Open-source intelligence. A new tool for journalism to fight misinformation?

Virtual reality has become virtually impossible to ignore – and the growing shift to an online world has not gone unnoticed in the field of open-source journalism.


From being the first to uncover the mystery behind the crash of MH17 (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) in 2014, and the presence of Uighur Muslim ‘re-education’ camps in the Xinjiang province of China in 2017. To developing remodeling techniques to reconstruct the notorious Syrian ‘Saydnaya’ prison from the testimonies of its survivors, open-source researchers have found themselves at the forefront of investigative journalism without ever having to leave the house.


Open-source journalism utilises the same kind of techniques employed by police and intelligence services – from geolocation to cross-referencing media content – by using online tools available to anyone. The level of sophistication can vary: knowledge of online tools such as Google Earth is familiar to most people, but other more niche ones, such as the Russian FindClone.ru, which enables anyone with a phone number to search the profile pics of VK social media accounts (the Russian version of Facebook), are just as accessible.


Its citizen-led approach has been one of the greatest assets that open-source intelligence has brought to the table of investigative journalism. The former Editor-in-Chief of 'The Guardian' Alan Rusbridger proclaimed the break-down of the walls between the public and the media has been essential to journalism's democratisation. It has made media practices a lot more transparent and hence more accountable and trustworthy. The proliferation of raw data has cut out the middle-man news organisation and placed the source right in front of its reader.


The verification process that all rich media sources should undergo is no longer an esoteric practice left to those who control knowledge production – the power to check media credibility lies with anyone curious to search for it.


Transparency

Even traditional news outlets like ‘The Guardian’ conducting more open-source investigations, using more transparent intelligence gathering techniques, have become crucial in the fight against fake news.


The capacity to misinform has grown along with increases in information technology. It has meant that the ability to tell a fake news source from a real one will become a crucial practice if open-source journalism wants to maintain its credibility. A task that is arguably even more crucial, given the fact that achieving greater transparency often comes with the price of decreased accountability due to the multisource and often anonymous nature of open-source data. Though spotting fake news is crucial, it is easier to detect some than others. The founder of the online open-source news outlet Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, pointed out that ‘an intelligence agency for the people – even when they are spotted, fake news still can inflict severe damage to reputable media sources.’


For open-source investigators, the Russian Ministry of Defence's attempt to prove a fictitious US endorsement of ISIS with a screenshot of a video-game was an easy enough spot. Other attempts have the potential to be a lot more damaging.


Minutes before the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019, a manifesto titled 'The Great Replacement' was emailed to dozens of recipients making fictitious claims that the attacks had been premeditated and planned two years prior. The researchers at Bellingcat were able to disprove the allegations and released an article before any other major media news source did. This completely changed the narrative of the news stories that followed and prevented misinformation from being published that could instil even more fear in the local population by making their security services look incapable of tracing terrorist activity.


Coverage

The ability to spot fake news does not always guarantee that attempts to re-articulate it will be successful. Many fake news stories still make their way onto public platforms and damage before they can be stopped. Open-source intelligence offers the best way to fight against them, but by no means can it eradicate news stories proliferated purely due to the effective responses that they render regardless of the facticity of their content.


Open-source techniques have been able to do much more than uncover mysteries and fight fake news. With social media becoming an environment that presents both a source and an audience for the news, open-source journalism has worked to maintain the press coverage of places that have suffered from diminishing press freedoms and authoritarian practices that aim at the suppression of free speech.


The condition of anonymity can be an advantage. It provides greater safety for citizen-journalists who share information online. With Syria being a case in point, it has been estimated that the first so-called ‘YouTube conflict’ has managed to garner more hours of footage of the ongoing civil war than there are of the war in real life. This mass archive of raw footage has enabled many points of divergence surrounding the conflict to be explained. Most notably when open-source techniques, resembling what can best be termed as digital archaeology, confirmed that the chemical attacks in Douma 2018 had been sanctioned by the Syrian Army and were not, as had hitherto been proclaimed by the Russian media, staged by the White Helmets.


For the people

The potential that open-source journalism has goes beyond questioning actors in positions of power. Its use of transparent and verifiable evidence means that it can be used in criminal court cases and to uncover crimes against humanity, which Bellingcat has already been involved in through its work with the International Criminal Court.


Human rights organisations like Amnesty International have also used open-source intelligence to their advantage. A project it took on with Forensic Architecture used new spatial and acoustic remodeling techniques to reconstruct the architecture of the notorious ‘Saydnaya’ prison, using the testimony of five survivors who had been detained there. This investigation revealed not only what human rights abuses had been committed, but it also uncovered how the building and the environment that it contained operated.


It could be argued that given the mostly Western-based nature of open-source news outlets, that they provide just another way to promote Western interests in areas that are currently experiencing moments of upheaval and social distress. The very idea of open-source intelligence can be seen as very much in line with the liberal discourse of human rights. If anything, open-source journalism has shown that its main interest lies in uncovering those interests that remain hidden. It is there to probe, not to enforce an interest that comes at someone else’s cost. The strength of open-source journalism is the fact that revealing the truth should speak for itself – and in a post-truth world, this is arguably more valuable than ever before.


‘Real journalism consists of what someone doesn't want published, all the rest is public relations’ George Orwell