the streets, blocking trains, and causing parts of the area to shut down.

“Every headline stoked distrust in law enforcement, and every detail of this case had to be scrutinized and clarified to the highest level of accuracy, without emotion or bias,” Notowitz says. Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which provides oversight to police-involved shootings across the state, reached out to him for assistance.

“I was eager to help the city get clarity,” he remembers.

Notowitz first manually stabilized the police’s bodycam footage of the incident. Footage was shaky because the policemen were running quickly, and the camera was bouncing up and down and side to side as they chased the suspect.

“The stabilization took time because it had to be done frame by frame,” he says. “The audio, which was fuzzy, needed to be dissected to distinguish gun shots and their timing.”

Once Notowitz dove into the footage, he could clearly show the truth: The suspect had been armed, and after a multi-block chase, officers demanded he drop his weapon. He didn’t, and instead he pulled it out to shoot them — which is when they fired. The suspect was shot in the back, but the stabilized video proved it occurred as he was turning around to aim his weapon.

“The release of these videos marked a turning point in Minneapolis,” Notowitz says. “Protests and disruptions in the city stopped immediately. Peace was restored. And the media stopped printing false headlines.”

Since he launched his company, Notowitz has worked on thousands of cases and investigations, ranging from helping a teacher defend himself against a student’s false allegations to proving that an estranged husband stole his wife’s jewelry and tried to cover up the crime by erasing surveillance footage.

In one instance — that of a car crash where traffic camera footage wasn’t strong enough — Notowitz and his team produced a digital 3D model duplicating the crash which showed the defendant was at fault, thereby ensuring a settlement for his client, who had been injured in the crash.

Another time, Notowitz’s client was accused of starting a fight with another man. Notowitz was provided a high-resolution video that showed his client fighting in a parking lot, but it wasn’t clear who started it or what was really going on.

“We magnified the footage and zoomed in so we could see what was actually happening,” he says, describing his team’s methodology and process. “It was an act of self-defense — he didn’t attack first. The charges were dropped, and my client didn’t go to jail.”

Even with all of today’s technological advancements, content forensics is still a relatively young field, and Notowitz finds that people facing him at depositions and in court automatically expect to be believed when they bring audio or video “proof.”

“I’ve seen experts on the other side spouting bold-faced lies, multiple times, but these so-called experts don’t expect me to scrutinize their work,” he says. “When I do, and we can prove them wrong, they’re shocked.”


Fake Frames

Today, AI-generated images, deepfakes, and manipulated videos are making the rounds online and distorting facts, especially when it comes to Israel’s war against Hamas. Many fictitious images have been coming out of Gaza, like one with a young Palestinian boy standing in rubble. The tell-tale sign that it was AI-generated? The little boy has six fingers.

Notowitz is intent on educating people about the difference between real and fake images and videos.

“We have seen the use of fake images created by AI to try and turn public opinion and sway the support for Israel,” Notowitz says. “These tactics work, and we need to combat them.”

According to Notowitz, AI-generated images often feature people with extra limbs and unnaturally placed body parts. He brings another example: The AI image of a father carrying his children out of the rubble, which was shared tens of thousands of times on social media. But if you know what to look for, you can see it is fake: the father’s arm, along with two of the boys’ feet, are clearly misshapen.

There’s also the issue of deepfakes — videos where people take a real clip and make it look like the subjects are saying and doing something they never did. One of the most famous examples of a deepfake that went viral was on the eve of the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in March of 2022, a video that showed Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy surrendering to Russia.

This is a relatively nascent industry, and corporations like Content Authenticity Initiative and Intel are developing products to help individuals and businesses verify content.

Meanwhile, Notowitz’s advice to combat the spread of misinformation is straightforward: “Make sure you verify videos, images, and information from reliable news sources instead of having an instant reaction and forwarding it to your family and friends on WhatsApp,” he says. “It’s good to wait 24 hours before sharing anything, just in case.”

In relation to the war with Hamas in particular, Notowitz exhorts that it’s crucial to fact-check images, videos, and statements, even if they come from pro-Israel sources. While some mainstream media that ran the Gaza hospital headline have proven themselves unreliable, there are trustworthy sources out there. Do your research, be skeptical, and if you don’t trust the news source for the image, video, or audio, then don’t trust the clip itself — and definitely don’t share it.

If you come across an image and the text describing it doesn’t seem correct, you can do a reverse image search. Recently, pro-Palestinian X (formerly Twitter) users shared images of rabbis and yeshivah bochurim dancing, saying they were celebrating the death of Palestinians, but it turned out the video was an old one from a simchah.

When it comes to deepfakes, where people replicate someone’s voice, program them to say anything, and then create a video of that person speaking to match the voice, there is a technique you can use to uncover the fake: analyzing metadata like timestamps and geolocation, which tell you where and when the image or clip was actually shot.

Bottom line, when you see something you want to share, first verify its veracity.

“Hold true to what you believe,” advises Notowitz, which essentially sums up the trajectory of his life.

Wise words from this former cameraman who walked away from the illusory glory of Hollywood to find genuine meaning, and utmost clarity.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 994)

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