“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Over the past few years I have commented frequently on what many of us believe is the primary threat to society – the rise of alternative facts. The concept of “untruths” are now so many and varied that ordinary, well educated people frequently find it hard to know where the truth lies. This isn’t necessarily new, it has always been the case that powerful, influential people, politicians, business people and others have lied to further their own ambitions. But the advent of social media has provided the purveyors of untruths and their potential listeners with huge opportunity and bandwidth to pervert the truth. Tech platforms have facilitated this, and efforts to apply governance have been inadequate, controversial and simply too late.
I first came across the concept of open source investigation in the New York Review of Books in 2019. The article described the case of a summary execution carried out by the Cameroon government soldiers of two women villagers, suspected of links to Boko Haram, and their children in July 2018, to illustrate the concepts of OSINT – open source intelligence. In 2018 a video of the killings started circulating on social media making it very clear “what” had happened, but the facts were unclear – where and when did it happen, who were the perpetrators and why did they kill? The BBC’s Africa Eye investigated the case and won an award for their ground breaking work. They geolocated the site by matching topographical features from the video to satellite maps, established the time by using shadows as sundials and confirmed the killers’ identities by cross-referencing social media profiles with government records. This work led to strong parliamentary condemnations in the US and EU and withdrawal of funds from the Cameroonian Army.
This wasn’t the first use of OSINT but clearly it attracted a lot of attention. Back in 2010 an open newsroom tool Storyful established a platform and collective for collaborative investigation, enabling the new form of investigative journalism. One of the active participants was a Leicester based blogger, Elliott Higgins whose success with open source investigations brought him media attention which led to the foundation of Bellingcat – an international collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists that conducts investigations using techniques he pioneered.
In 2021 Higgins published a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People. The book provides a fascinating account of real events that in many cases read like a thriller, but provide detailed insight into how the Bellingcat collective gets beyond the noise and propaganda and has established the truth in some very high profile cases. These include the 2018 Novichock poisonings in Salisbury, the 2014 downing of MH17 in the eastern Ukraine, the 2018 chemical attacks by the Assad regime against innocent civilians in Homs, the violent unrest by Klu Klux Klan and others in Nazi uniform in Charlottesville in 2017, the 2013 Boston Bombings, the horrific attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 and many more.
Higgins describes how traditional investigative journalism has been turned inside out. It used to be journalists would guard their sources and insights as competitive material. But since the rise of social media Higgins tells us that there are huge information resources that are simply hiding in plain sight. All that’s required is to trawl existing sources and often to use tools such as Googlemaps, Geolocators etc to validate and verify. Of course there are often conflicting stories, and social media being what it is, everything needs cross checking and validation. A quick search brings up “101 OSINT resources for investigators which includes tool categories of searching people, searching social media profiles, searching video and images, online communities and blogs, classified listings, background checking, business search sites, bitcoin and blockchain searching for illegal transactions, specialized deep web searching, geolocation searches, and more. You get the idea.
The OSINT market today is huge. In addition to pioneers such as Bellingcat there are today numerous organizations undertaking OSINT. Private firms like Snopes provide support to tech companies including Facebook. I note specialist firms such as Reuters are very active. And of course government agencies are very, very active. In addition there is a huge tools market. You might say it is a significant new marketplace, driven by the huge and complex social media environment. Global Newswire estimate the current market at $3.8bn growing to $12Bn by 2026. Allied Market Research have even bigger numbers!
The fact this market has grown indicates the huge demand for trust. Organizations need to know who and what they are dealing with before entering into contracts, be it employment, business collaboration etc. Of course we can all observe the huge gulf in the USA particularly where politics drives belief systems. Many of us will recall Catch 22 and I quote:
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Or Terry Pratchett:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
It suggests that millions of individuals are now prepared to put aside logic and fact, and adopt fantasies as normal! No one needs reminding of Kellyanne Conway’s “Alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017. Apart from being a huge driver of the OSINT market, it suggests there is a need for some form of verifiable truth in everyday life.
As a researcher and publisher between 1997 and 2017 I was accustomed to providing accreditation to whatever I published. As a blogger I do provide references at the foot of posts where appropriate. But I am minded to reinforce this practice as a matter of course. This is entirely normal in many professional communities. I have in mind that we should encourage everyone, and I mean everyone to provide accreditation, be it on tweets, posts, images as small but meaningful way to reinforce the veracity of what’s being communicated. Perhaps what we need is an evangelist to pick up this idea and promote! Meantime bloggers, if you’ve read this blog, please provide accreditation to your own work. Thanks!
George Orwell invented the word doublethink in his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, its origins within the citizenry is unclear; while it could be partly a product of Big Brother’s formal brainwashing programs, the novel explicitly shows people learning doublethink . . . due to peer pressure and a desire to “fit in,” or gain status within the Party—to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize—let alone mention—any contradiction within the context of the Party line is akin to blasphemy, and could subject that person to disciplinary action and the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members. Wikipedia – Doublethink
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, © 2010 by the Moynihan Estate.
Bellingcat and How Open Source Reinvented Investigative Journalism, Muhammad Idrees Ahmadre, New York Review of Books, June 2019
We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, By Elliott Higgins,
Bloomsbury Publishing (4 Feb. 2021) ISBN-13 : 978-1526615756