The ability of anyone with a phone or laptop to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in almost real time—and to believe what they’re seeing—comes to us thanks to the citizens operating what’s known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). This term refers to the lengthy process of verifying Ukrainian video and photographs by checking every detail, establishing their content, and all that work is openly visible for all.
It’s what Eliot Higgins did at his boring office job in the U.K. when the war was in Syria, but also on YouTube, where videos from phone cameras showcased a chaos that Higgins, with no training as a journalist, set out to decipher. His notes included serial numbers of munitions. He also made creative use of Google Maps and other online tools. Higgins, who blogs as Brown Moses built up a reputation for being an expert on dangerous wars that cannot be covered from ground. One of his discoveries was the exact location where ISIS terrorists killed James Foley, an American journalist. In 2014 Higgins used Kickstarter to found Bellingcat (the name refers to resourceful mice tying a bell to a cat), a nonprofit, online collective dedicated to “a new field, one that connects journalism and rights advocacy and crime investigation.” Three days after its launch, a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over the part of Ukraine held by Russian troops. Bellingcat proved the culprit was a Russian surface-to-air missile, by using largely the same array of tools—including Google Earth, the social media posts of Russian soldiers, and the passion of Eastern European drivers for posting dashcam videos—that hundreds of volunteer sleuths are now using to document the Russian invasion of Ukraine in granular detail.
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It’s an extraordinary turn of events—and a striking reversal of fortunes for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in the past deployed disinformation so effectively in concert with its military that NATO refers to “hybrid war.” In Ukraine, however, Russia has been outflanked. Its attempts to establish a pretext for invasion by circulating video evidence of purported “atrocities” by Ukraine were exposed as frauds within hours by Bellingcat, fellowOSINT volunteersPlease see the following: LegacyReporting tools that the open-source community has made available to news media outlets.
Higgins, who says “the response to disinformation is transparency,” spoke to TIME on March 8 from Leicester, England, about the extraordinary growth and, in Ukraine, the striking success, of a totally new form of reporting. “This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning.” he says.
TIME: What’s the difference between Syria and Syria now?
Eliot Higgins: The open-source side of it has kind of been fully integrated into the information systems that have appeared around the conflict—the traditional systems, like the media, but also the way accountability is being viewed, the way people understand what’s happening in the conflict. It took many years for Syria to reach this point. And by the time it did, most people didn’t really care about Syria anymore.
You can find this book here We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, there’s immense attention to the time-consuming detail involved in making an airtight case. It took you over a whole year to compile the report on the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 tragedy. In Ukraine however, speed appears to be a strength.
The way we’ve set up our process at the moment kind of allows us to do both. We’re doing collection of geolocation and archiving, because one of the lessons we’ve learned through the last decade is that this information might seem like it’s gonna be online forever, but it very often isn’t. So you need to grab as much as you can in the moment, preserve it, and make sure it’s searchable as well. Mnemonic labs developed a system for creating evidence that can be used in future accountability procedures.
We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. Another team is focused more on journalistic type investigations. This allows you to get those things out very quickly once the events are over. Another team is dedicated to investigating for accountability. One conflict incident might take one person five days to investigate and then another person another five days to review, so it’s a longer process.
We’ve focused in particular on legal accountability. So there’s a universal jurisdiction case that’s being opened by prosecutors in Germany. The following are the details: [U.N.] Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine that looks like it’s going to start activity soon. There’s the work of the International Criminal Court as well. We preserve everything in a way that’s actually helpful to the people we serve.. That’s a process that we’ve developed over the past few years in a project that focused on Yemen. But now we’re applying what we’ve learned from that to Ukraine.
CNN’s report about a Russian-produced pair of videos that were released prior to the invading Soviet Union claimed to depict Ukrainian aggressions. These two videos were both made fraudulently. CNN cited evidence collected by an online open-source community to support the claim. However, it also used its own analysis that utilized online geolocation to verify the authenticity of the footage.
It’s really satisfying to see that. Two or three years ago I wouldn’t even imagine “geolocation” being in a headline. It’s caught me by surprise how different it’s been this time around. Even before the conflict started, the online community was digging through these videos of vehicles being transported to the Russian border, and the kind of vehicles gave us the first indications that this wasn’t a training exercise, this is something else. This caught the attention of policymakers and journalists as well as other organisations who were able to understand the importance of trusting this information. Whilst in 2014—MH-17 and Syria—that had to be built. That kind of understanding, and trust are now almost implicit in every area of work. And that’s just a massive, tremendous change.
Do you have any idea of the number of people working in this area right now?
Oh, God, honestly, I’ve no idea. A few years ago you could have probably put them on a bus and driven them off a cliff and that’s the whole field gone. Bellingcat has 30 employees, and it is expected to grow to 35. But there’s a network of people now who are nonprofessionals who do this kind of stuff on Twitter; they’re producing valuable work. I still think it’s probably in the hundreds. But compared to where we were a few years ago, when it was probably still in the tens, it’s a big difference.
Is there anything you’ve seen that left you just gobsmacked?
It’s more been the scope of how much is being done. There’s just so much more simple stuff, like geolocation, that saves us hours of work per video, combined with the fact that you have such an interest in this verified content. In terms of the information war that happens around conflict, this is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. Russia’s attempts to disinformation and frame the conflict have collapsed. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.
Continue reading: What It’s Like for Ukrainian Journalists Reporting on the War in Their Country
Also, we have things like [Ukranian President] Zelenky’s use of social media that is quite a unique element to this conflict. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. All of this combined has completely changed the structure and functioning of the information system. Usually we’d be running around wondering what Russian disinformation is coming out now. Each piece of misinformation is quickly debunked by the internet community. And that’s just something I’ve never seen before. It’s really significant, I think. It could have a real impact if all conflict are addressed in this way. Because Russia is really suffering because of this kind of open-source community and engagement through social media with what’s happening.
Let me know what you think about this social media component.
Well, there’s a few aspects to this one. There’s so much information being shared from the ground, and there’s a kind of an ad hoc, volunteer network of people who are geolocating stuff. This is feeding our work. It’s also feeding into creating credibility around this kind of imagery. From day one in the conflict, we’ve been able to track cluster-munition use in civilian areas, which, you know, is almost certainly a war crime.
The U.S. intelligence that was being released beforehand—a lot of that, I wouldn’t say it was proved by the open-source information, but it was certainly consistent with what was coming out with open sources as the conflict unfolded. It was not difficult to see the many fabrications and falsehoods being debunked quickly. It made the U.S. intelligence community’s case even more solid, because people are independently verifying this stuff.
Then, we have an understanding of Russian policy in relation to this conflict. We all know about the 40-kilometer convoy of death that’s outside of Kyiv, with everyone freezing to death inside it. We’ve seen videos and photographs of endless supply trucks that have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces. And all of that also gives us a more granular understanding of what’s happening on the ground that is very rare to have from a conflict. And then also the fact that the Russians’ information security is terrible. Unencrypted internet communications are being transmitted. We have satellite imagery that’s revealing all kinds of information about where they are and what they’re up to. There’s one blogger called Oryx who has been collecting visual confirmation of all these vehicle losses, which is a hell of a lot more accurate than we can get from either side of the conflict and reflects very poorly on the Russians’ progress so far.
Going by your feedTwitter could be very useful in your endeavors.
Twitter has been the dominant news stream. Telegram is probably where a lot of the sources of information is coming from and it’s certainly played a very significant role in getting information out there. TikTok’s also been quite significant in the build-up to the war because everyone was filming Russian convoys to get clicks, which is always helpful.
Continue reading: Meet the Lithuanian ‘Elves’ Fighting Russian Disinformation
Telegram: How useful is it?
One thing that’s very handy about it is when videos and photos are shared, unlike most social media platforms that strip metadata, the metadata is retained. We’ve used that to show that the Russians were producing disinformation and even false-flag attack videos, because they left the metadata [revealing where the filming actually took place] when they faked the videos, so that’s been incredibly useful. That also means if people are sharing stuff from the ground, we have the metadata in there with things like the coordinates from the camera that we’re using, so we can more quickly geolocate stuff and add it to our verified-information database. And I think a lot of Russians and Ukrainians connect with that platform as well and some other platforms that haven’t been shut down by Russia yet.
One of the striking things about your work is that it grew out of one of the early, primary appeals of the internet—not only the hive mind, but also transparency. Before the internet, social was all about controlling things with algorithms. People just discovered each other.
It could just be that it is because of my pre-social networking culture. It was 1995 at the time that I first started to use the Internet, back when it was America Online.
Handshakes that sound like a handshake!
Yeah. It was a good transition from Being on Something Awful Forums. This is one of those huge internet forums which spawned many other websites, memes, and projects. For me, social media isn’t so much the medium for communication, it’s more of a tool that can be used to gather information and then kind of propagate it. And the idea of being part of a network and connecting to people is very important for me, because even in the early days of the Brown Moses blog, I think I’ve always realized that you can’t know every single thing by yourself. You can still connect with people of all backgrounds and engage them in various ways.
As I do in Ukraine right now, my first step was to reach out to multiple organizations that we had worked with or who knew of people involved in projects similar to ours. We then combined our efforts. This is how it works: Conflict Intelligence Team in Russia, they’ve worked with us in the past, in Syria and Ukraine, and the Center for Information Resilience, they’ve been mapping out videos and the conflicts, and we’re going to geolocate videos, so we combine their efforts and now that’s all going into one source. But it’s all data we can share. Working together is more logical.