Digital sleuthing

Félim McMahon

A distinctive new form of investigative journalism has emerged in the age of the read/write web that has become famous for its leverage of material that is already in the public domain. The digital sleuths who practice it are singular in their ability to find, combine and extract probative value from the digital breadcrumbs strewn across the internet by every individual, organisation or device connected to it.

Thanks in part to the ready availability, pervasive nature and overwhelming volume of these data, this new form of journalism is more collaborative, transparent and iterative than its predecessors. It can lay claim to being just as effective. Following a series of substantive and painstaking investigations, its proponents have broken some of the most remarkable and consequential stories of recent years, finding innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems of volume and verification to reveal facts that were hiding in plain sight.

History and background

Technological and infrastructural advances in the latter half of the 20th century transformed the creation, storage, transmission and computation of data, giving rise to a digital and networked age where the virtual has become “an essential dimension of our reality” (Negroponte, 1996). In the era of “mass self-communication”, power struggles are played out across the global multimedia systems of the “network society” (Castells, 2015, 2019; Howard, 2011) and traditional institutions are integrated and subordinated to the “networked public sphere” (Friedland et al., 2006). Journalists share this space — in real time — with those who have embraced, instrumentalised and weaponised it.

While technology' has opened the door to new entrants and novel forms of knowledge production that are more “collective, distributed and participatory” (Bruns, 2018; Bruns and Highfield, 2016; Scott Wright et al., 2016), it has also given rise to doubts about the ability of journalists to maintain the “core normative practice” of verification (Hermida, 2015) and about the overall health of the system (Scott Wright et al., 2016; Rasmussen, 2016). For Kovach and Rosenstiel (2014), “a transparent method of verification [is] the most important tool for professional journalists trying to answer doubts . . . about their work” in this changed context.

One of the most advantageous and overlooked aspects of the new environment are its digital verification affordances. It is hard to imagine a news story today whose protagonists, observers and underlying events are not linked to an extensive corpus of online data. Over time, due to the nature of the World Wide Web, this body of information continues to be copied, linked and annotated by a wide variety of actors. It is also more searchable than ever. It can persist long after it is created and, because it is easy to transmit, may elude all efforts to secure it. Time permitting, this environment offers unprecedented opportunities for journalists to detect, cross-check and challenge information about real-world events and their contexts. Online and visual investigations focus on these opportunities, offering a powerful alternative to epistemic crisis.

Development

The proliferation of mobile phones and the advent of simplified self-publishing on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has led to dramatic growth in the amount of content shared “with no professionals ... in sight” (Shirky, 2009). Solicitation gave way to online searching, and journalists began to use the smart-phone-wielding, mass-communicating public as sensors and sources like never before.

Through a series of events that made global headlines — including the London bombings (2005), the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar (2006) and the Mumbai attacks (2008) — the unique value of user-generated content (UGC) for crisis reporting was firmly established. An early and much-documented pioneer in this regard was the BBC’s UGC Hub, where verification procedures were initially based on direct contact and limited technical checks (Allan, 2013, 2007).

As a series of hoaxes and errors cast doubt on the reliability of reporting based on UGC, verification began to adapt to conditions of “virtuality” (Belair-Gagnon, 2015). One of the companies that was instrumental in this shift was Storyful, a social media news agency that provided discovery and verification as a service to newsrooms. Starting from 2010, the company’s journalists and developers refined their methodologies and technologies across the events of the Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war, working with clients such as Channel 4 News, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The newsroom culture at Storyful was shaped by five distinct factors:

  • 1 A core of journalists with long experience in television and print news.
  • 2 Strong representation of team members with a background in blogging, editing (fact checking) and technology.
  • 3 A concept of operations closer to that of open-source intelligence or information management than storytelling (Little, 2012; Sheridan, 2012).
  • 4 Explanation of its verification methodologies on a case-by-case basis (to build trust with clients).
  • 5 Integration of the software development team into newsroom operations and vice versa, focused on the dynamic co-development of tools and the creation and automation of workflows.

Storyful popularised its verification methodologies through its public website, a blog, and through the “Open Newsroom" project on the now-defunct social networking site Google+, where members could engage in collaborative verification alongside its journalists (Bartlett, 2013).

Methodology

Observing trends at the outset of the social reporting era, Hermida (2015) came to the conclusion that, “Far from being abandoned, verification is being rearticulated”. In essence, the verification methods associated with usergenerated content, which underpin online and visual investigation, seek to establish the ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ of that content; carefully approaching questions like ‘what’and ‘how’, while being downright circumspect about the ‘why’. The full range of methodologies is well described elsewhere (Dubberley et al., 2020; Lipinski, 2012; McPherson, 2015; Silverman, 2014; Trewinnard and Bell, 2018), but the evolving techniques include the following elements:

  • 1 Monitoring and searching: Verification depends on the creation and maintenance of streams of data and operative filters across a broad range of social and non-social sources. Exhaustive searches using a broad range of strategies, tools and techniques are used to counter the repetition and distortion that are pervasive in the online environment. Essential skills include the use of advanced search operators, reverse image searching, knowledge of search resources including web archives, judicious use of machine translation and an understanding of how to work both with and without timestamps. The partiality of sources is assumed and assessed. Judgments about their credibility and reliability are made with reference to profile details, posting histories and network analysis.
  • 2 Cross-verification: Due to the derivative nature of online information, any inferences must be supported by multiple strands of evidence and points of divergence heavily weighted. Whenever possible, external corroboration is sought to anchor “virtuality”. Comparative and reconstructive visual techniques are used to establish, corroborate and understand the locations where imagery was acquired. This includes the geolocation of imagery with reference to mapping, satellite imagery and ground-level data, including street view imagery, photos and videos. Apparent weather conditions can be checked against meteorological data, while shadows and other astronomical information can be used to query time, date and location. Verification techniques use metadata where available, though this is often stripped by social media platforms. Detecting synthetic and manipulated media via technical or manual means is emerging as an important skillset.
  • 3 Content analysis: This includes the deeper interrogation of a range of items, including language, buildings and land uses, signage, weaponry, vehicles, accents, dialects, clothing, insignia and a plethora of other information. It also involves listening to the “conversation” around an event, entity or object. This leads to engagement with new communities, discovery of further sources and resources and the identification of new tactics and techniques.
  • 4 Presentation: Due to the cumulative and/or visual nature of verification, presentation is a key skill set. This includes an emerging set of practices and conventions focused on both language and visual presentation

Online investigation is associated with seeking out and combining online information about individuals, organisations and objects, whereas visual investigation is a spatial-temporal approach focused on audio-visual information. The unifying assumption is that events and entities under investigation will leave a multimedia trail in their wake. Open source intelligence (OSINT) investigations combine both techniques, drawing on information that is already in the public domain.

The use of visual investigation techniques and remote sensing via satellite imagery, and the reimagining of the newsgathering as an intelligence discipline, closely mirrors and draws upon developments in the fields of human rights and non-proliferation (Aday and Livingston, 2009). In the past few years, this cross-pollination has developed into factual-analytical and storytelling collaborations across a range of human rights-related topics. Central to these partnerships have been two research agencies specialising in advanced spatial and media techniques: Forensic Architecture (FA), based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and New York-based SITU Research. Working with partners including Amnesty' International and Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, the New York Times’ Visual Investigations unit and BBC Africa Eye, these two agencies have produced interactive reconstructions based on user-generated content, witness testimony and physical evidence, drawing on spatial analysis, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, animation and interactive visualisation. Their work has frequently been used in legal processes or official reports. In the spirit of the Internet, there have been notable individual contributions with a human rights focus, including the investigation —using satellite imagery' and online documents — of alleged violations of human rights against China’s Uighurs (Aljazeera, 2019).

OSINT techniques in investigative journalism are heavily influenced by the field of cybersecurity, where publicly available information is used in investigations of individuals and organisations or to identify and mitigate security threats (Bazzell, 2020). Such information is often of a personal nature, in that it refers to the identities, biographical details and lives of people and the groups they belong to. The phrase OSINT is derived from military and intelligence doctrine, where it refers to the use of information from TV, books, radio, newspapers and other publicly available sources (CIA, 2010).

Case study 1 — Bellingcat

Eliot Higgins first came to prominence by doing one simple thing: observing the weaponry being used by armed actors in the Syrian civil war (Chivers and Schmitt, 2013). Using crowdsourced funding, Higgins founded his own website in July 2014, focused on online investigation (Higgins, 2014a).

Between September 2018 and April 2020, Higgins and his colleagues named a slew of alleged assassins accused of hunting the Kremlin’s enemies across Europe, compiling hefty dossiers on their links to the Russian state. In conducting their research, Bellingcat and its media partners brought online investigation into the mainstream.

So how did they do it?

One day after Bellingcat.com went live, Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine, leading to the deaths of all 298 people onboard. Within the first few hours, Bellingcat and others began building a picture of the movements of an individual missile system, a Buk, through separatist-held territory close to where the passenger jet came down (Higgins, 2014b).

By early September, Bellingcat found and verified the location of videos and photographs that appeared to show the same individual system inside Russia just weeks before the tragedy. It was being transported as part of an eye-catching convoy that got locals posting videos and images to social media. Bellingcat identified the system as belonging to a Russian brigade based about three hours’ drive from the border with Ukraine (Higgins, 2014c).

By November, Bellingcat (2014) had published a comprehensive report tracking the movement of the Buk system inside Russia in the weeks before and after the tragedy and charting its course through rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine immediately before and after the aircraft was downed. They would go on to compile dossiers on the members of the Russian brigade most closely associated with the Buk system of interest and detailing their brigade’s chain of command (Bellingcat Investigation Team, 2017).

In September 2016, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) into the shootdown published a call for witnesses focused on two individuals, with callsigns ‘Delfin’ and ‘Orion’, publishing a series of intercepted conversations between them (Politic, 2016). Within 18 months, Bellingcat and its reporting partners had identified the men as Russian Colonel General Nikolai Tkachev and a “high-ranking GRU officer” named Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, compiling extensive dossiers on their careers. They similarly exposed separatists allegedly linked to the downing of the aircraft and would go on to name another key individual highlighted by the JIT as a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) general (Bellingcat Investigation Team, 2020a).

Starting with only the voices of ‘Orion’ and ‘Delfin’ and their first name/ patronymic, the Bellingcat team used a wide range of sources in their investigations, including separatist digital media, Russian government websites, information published by the Security Service of Ukraine, Russian military-interest websites and archives, company records, court decisions and more. In the case of ‘Delfin’, Bellingcat sought confirmation of its findings by using scientific voice analysis. Obtaining the voice samples needed for the analysis necessitated their reporting partner, The Insider (Russia), using one of the more established practices of investigative journalism, adopting the cover of a reporter writing a story about a military school after it was established, via online sources, that Tkachev was chairman of its board of trustees.

Bellingcat identified ‘Orion’ nearly six months after ‘Delfin’, by which time there were further developments in its sourcing methods. Call data records were obtained for a Ukrainian phone number linked to ‘Orion’, and both this and related numbers were leveraged against contact-sharing apps, online telephone databases and leaked data from a defunct e-commerce site. The web store whose data had been compromised sent goods to a Moscow address that on-the-ground checks revealed to be the GRU’s headquarters. Bellingcat also used residential registration records, obtained a 2003 passport application issued under Ivannikov’s civilian identity and acquired border-crossing data between Russia and South Ossetia.

In terms of novel technical checks, the team outsourced graphological comparison of Ivannikov’s signature across several documents. Finally, they used traditional door-stepping techniques, confirming his distinctive high-pitched voice with two human sources before making a phone call to an address they had linked to him, from where his voice was heard in the background.

In conducting these investigations, Bellingcat was establishing valuable new partnerships in two directions. Collaboration with Russian investigative magazine The Insider (Russia), extended the depth of their knowledge while a partnership with McClatchy DC Bureau extended their reach. At the same time, the team was offering training worldwide to journalists, police, human rights investigators and others.

In its ground-breaking investigations into the March 2018 poisoning in Salisbury of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Bellingcat combined open source research with the devastatingly effective use of a range of leaked databases and data supplied by insider sources with access to official records.

A week after the attack, the UK government had blamed Russia, leading to a tit-for-tat that saw nearly 350 diplomats expelled from 28 countries and NATO (Chughtai and Petkova, 2018). On September 5, 2018, UK police named and issued photographs of two Russian citizens they said were responsible for the attempted murders based on travel documents used by the pair (Barry, 2018; BBC News, 2018). Within a month of this announcement - in a series of extraordinary revelations — Bellingcat and its reporting partner The Insider (Russia) would first produce evidence that linked both men to the Russian security' services, identified them as GRU operatives, disclosed details of their “prior European operations” and named them as GRU Colonel Antoliy Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor employed by' the same agency'.

Bellingcat and The Insider (Russia) continued the trend of combining proprietary' data - mostly leaked online and some from human sources -with open source information. The more proprietary records used in this instance included an Aeroflot passenger manifest, “extraordinary' passport files”, documents linking a phone number in the suspects’ passport files to GRU HQ, border crossing data for a number of European and Asian countries, leaked Russian residential and telephone databases, the scan of a passport issued to Mishkin under his real name, car insurance databases and property' records.

Bellingcat and its reporting partners have gone on to use similar methods in a string of high-profile exposes that including the following scoops: naming a second Russian intelligence officer suspected and later convicted in absentia of involvement in coup plot in Montenegro (2018b), naming a third Skripal suspect as Maj General Denis Sergeev — suspected of directing operations - and uncovering his alleged involvement in a string of GRU operations across several European countries (2019a, 2019b, 2019c, 2019d, 2019f; Urban, 2019), naming a Russian man arrested for killing Chechen-Georgian military commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in a Berlin park and compiling a dossier on his links to the FSB that pointed to their centrality to the operation (Bellingcat 2019e, 20191) and exposing further GRU and FSB operations outside Russia (Bellingcat 2019g, 2020c).

The sources used in these stories have diversified to include census data, business records, criminal files, airline booking records, leaked passenger name record (PNR) data, Russian police passenger-monitoring data (accessed via whistle-blowers), driving licence data, call data records logging calls, data connections and cell-tower IDs (from a whistleblower working at a Russian mobile operator), tax records, criminal records and search warrant data. On the technical side, Bellingcat continued to leverage facial similarity testing to corroborate its findings and used call data record analysis. Its roster of partners grew to include Respekt (Czechia), BBC Newsnight, Swiss media group Tamedia, Der Spiegel and Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center.

Case study 2 — the New York Times visual investigations

The New York Times’ Visual Investigations series blends first-in-class production values, dramatic technique and explanatory journalism to deliver utterly compelling video presentations of its painstaking investigations. The series and team behind it have a strong thematic focus on human rights issues, especially pertaining to civilian harm in conflict and policing. In 2019, they produced three hard-hitting investigative pieces providing compelling evidence of the bombing — by the Russian Air Force — of hospitals, schools and residential buildings in insurgent-held northwestern Syria (Browne et al., 2019a).

The information collected by the team included flight data logged by a network of Syrian warplane trackers who provided an early warning system to areas facing bombardment and tens of thousands of intercepted radio communications between Russian Air Force pilots carrying out bombing missions and their controllers on the ground. This was cross-referenced against hundreds of reports, photos and videos of the air strikes that were posted to social media, unpublished videos and internal reports from sources on the ground, drone footage, satellite imagery and any available metadata.

Focusing on a 12-hour period in the midst of an offensive that saw dozens of healthcare facilities targeted in the northwest, the team documented four strikes on hospitals within 20 miles of each other using precision air strikes. The final video presentation blended plane spotter reports of the sorties with the intercepted communications. The ground controllers were heard delivering the coordinates of the targets and the pilots heard verifying that they had been hit using a phrase meaning “worked it” in Russian. This unprecedented picture of what was happening in the air was related to — and more importantly authenticated by - video, photographic, documentary and testimonial evidence of the attacks from the ground (Triebert et al., 2019).

Using the same techniques, the Visual Investigations team documented an attack on a housing complex for displaced Syrian families and a series of four strikes in 30 minutes the city of Maarat al Nunian that left dozens of people dead. One appeared to be a double-tap strike, with the second explosion killing a medical worker who rushed to the scene. After firing his weapons, the Russian pilot who carried out the strikes was heard to confirm their release by using the phrase: “Sent Candy” (Browne et al., 2019b).

All four hospitals in the first investigation were reportedly on a “deconfliction list” compiled by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and provided to any warring parties in Syria with air power (Browne et al., 2019a; Triebert et al., 2019). In 2018, non-governmental organisations supplied OCHA with the coordinates of hundreds of such facilities in Syria, and the UN was urging them to register hundreds more in the rebel-held territory being contested in the northwest (Parker, 2018). By August 2019, however, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had ordered a board of inquiry to examine a series of incidents in northwest Syria involving attacks on facilities registered on the list. It found it “highly probable” that the “government of Syria or its allies” carried out attacks on three healthcare facilities, a school and a childrens refuge (UNSG, 2020).

The Visual Investigations team stalked the official investigation, using the same methodologies and datasets to conduct a public inquiry and directly confront the issue of Russian responsibility', whereas the Security Council permanent member was not named in the official report (Hill, 2020). Although Russia denied involvement, the New York Times’ investigations provided strong evidence that the hospitals were deliberately targeted by' Russian pilots using precision weaponry. Their work also pointed to the systematic nature of the attacks. The Visual Investigations team’s exposes were among the “winning work” as the newspaper scooped the 2020 award for foreign reporting (The Pulitzer Board, 2020).

Online and visual investigation uses the language of forensic science and criminal investigation, with differing standards of proof. While this was historically common within investigative journalism, the degree to which journalistic and criminal investigations now overlap in terms of their subject matter, methodology, information and evidence have set the scene for cooperation and confrontation.

Case study 3 — BBC Africa Eye and “Anatomy of a Killing”

In January 2020, the trial of seven Cameroonian soldiers accused of killing two women and two children in the country’s far north got underway' (Kouagheu, 2020), a little over 18 months after a video of the killings began to circulate on social media. For several weeks after it emerged, members of the OSINT community' on Twitter worked to ascertain the circumstances behind it. The ad-hoc investigative team included staff of Amnesty' International journalists from BBC’s newly' launched documentary strand “Africa Eye”, members of Belling-cat and their workshop participants, an Africa-focused investigative journalist and a group of online sleuths known mainly by their Twitter handles.

Within a couple of day's, Amnesty International accused Cameroonian soldiers based on an analysis of the weapons, uniforms and geographical features seen in the video backed by' information from sources on the ground (Amnesty' International, 2018). Their press release - issued a day' after a government spokesman dismissed the video as ‘fake news’ (@bendobrown, 2018) - pointed to the far north of the country where the military was fighting Islamist militant group Boko Haram. A few days later, Cameroon arrested four men suspected of involvement. Seven would eventually be put on trial (Kouagheu, 2018).

Working in public on Twitter and in private on business communications platform Slack, the ad-hoc team continued to work on the video with impressive results: pinpointing its location, using satellite imagery, astronomical information (shadows) and other data to narrow' down the date it was taken, identifying some of the men in social media profiles. This was backed by a sophisticated video presentation that exposed the verification methodologies (“Anatomy of a Killing,” 2010).

Analysis — the new desk work

The investigative journalists who are the subject of this chapter have done the majority of their fact-finding behind a laptop lid. If that constitutes the power of their approach, then it is also its greatest limitation. This has been the cause of a sourcing debate within journalism that mirrors what McPherson et al. (2020) frame as a “knowledge controversy” within human rights. In journalism, the debate is best illustrated by differences of opinion around the remote investigation of chemical weapons attacks and other events in the Syrian civil war, which exhibit the signs a division along generational lines (CIJ, 2020).

Al Ghazzi (2014) says frames such as “citizen journalism” occlude “antagonistic, affective, and sometimes violent, aspects [embedded] in digital media”, while Hauser (2018, 2019) notes that - compared to journalists — media activists in Syria had significant authority and power. For Harkin and Feeney (2019), remotely observed footage from partisan sources offers “a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold”. Echoing lessons from the invasion of Iraq, they warn:

The next world war might begin with a grainy, contested image launched online from some distant and inaccessible outpost right onto the pages of a newspaper that has recently sacked all its journalists.

On April 7, 2018, a chemical weapons attack that became central to debates about digitial investigative journalism and media reporting of the Syrian conflict took place on the insurgent-held suburb of Douma, Damascus. Digital investigative stories pointed towards government responsibility, suggesting that a chlorine cannister was dropped from a helicopter onto a residential building. The United States, the United Kingdom and France responded with missile strikes targeting the Syrian government’s “ability to design, produce and stockpile” chemical weapons (Defense-Aerospace, com, 2018). Almost a year later, Harkin and Feeney’s in-depth report (2019) revisited facts online and on the ground, exposing the climate of propaganda and conspiracy surrounding the incident and putting in context. They laid bare the willingness of actors on both sides to use imagery to bend the truth of what happened in ways that would make any digital investigator’s hair stand on end. What is most remarkable, however, is the degree to which Harkin and Feeney’s comprehensive research and on-the-ground fact-finding confirmed the conclusions reached by Bellingcat, the New York

Times Visual Investigations team and Forensic Architecture in the aftermath of that attack. In the midst of competing leads and in a heated atmosphere of propaganda, they focused on and accurately assessed information about an incident that saw a chemical weapon strike on one building cause the deaths of dozens of civilians (Bellingcat Investigation Team, 2018c; Browne et al., 2018; Forensic Architecture, 2018).

Conclusion — rascals and rebels

Online and visual investigation is truly an effort to use “whatever media may be available" to dispel lies and establish the truth. In the finest traditions of investigative journalism, it has incorporated “sources and techniques that contemporaries thought reprehensible" (de Burgh, 2008) and its pioneers include “rascals and rebels” acting “deliberately outside the mainstream” (Deuze & Witschge, 2020; Higgins, 2021, Niezen, 2020).

If the years 2018/2019 are remembered as the moment online and visual investigation was established as distinct and indispensable part of mainstream journalism, then the stories mentioned previously - and the teams behind them — deserve much of the credit.

News executives appear to be taking notice. As the Black Lives Matter protests raged across the United States in May 2020, the Neur York Times Visual Investigations team faced fresh competition from newly established units at NBC News (@NBC_VC, 2020) and the Washington Post (Bennett et al., 2020a, 2020b), while the Wall Street Journal (2020) also produced a “video investigation”. In the United Kingdom, BBC News Arabic and Newsnight are now producing regular investigative pieces using online and visual investigative techniques (BBC News Arabic, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c, 2020).

At a time of fears about surveillance, a networked system of sousveiUance has emerged in a paradigm shifted from informed public to “monitorial citizenship” (Schudson, 2002). The power of this system, and its potential, lies in blending, linking and interpreting the aggregate actions of a range of actors, positioning journalists as investigators, analysis and intermediaries — not so much gatekeepers as pathfinders amidst a bewildering array of data. According to Bruns, this “thoroughly integrated complex” amounts to a “social news media network”. If ever an academic phrase belonged in a Storyful investor pitch-deck. . ,2

Notes

  • 1 This chapter was scrupulously and comprehensively referenced but, for reasons of space, secondary and following references have been omitted, as have detailed references to Bellingcat files.
  • 2 The author directed the Human Kights Investigation Lab between 2018 and 2019; the author worked at Storyful between 2011 and 2014.

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