Whatever You Call It — Open Journalism, Social Media Journalism, Open-Source Intelligence — It's Going Mainstream

from the first-draft-of-first-draft dept

We’ve written a couple of times about the use of publicly-available information, typically posted on social networks, to verify developing stories where traditional sources are scarce or unreliable. This new field doesn’t seem to have a fixed name yet — open journalism, social media journalism, open-source intelligence are all used — but whatever it is, it’s clearly going mainstream, as this announcement on the YouTube blog of The First Draft Coalition makes clear:

You could say that user-generated news video is today?s “first draft” of capturing an event that took place. But when it comes to incorporating this content into the reporting of a news event, verification is a critical step for any newsroom — and not every journalist knows where to start. So we’re bringing together a group of thought leaders and pioneers in social media journalism to create educational resources on how to verify eyewitness media, and how to consider the ethics of using it in news reporting. This new group, called The First Draft Coalition, will consist of experts from Eyewitness Media Hub, Storyful, Bellingcat, First Look Media’s Reported.ly, Meedan, Emergent, SAM Desk, and Verification Junkie. The Coalition will develop and program a new site for verification and ethics training, tools, research, and, most importantly, case studies around the biggest news stories of the moment.

As the post explains, The First Draft Coalition will be launching its own site later this year, but you can get a taste of the kind of thing it will be doing from examples on Medium. There’s an article there by Eliot Higgins from Bellingcat, whom we wrote about last year, and who is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of the art. His post is well-worth reading, since, as he writes:

When working on open source and social media investigation there’s occasional images that at first seem as if they would be impossible to verify.

He posts one of those images, found by the Twitter user surpher:

Of course, Higgins then goes on to pinpoint the exact position in Russia of the military convoy shown there, using not just the image’s co-ordinates (which anyway need to be verified) but tiny signs in the photo, including road markings, half-visible posts and cracks in the road that most of us would miss completely. It’s an amazing performance, and demonstrates well the incredible potential of this field. Whatever it’s called.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Whatever You Call It — Open Journalism, Social Media Journalism, Open-Source Intelligence — It's Going Mainstream”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That. I think we shouldn’t be making such regulatory distinction of journalists that have a degree and those who don’t. In the end, the difference is just how well the end result of the investigative work is presented but the value of having something brought to light that would have remain hidden otherwise must not be diminished just because the person reporting on it doesn’t have a ‘journalist’ title.

Not so fast on assuming NEW is better says:

Since specifically mention Bellingcat, readers should know of a "fully discredited Bellingcat MH17 report".

Knew this would come up here someday, especially with this minion who’s definitely eager to stenograph The Official Story that it’s Russia behind propaganda and causing the confrontations.


Under the headline “What we learn from the coverage of the Bellingcat report,” Der Spiegel’s online edition has published an apology for taking it at face value. … Der Spiegel exposed, on June 5, one of the authors of the by now fully discredited Bellingcat MH17 report as a former Stasi employee.

Pooh-pooh the link all you want (it is a bit hard to follow starting in middle of this flap). Der Spiegel is a bit tougher to wave away.

But mainly, if you don’t at least suspect that EVERY source may be tainted by US / UK / Israel intelligence agencies, then you’re a fool.

Vintermann (profile) says:

Re: Since specifically mention Bellingcat, readers should know of a "fully discredited Bellingcat MH17 report".

I am worried that he’s working for the Atlantic Council, and that similarly elitist groups of people who think policy should be left to the experts (them) are wooing him like crazy.

But so far, it doesn’t matter. Because everything they do is verifiable and up in the open. There are no anonymous sources, no authoritative narrative-pushing, just a lot of individually trivial but verified facts, that together paint really damning pictures.

As long as he sticks to his modus operandi, the worst that can happen is that they are selective about the general conflict they focus on. Even that is unlikely, since it seems the other 7 in Bellingcat are quite politically diverse (including even a former Stasi man, as you point out).

Bellingcat’s MH17 coverage is truly damning. It does not rely on the error level analysis thing in the slightest.

It’s rather funny. The guys can literally track the BUK launcher that shot down MH17 from town to town, with data you can verify yourself, but we’re supposed to throw it all out because of an error level analysis that really wasn’t sufficient to conclude editing?

Prokofy Neva (profile) says:

As geolocation is something I spend a lot of time on myself, I can tell you that this is not so magical.

The photo of the armor above was taken by someone with an iPhone or Android Phone set to track the person’s geolocation, and when it was uploaded to VKontakte, a popular Russian social network, it showed its exact coordinates — click through all the links and you’ll come to that.

But how was that photo found, you ask? Isn’t that a miracle?

No, because there was a video uploaded from Stary Oskol with Buks that got a lot of attention as people watch for these things. Then after they have a sighting they looked for “photos near” using the functiong on VKontakte. If they have one photo in Stary Oskol, they can click and see an entire deck of all of them and go cruising through.

Stary Oskol, a Russian town, has Google Street View, and so it’s easy to go right in from those coordinates on the map and see what the road looks like and match something like a crack in Google’s view and in the photo.

Stary Oskol has gotten a lot of attention because Buks were spotted there (it’s a Russian city near the Ukrainian border) by teenagers taking amateur videos and then the same Buks were found later in Ukraine by Bellingcat’s team.

This business is not as open as its boosters claim, however. Like many “open source” things, it’s actually dominated by very closed societies. Most of the people doing this locating are anonymous using pseudonyms. So you don’t know who you are dealing with. They say they have to use pseudonyms to be protected from “Kremlin trolling” if they are in the West or even arrest or worst if they are in Russia or Ukraine. Yet the most reputable ones doing this don’t use pseudonyms and work closely with journalists who actually check out these stories on the ground.

I know surpher @5urpher well, he has helped me out when I have been stuck on hard finds a number of times and I see him drop in on others stumped and give them crucial clues. How does he do this? Most likely he’s an ordinary guy who lives in this region and knows the terrain well, and obsesses over maps and pictures on Twitter. But maybe he’s in intelligence? And how can we know? Some of his finds are just too incredible.

Yet even to suggest this, I’ve found, gets some of these anonymous sources so angry that they block you or stop following you and they will never talk to you again.

Like many geeks in these sorts of “magical” causes, they are incredibly thin-skinned and sometimes wildly angry and crazy.

There is no substitute for real life in meat-world. Elliot Higgins rightly deserves credit for his painstaking work (and it takes hundreds of hours so only the most geeky nerds would stick with it) and for putting this method on the map, literally and figuratively. Yet it’s when someone like Simon Ostrovsky of Vice checks his work and actually travels the thousands of miles to these locations and confirms them that they hold up.

And lurking behind this is an Internet ideology that ultimately seems to imagine that all of us can force politicians and generals and oligarchs we don’t like into a Panopticon where we can use all the clues they leave in official media or accidental social media into “gotchas,” that makes “the crowd” doing magic geolocation to be “democratically” in charge, “holding feet to the fire.”

I’ve seen entire castles of air built on scrutinizing videos over and over and matching them to random things — such as the contention that the POWs at Krasny Partizansk were executed — which those released and some other key eye witnesses don’t confirm this. Nobody has really done the due diligence required to check that story because in part it’s labor intensive and in part it’s dangerous, the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” militants are deadly and harsh to journalists who don’t get their approval and take their escorts and essentially embed with them.

Yet old-fashioned journalism by foot on the beat and making cold real phone calls really does beat pixels. All of this social media stuff is routinely dismissed by the Russian government and all they do is close down any accounts associated with it. If the State Department invokes it, they are dismissed.

And whenever the conclusions don’t suit anyone in power, including liberal mainstream media, it will be dismissed as couch warrior stuff. Only if geolocation is accompanied by old-fashioned journalistic methods can it be credible.

Socrates says:

Re: Journalists and social media

There seam to be a growing divide between real Journalists, both in social media and in more traditional media, and fluff “journalists” covering celebrity “news” and propaganda.

I like that fluff media loose viewers,
while i deeply respect real Journalists.

I’m sad that so much actual Journalism has become dangerous. Whether it is Glenn Greenwald, Al Jazeera, reporting from Ukraine, or other contested places.

I’m also unbelievable grateful!

Patrick (profile) says:


Open Source Intelligence now goes hand in hand with Social Media. A major component of OSINT is social media OSINT is frequently misunderstood as only coming from social media sites, (i.e. Social Media Intelligence SOCMINT). But OSINT also includes other sources like public speeches, public documents (digital and hardcopy), public broadcasts and commercial websites. The data can be acquired directly from the source, or though data aggregators or feed services such as Lexis Nexis

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