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Russia co-opts grassroots intelligence to spread propaganda

Pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts use the tactics of open-source data investigators such as Bellingcat to claim the invasion of Ukraine is going well.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

The way we consume war has changed. Whereas once we understood conflicts through carefully packaged programmes on television and neatly-written news reports in papers, we’re now thrown headlong into a cacophony of contradictory information being swiftly presented and debunked.

On-the-ground videos and photos, coupled with analysis of satellite imagery, have revolutionised the way that military actions are monitored. Open-source intelligence, commonly shortened to OSINT, has become a crucial way of testing competing claims about what is happening in a war.

OSINT involves gathering and analysing freely available data and media to try to test the veracity of claims: compiling information from social media platforms, public databases and satellite imagery to locate where videos and photos were taken, as well as investigating their provenance. It is most commonly used by sites like the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, which has used OSINT investigation techniques to link Russia to the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines passenger flight MH17, among other things.

But it’s also being used by a slew of other groups on social media — not all of whom have the goal of sharing verifiable facts.

A number of Twitter accounts have co-opted the methods and presentational style of OSINT professionals such as Bellingcat, and taken advantage of the flattened hierarchy of social media to spread disinformation or highly skewed pro-Russian analysis of the invasion of Ukraine. In this alternate reality, contradictory to the UK Ministry of Defence’s analysis that the invasion has stalled, these accounts trumpet courageous soldiers romping across Ukraine, liberating ethnic Russians from their “neo-Nazi” overlords — the Ukrainian people. Accounts like @ASBMilitary, Gleb Bazov, @Vicktop55, @200_zoka and others are presenting a rose-tinted view of Russia’s military operation, all while aping the norms of OSINT, including complicated maps, multi-part diagrams incorporating on-the-ground images, and screenshots from videos that they claim to have pinned to a specific location.

Twitter banned @ASBMilitary’s account on 10 March, though it’s not known why. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. A scroll through an archived version of the Twitter profile can give some clues, however: the highly partisan pro-Russian account seemed only to tweet positive video and images of Russian successes in Ukraine, alongside highly questionable claims about American bioweapons being based in Ukrainian cities. Each tweet had hundreds, if not thousands, of retweets and likes, indicating that the skewed information travelled far further than the account’s 200,000 followers at the time it was shut down.

The group has since moved to Telegram, where they continue to pump out pro-Kremlin propaganda tinged with the veneer of OSINT to 61,000 subscribers, and to Gab and Gettr, two Twitter clones associated with the alt-right conspiracist movement. Their latest post on Telegram claims that the bombing of a theatre in Mariupol, which satellite imagery shows had had the word “children” daubed on the ground around it to try to warn off Russian bombers, was in fact carried out by Ukrainian soldiers linked to the far-right Azov battalion as a false flag attack.

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“Many accounts often overreach with their conclusions based off open-source analysis,” says Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, which is using its skills to document war crimes enacted by Russian forces in Ukraine. “They kind of editorialise it to a certain extent. They make conclusions in their analysis that aren’t supported by the evidence.” Higgins points out that this is happening on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

It’s a situation exacerbated by the way in which we’re being presented with information — particularly during the Ukraine invasion. The cliché that this is the first social media war has been well and truly debunked, but it is for many the closest conflict to home that they’ve experienced with a near real-time immediacy. It’s also probably one of the first to take place in a city many people will have visited, or know someone who has visited. And people are consuming information about it through social media first, before getting the context that traditional journalism provides. “Traditional sources of authority have lost their gatekeeper role, and they’ve lost a certain degree of trust,” says Higgins. “Open-source investigation, when done right, can reinforce the authority of those much more traditional sources, but it’s coming from an ad hoc, semi-amateur, dispersed network.”

Many OSINT professionals, even if part of that amateur network, follow the core rules of verification and impartial reporting. However, as we’ve become more likely to learn of Russian military losses through a 42,000 subscriber Telegram group organised by the Ukrainian government than the nightly news bulletin, and more likely to get our war analysis from niche experts pontificating in overlong Twitter threads than from TV news channels, bad actors have recognised the opportunity to co-opt the tone and format of OSINT investigations while pushing their own agenda.

It’s something that doesn’t surprise Agnes Venema, a disinformation expert at the University of Malta. “Intelligence in general and OSINT included isn’t just about getting the facts,” she says. “There’s a lot of contextualisation happening in order to create a good, useful OSINT product. But like so much other media, OSINT here is used as a propaganda tool, interpreting facts — a burned-out military vehicle is a fact — in a way that supports your cause.”

Higgins says it’s little wonder that Russia and its digital outriders have decided that if they can’t beat the OSINT tend, they’ll join it. “You have these individual Twitter accounts that are really just trying to push an agenda, rather than doing serious analysis,” he says. “They allow their pre-conceptions of something to feed into that.” It’s a tactic that Higgins has seen in a small group of die-hards who used similar techniques to try to debunk clear evidence of chemical weapons being used in Syria throughout the 2010s, but has since expanded as our reliance on social media and OSINT has grown.

“I think it’s a recognition by the anti-Bellingcat folks that open-source investigation, as much as they’ve tried to dismiss it in the past, is actually important,” says Higgins.

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