Yesterday (Sunday 31 May), Bellingcat published an investigation into satellite imagery released by the Russian Ministry of Defence during a press conference on July 21 after the downing of flight MH17 – showing that "it's all lies", according founder Eliot Higgins.
The Atlantic Council's Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine report is based entirely on open source intelligence (OSINT) – freely available information found around the web.
"Anyone can go and double check our working," he said, "and if they disagree with us they can go through the same process we've gone through to say why we're wrong."
Some of the case studies presented in the Atlantic Council report include images sourced from Russian social network VKontakte.
Other evidence of Russian military presence around Ukrainian cities such as Luhansk and Donetsk is uncovered through geolocating images and finding vehicles with identifying features, as explained in detail in the report.
Higgins first put open source investigations in the spotlight with his Syrian arms blog Brown Moses, before setting up Bellingcat 'by and for citizen investigative journalists'.
He told Journalism.co.uk OSINT is "still a very new area, vastly under-tapped and under-resourced".
Putting together this type of in-depth analysis is a matter of digging through "a massive amount of material online" and finding the relevant information, said Higgins.
Bellingcat's investigations make use of images freely available through Street View on Google Maps or social media posts, for example.
The availability of this information online means citizen investigators, journalists, or anyone willing to put in the work can "challenge the narratives of governments when they make a claim", he said.
And as the OSINT movement is gaining ground, media outlets, NGOs and other organisations have an incentive to start publishing more information about their sources as well.
It's a chance to "be very thorough and present that kind of thoroughness to your audience... rather than saying 'my secret source says this'", explained Higgins.
The Bellingcat analysis of a video of a Buk missile launcher allegedly connected to the downing of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 was published earlier today, for example, includes the detailed steps taken in the investigation.
Higgins outlined the process of investigating such visuals for Journalism.co.uk – detailing how it all starts with either geolocating the footage or verifying the location of the event, if such information is made available.
Finding images to cross-reference a particular location is an important part of the process, and some of the tools used at Bellingcat include Panoramio for geotagged images, Yandex or Google maps for Street View, and "just looking at sites where people have posted holiday photographs of the area", he said.
It is possible for a single person to do this type of investigation "but collaboration does help".
Bellingcat has eight volunteer investigators, and Higgins also has tens of thousands of Twitter followers interested in helping out.
"We publish this stuff and we have journalists going out there on the ground looking into [it] and finding even more information," he said.
"It's not just about using the information that's open, it's also about being open about the information you produce."
- Eliot Higgins will be a running an open-source investigations workshop as part of Journalism.co.uk's news:rewired conference on 17 July, where he will give practical guidance to delegates on the tools and techniques used in his work. Find out more on the news:rewired website.
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