A New Way Of Reporting

It’s called “Open source intelligence,” and we’re learning about it thanks to Vladimir Putin and his savage assault on Ukraine.

Here’s the lede from the linked Time Magazine report

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). The term is shorthand for the laborious process of verifying video and photographs from Ukraine by checking everything about the images, establishing what they show, and doing all this work out in the open, for all to see.

The article focused on one of the individuals who pioneered this effort,  Eliot Higgins , who had what was described as a “boring office job in the U.K. ” during the war in Syria. In addition to examining social media posts, he also analyzed YouTube videos  that had been uploaded from phone cameras .

Although he had no training as a journalist, he set out to decipher the credibility/accuracy of those uploads by noting things like the serial numbers on munitions, and using online tools like Google Maps. While he was engaged in that exercise, he compared notes with people who were also trying to figure out what was accurate and what wasn’t–and in the process of  blogging about his efforts (under the alias “Brown Moses”)–he built a reputation as an “authority on a war too dangerous to be reported from the ground.”

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.

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, fellow OSINT volunteers, and legacy news media outlets that have picked up reporting tools the open-source crowd hands around.

Higgins has written a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, in which he describes–evidently in great detail–the time-consuming process needed  to produce an airtight case for the conclusions they reach. It was Bellingcat that ultimately assessed responsibility for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17–but it took a full year. In Ukraine, reporting has been much faster, thanks to what Higgins calls parallel team operations.

We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. One is focused on more editorial, journalistic-type investigations, where you can get that stuff out quite quickly after the events have occurred. But another team that runs parallel to that is focused purely on doing investigations for accountability.

The importance of what Bellingcat is doing can be seen via a  CNN report on two videos that Russia circulated  before its invasion. The videos  purported to show  Ukrainian attacks. Both were exposed as frauds  by the online open-source community–and the network also cited its own analysis, using online geolocation methods pioneered by the open-source community, to prove that the videos had actually been filmed behind Russian lines.

The analytic tools developed by Bellingcat and other open-source detectives are now being used by a network composed of hundreds of nonprofessionals–and tools such as geolocation have saved open source analysts hundreds of hours of work. These new tools and the growing network of volunteer sleuths have undermined Russia’s once-masterful ability to spread propaganda. As Higgins says:

This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. 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.

The most important war currently being waged is the war against disinformation and propaganda–and open source intelligence is a new and very welcome weapon.


  1. If the time was ever right for someone to be struck by a lighting bolt from Heaven it is NOW!

  2. Eliot Higgins is the King of MIC Propaganda. Bellincrat is the worst offender of MIC propaganda. He’s a useful idiot of the MIC.

    I’ve had a few exchanges with him on Twitter and he’s an idiot. Worse than an inflated politician or TV mouthpiece.

    If CNN considers him a “source, ” we know what CNN is all about.

  3. Interesting. This looks like a crowdsourced, Wikipedia style social media synthesis and verification site. Unlike some people that see oligarch involvement in everything, I can see real value in this. But, like Wikipedia, you have look at the foot notes to make sure somebody is not manipulating the information.

  4. Excellent article from Time. As noted recently Putin has had to write laws banning reporting against the military calling it disinformation, so at will Putin can throw people in jail with opposition. Also Putin has held pro Russia rallies calling the west as evil and is willfully splitting the Russian orthodox church that has no choice but to back him at gunpoint similar to what Hitler did to the christian churches.
    The media in our country is much like that of Pravda not calling out politicians that have been heavy into corruption. Twice the Presidents son was given a pass calling the reporting before the 2020 election a of war Russian propaganda, the NYT just recently verified the corruption is true. Now that we are headlong into an ESG war against the productivity of American businesses and oil we see the catastrophic effects its having on our economy and how we helped fund Putins war by driving up oil prices and buying Russian oil instead of finishing the Xl and buying Canadian oil Canadian oil actually has less of a carbon footprint by 23.7 million carbon tons of CO2 per tanker load, that could alternatively arrive by pipeline.
    ESG rhetorically is now called export Soviet Gas.
    Democrats blocked the Energy Indeendence from Russia act, this shows leadership from behind once again as the consumer pays at the pump and politicians call an all out war on US businesses saying they are gouging the Consumer. The problem with Amazon for instance is that each small business pays upto 30% of its profit to Amazon and its cost basis includes fuel charges.
    Who is winning? Its certainly not the American consumer, small businesses, or worse the poor that we are continually enslaving with high inflation costs. An inflationary war we are supporting while China continues to build coal plants. AIG for instance wont insure coal mines. As lines are being drawn in the information war abroad and Putin holds his rallies to retain power against the evil west. It is the pockets of corruption we overlook in this country that put him there.
    Again we need to look at avoiding a war militarily. Yes we need to continue to win a propaganda war against Putin. But we also must stop giving a pass to politicians a pass here.

  5. I watched a CNN report last week showing how they document the pictures, videos and films before broadcasting them. Using “before and after” photos, videos and films of buildings, streets and landscapes before bombing and shelling by Putin’s military is validation enough for me. One must ask why all of the countries involved in Putin’s current war would go to all of the trouble to post propaganda and fake news to the world when there is real news to be reported? Where would they find the hundreds of people to play a part in their script for all but Fox News to fill the news broadcasts?

    Todd doesn’t like or believe anyone or anything political claiming to be “news” but expects us to believe his every word. He occasionally hit the nail on the head but that can happen for anyone in any situation simply due to the law of averages.

  6. This sounds like a real development for people who want to sort out the facts. I want to know more. I just put the Bellingcat book on hold at the library. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  7. Now the question is, “How do we get this information to the Russian people?”

  8. Peggy Hannon, that was my though. Putin seems to be shutting down social media inside Russia so Russians see only his propaganda.

  9. meanwhile back in America:
    The New York Times NOW says – after 18 months that the “Laptop from Hell” belonging to Hunter Biden is authentic — after calling the original New York Post report “baroque mythology” at the time. HOW CONVENIENT and most of you think the NYT is the bible of journalism ?? ? 🤣🤣🤣
    Reminder – Dem midterm bloodbath

  10. Apparently there are two kinds of people in the world. Problem solvers and problem advocates.

    Among the latter are self identified conservatives who advocate for problems by believing that it’s responsible to procrastinate on solving shared problems that are hard or expensive to fix. (US infrastructure, education, pandemic, Trump, the consequences of wealth redistribution up, racism, etc.)

    Among the former are people like Eliot Higgins and his organization Bellingcat who see problems within capabilities that they can develop that needs fixing and go to work.

    Also among the former are also the vast majority of Ukrainians.

  11. I saw the same segment JoAnn.

    I was an IT Admin in my younger days…your footprint is all over the internet. You can’t run from it. Or hide it.

    I Loved this post!

  12. Fabulous new development in verifying information! This is the methodology for uncovering the truth, but implemented in a new way. Knowledge is always about gathering facts, then trying to falsify them, and then examining reproducible details to verify reality. Laborious, but entirely doable by a large community of dedicated investigators coordinating their efforts. Marvelous!

    Getting information to the Russian people in a believable way, may be a challenge, but it is happening despite Putin’s misinformation campaign.

  13. We know here how effective and challenging to counter entertainment media misinformation is.

  14. Sadly, getting the actual truth out has to come from private citizens doing their own due diligence! Of course it also helps that there are many private global satellites out there that have the same capabilities of government spy sats.

    Just the other day, Russia was beset with a flood of cyber attacks that crippled the Kremlin and other governmental entities. These came from “Anonymous” and other cyber enforcers.

    I also find it odd that our government spokespersons, especially for the pentagon, claim they have no knowledge of missiles being launched from Belarus! The military/NATO have Drones flying over the area at 60,000 ft. Constantly surveilling the entire region. And, they claim they have no knowledge of missiles being fired anywhere in the region?

    There is very little truth telling going on here whatsoever. The only truth-telling is coming from citizens within Ukraine filming with their phones. And, the private sleuths, as was mentioned, doing their due diligence.

    It seems truth-telling is a luxury, or maybe the last option? Truth is always the best disinfectant. If one’s self-anointed or self-perceived truth is actually an invasive disease, the actual sunlit truth will be the true revealer.

    Live by the lie and die by the lie.

  15. Truth is a two-edged sword. Perhaps such truth finders will uncover American propaganda and disinformation while putting together bits of information that cut through such artifices. Perhaps our new ability to get to truth can be applied to what is really happening in our “smoke-filled back rooms” where corporate counsel explain to compliant and campaign moneyhungry legislators how to sell the latest amendments to the internal revenue code and its benificient effects on the poor, for instance.

    I can see lots of applications to finding and reporting truth beyond the geopolitical issues of the day, all the way from issues before township trustees to and through UN offices, but rather than attack the credentials and morals of those who are exposing facts and producing truth or attributing their efforts to oligarchs I choose to look to their work product and how it may positively effect policy formation.

  16. Wow! Very empowering. ESPECIALLY because social media is a powerful ORGANIZING as well as data-gathering tool (e.g., Arab Spring). Dictators, your days in power are numbeed!

  17. JoAnn, your comment about Todd reminded me of the saying that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” 🙂

    Todd is clearly completely captivated by conspiracy-theory thinking. (Amazing alliteration there, eh?) Apparently, he can’t escape it. I’ve got no evidence other than his own posts, but _they_ lead me to the suspicion that Todd thinks someone is stupid if they don’t agree with his “ideas.” Given how wrong I often think Todd is, I’d use that as a small piece evidence in favour of Higgins.

    Todd, offering your opinion in the form you did is not going to win converts. You need to present evidence and information that we can check if you want us to consider your case.

    If Higgins is doing what is described in the article, then it’s a good thing. It’s scientific. You want a situation where evidence is presented in a clear and open way, and anyone can review that evidence and critique it. Where anyone can point out errors, or argue with methodology or conclusions. That’s exactly how it should work.

    I any case, it makes me imagine (wistfully) that this methodology could be used for general political discussions. Wouldn’t that be great! But then I remember that the GOP people still wouldn’t believe it, no matter the evidence. Heck, it sometimes seems to me that the better the argument or evidence presented, the more entrenched they get in their own position.

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