Online Education

How to use open source data to fight Russian disinformation

Sitting on the front porch of a home in Birmingham, Alabama, a self-described “college nerd” explains via Zoom how he manages one of the most followed topics on Twitter, the war in Ukraine. His account, The Intel Crab, is regularly checked by about 275,000 people.

Justin Peden, 20, shows how data can be used to uncover misinformation in today’s high-tech ecosystem. It uses geolocation, satellite imagery, TikTok, Instagram and other investigative tools to track Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

Searching the Internet for streaming webcams, videos and smartphone photos to pinpoint the location of Russian troops, aerial bombardment and the destruction of once peaceful neighborhoods is part of his daily routine. If a Russian commander denies bombing an area, Mr. Peden and other war watchers are quick to publish evidence exposing the lie.

“I never imagined what I was doing could be so important. I just wanted to let people know what was going on.” [en Ukraine]. I’m really just a regular student,” said the young man in his third year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Open source intelligence (OSINT) has become a powerful force for online detectives like Mr. Peden. They use data to pierce the fog of war thanks to computers thousands of miles away, and their impact has not gone unnoticed.

“Intelligence gathering, fact-checking and debunking happen in real time. The online community also documents the movement and deployment of Russian troops, creating something more than just a snapshot of recent history. It’s often intelligence that can be acted upon immediately,” says the veteran. science journalist. Miles O’Brien said on the PBS show in April.

That day, Mr. O’Brien referred to Mr. Peden as a “highly respected expert in the fast-growing field of open source intelligence, or OSINT,” and noted that his publications on Ukraine are being watched “both outside and inside the intelligence community.” a the washington post included it in an article on “the rise of Twitter spies”.

There is a saying that says “The first casualty of war is the truth”. But today, a change is about to happen. With the click of a button, anyone can transmit false information, no matter how dangerous, harmful or frightening. The invasion of Ukraine is a classic example of how digital falsehoods fueled a humanitarian crisis that resulted in death and mass destruction.

It is important to note that disinformation differs from disinformation in that it is not merely false, but is part of a “deliberate effort to mislead, deceive, or confuse.” In short, it’s content designed to harm.

Deutsche Welle (DW) in Germany showed how an authentication system can detect malicious actors who want to cause harm. As war loomed, DW’s fact-checking team began compiling a collection of false claims and propaganda from both sides of the conflict and issuing corrections. She also made a startling discovery: false information was being spread on her behalf.

“Fictitious pro-Russian reports pretending to come from the BBC, CNN and DW are fueling a disinformation war between Russia and Ukraine,” DW said in July. The article presents an example from the Japanese Twitter network. Here is an excerpt:

“Sounds like a DW report,” a Twitter user comments in Japanese on an alleged video from a German channel about a Ukrainian refugee who allegedly raped women in Germany, serious allegations against a man named “Petro Savchenko.” A Twitter user writes: “Please let me know the URL of the original video”. It seems that the user has good reason to doubt the origin of the video. This is not a production DW. It’s fake.”

In another case, when a Twitter user posted a video purporting to show vicious air-to-ground combat between Russia and Ukraine, DW fact-checkers traced it back to a 2013 video game.


DW asked scientists and experts for suggestions on how to make fact-checking more efficient. These tips are useful for journalists around the world. Between them :

  • Emphasize the right information rather than exaggerate claims,
  • Provide clear ratings (and avoid confusing labels like “mostly fake”),
  • Avoid making false equivalences between opposing views,
  • Place fact-checks in larger issues: don’t focus on isolated claims,
  • Analyzing and explaining the strategies behind disinformation: linking fact-checking to media and information literacy.

A better understanding of how propaganda techniques work can help disarm spinmasters. A Rand Corporation report titled “Russia’s ‘Firehose of Falsehood'” is a good place to start.

The title refers to a strategy “in which a propagandist overwhelms the public by producing a relentless stream of false information and lies.” Even blatant lies delivered quickly and continuously through multiple channels, such as newsletters and social media, can shape public opinion, the report said.

This analysis, released in 2016 at the height of the US presidential election, details how Russia’s disinformation system works.

“The report is very much in line with what’s going on today. We’re dumping buckets of vile propaganda on it,” says social scientist Christopher Paul, senior research fellow for the Defense and Peace Research Projects and co-author of the report. His research interests include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and cyberwarfare.

According to the Rand Report, Russian disinformation is defined as:

  • High volume and multiple channels
  • Fast, continuous and repeating frequency
  • Lack of commitment to objective reality
  • Lack of commitment to consistency.

The study also offers best practices to combat fake news, such as:

  • Provide warnings at the time of initial exposure to misinformation.
  • Repeat rebuttal or retraction.
  • Make corrections that provide a complementary story to help fill in the gaps in understanding when misinformation is removed.

“It all depends on journalistic requirements. All journalists really need to be in order, to be as professional as possible,” concludes Paul. “Double-checking, checking sources, confirming the source, using the data to make it accurate and reliable. The burden of truth, the burden of proof is much higher.”


Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

This article is adapted from a post on DataJournalism.com. It was edited and published on IJNet with their permission.

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