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Social Media and Conflict Zones: The New Evidence Base For Policymaking

January 20, 2015

By Eliot Higgins

Originally posted on King’s College London’s Policy Institute blog Policy Wonkers.

In recent years, content shared via social media from conflict war zones has allowed us to gain a far deeper understanding of the on-the-ground realities of specific conflicts than previously possible. This presents a real opportunity for providing robust evidence which can underpin foreign and security policymaking about emerging, or rapidly escalating, conflict zones. Despite this opportunity, however, policymakers have generally been slow to adapt to the volume of information disseminated on social media from various armed groups in Syria and slower still to use this as an evidence base for policy generation.

In the case of the Syrian conflict, for example, far more information in the public domain comes not from journalists on the ground (who, it goes without saying face extreme danger in attempting to report from many parts of Syria) but from social media and user generated content online.

In 2012, the video streaming site Bambuser was adopted by groups opposing the Syrian government to livestream videos of protests and violence from across Syria. The situation changed as violence escalated and internet access in opposition-controlled areas became increasingly limited. Today, this means that the vast majority of social media accounts being used by the Syrian opposition are associated with specific locations, media centres, or armed groups. This provides researchers with a real opportunity to understand the actors and events taking place on the ground.

This approach has its advantages: because comparatively few people in opposition areas are using social media, and they tend to be associated with specific groups, it is possible to collect and organise the majority of the social media accounts that are being used in opposition controlled areas. These accounts can be monitored for activity, and cover the majority of information coming from opposition controlled areas through social media. This can provide a detailed and dynamic picture of the conflict as well as a detailed understanding of the various armed groups.

There are challenges in this approach, however. The most obvious, in the Syrian context, is that researchers are limited to what those groups post online – and perhaps more importantly, that this often represents a narrow perspective on the conflict in opposition areas. A second problem is neatly illustrated by the Bellingcat research on the current conflict in Ukraine. Here, the opposite is true: because internet access is not limited, anyone can post anything they like online and they can post to a wider variety of social media sites. Granted, this vast amount of information posted from a huge variety of sources provides a richer picture, but it is also one that is harder to access through the ‘noise’ of other material.

Open source intelligence analysis has the potential not only to inform us about various actors and events on the ground, but also to allow us to piece together disparate pieces of information into a wider, more investigative, piece of research. In Bellingcat’s MH17 investigation, the research team compiled information from dozens of different sources, discovered by searching through thousands of social media accounts from Ukraine and Russia, on a wide variety of social media sites. Using this information it was possible to track the movements of a Buk missile launcher on July 17th through separatist-controlled territory to the likely launch site of the missile that downed MH17. The team was also able to find videos from multiple sources of exactly the same missile launcher travelling as part of a convoy through Russia towards the Ukrainian border a few weeks before MH17 was downed. The evidence was sufficiently robust to allow us to conclude that the Buk seen in Ukraine on July 17th originated from the Russian military.

Our research on the Buk missile launcher demonstrates that not only is there a wealth of largely untapped information available online and especially on social media, but also that a relatively small team of analysts is able to derive a rich picture of a conflict zone. Clearly, research of this kind must be underpinned by an understanding of the way in which content is being produced, who is sharing it, and, crucially, how to verify it – and these are methodological challenges which need to be addressed systematically. Nonetheless, the overarching point is that there is a real opportunity for open source intelligence analysis to provide the kind of evidence base that can underpin effective and successful foreign and security policymaking. It is an opportunity that policymakers should seize.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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One Comment

  1. Steve

    Speaking of systematic methodology, how would it be to validate the source of pictures and obtain originals, instead of working with copies.

    The issue I see with these OSINT approaches is, that there is absolutely no way of trusting relationships, like in real intelligence scenarios.
    The simple reason is lack of accountability due to anonymous sources… These resources have a great potential, but relying real world policy questions on them is very dangerous, as these are mostly not marketing based topics, but effecting peoples lives.

    You can be sure, that intelligence agencies are ahead of your ideas of sourcing open information and more importantly connecting them.
    But they simply have to be accountable for their results, so have to omit a lot of information which simply isn’t possible to verify.

    So trying to emulate these methods through crowds is very naive, as it will simply just be another opinion generator and multiplier.

    Obviously your company will be able to generate some money with this, by selling these “investigations” to news outlets, but this will only lead to a further deterioration of journalism, which will not have the resources to actually investigate topics.

    So you might call this revolutionary, I would call this the wet dream of every populist.


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