Soon after the chemical weapons attack on residents of Ghouta, Syria in August 2013, analysts, journalists and policymakers scrambled to understand who was responsible. The prospect of American intervention hinged in part on what they discovered.
U.K.-based Eliot Higgins had made a name for himself among reporters and conflict analysts for his ability track weapons in the Syrian civil war using open sources—that is, news reports, social media postings and amateur videos that anyone can access.
Higgins was also looking for answers in the Ghouta attack. It seemed likely the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad was to blame. But then one of Higgins’ correspondents forwarded him some compelling videos. They appeared to implicate Syria’s rebels as the perpetrators of the gas attack.
The videos depicted men with gas masks and flags bearing the logo of Liwa Al Islam, an Islamist militant group in Syria. The men made a point of showing off a specific kind of rocket reportedly used in the chemical attack.
“I’m giving you a heads up, these videos appear to be new and you will have to deal with them,” the correspondent wrote in an e-mail. “I will not speak to the authenticity of this video, but what it shows is obvious.”
But the videos were a hoax—one meant to deflect blame away from the Syrian regime. And that kind of disinformation is becoming more common, and more dangerous, as powerful entities increasingly hijack open-source information.
As Higgins documented , the weapons, timing and publication didn’t line up with known facts about the chemical attacks or Liwa Al Islam’s media outlets. Someone, in other words, was trying to trick Syria-watchers into absolving the Al Assad regime.
The proliferation of cell phones and the Internet has made the work of analysts like Higgins a lot easier. It’s put cameras in the hands of people in virtually every country in the world and given them the means to distribute their videos and pictures.
It’s created a wealth of freely-available data about events across the globe, making conflict analysis at a distance possible like never before.
But it’s not just reporters and analysts who have noticed the power of open sources to shape the public’s understanding of war. More and more, participants in those conflicts are aware of what open sources like social media reveal about them.
Of course, the proliferation of forgery is hardly a recent development. Back during the Cold War, spy agencies such as the KGB used to drop fake letters in friendly dead-tree newspapers in order to get the ball rolling on a disinformation campaign. Maybe you’ve heard about a few.
But today’s media environment has added a new dimension to the fakery game. Using faked pictures and videos on social media, sometimes laced with malicious software, some are trying to piggyback on the popularity of open-source analysis in order to muddy the waters.
Case in point—the July shoot-down of Malaysian jetliner MH17. In the wake of the disaster, eagle-eye open-source analysts including Higgins and others managed to trace the Buk missile system responsible for destroying the jetfrom Russia, into the hands of Russian-backed rebels, to the site of its fateful launch and its quiet slink back into Russia.
The sleuthing became a much-celebrated symbol of the power of open sources, but the reaction from the Kremlin was telling. Faced with evidence that its proxies in Ukraine had committed a terrible crime, Russian officials tried to turn the tables with a social media case of their own.
In what looked like a nod to their open source nemeses, Russia’s general staff trotted out a video of the allegedly responsible Buk missile system, released by the Ukrainian government on YouTube, moving next to a billboard for a car dealership.
Russia pushed back on the claims, arguing that a blow-up image of the billboard showed an address in Krasnoarmeysk, a town in Ukrainian government control — the implication being that Buk was Ukrainian, not Russian.
The blow-up was, in all likelihood, a forgery. Aric Toler, a Russia analyst and columnist for Global Voices, dug deeper and discovered the car ad in the billboard was a generic one, not tailored with an address in Krasnoarmeysk.
In fact, Toler noted , Krasnoarmeysk hadn’t even participated in the dealership promotion. Lugansk, where the Ukrainian government argued the film was taken, had.
Sometimes, though, social media fabrications aren’t as amusing. On Christmas of 2010, Iran hastily told the public it would be executing Habibollah Latifi, a Kurdish activist and political prisoner held by Iran, prompting protests in Iran and around the world.
Read more https://medium.com/war-is-boring/be-very-skeptical-a-lot-of-your-open-source-intel-is-fake-5e4a5d5a9195