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Practical Techie: The web as a tool to help discern Ukraine

The old saying that truth is the first casualty of war resonates again to the world in 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine by Russian assault troops. The attack on Ukraine is shaping up to be Europe’s first major armed conflict of the social media age.

Wars are tragically very visual, and doctored videos, photographs, and TV streams fly about the Internet like projectiles during an air, sea, or land invasion. Smartphone access to a war zone unleashes crude images that need authentication for truth or propaganda instruments.

The web, as a remedy, is itself the best go-to source for serious research about any ongoing situation.

INTEL — As the Russian action unfolds day by day, one reliable web tool used by savvy Internet users is dubbed “Open Source Intelligence.” OSINT means collecting information from openly available sources online with methods that include data mining, keyword crawling techniques, deep data extractions from official documents, and legally hacking into analysis sites.

Malicious hackers often use such techniques but, for the most part, are perfectly legal and designed to help home in on public view data. Typical users include news media researchers, national security, law enforcement, or business intelligence functions.

TOOLS — OSINT is free of charge, although deeper searches may cost. One of the most straightforward tools to use is the Harvester, a site designed to capture public information through powerful search engines. Another is Babel Street, a dedicated search engine used to find intelligence about the Internet of all things, including blogs, social media, message boards, and news sites in countries such as Ukraine. The product will geolocate an information source and perform text analysis in 200 languages.

In rapid-changing situations such as wars or natural catastrophes, serious researchers and reporters use OSINT data to piece together the reality of what is happening on the ground at any given moment. These researchers usually work as a loosely organized community, primarily based on Twitter.    

SHORTFALLS — It is important to note that OSINT analysts are acutely aware that their work may be playing into the Kremlin’s hands. Cyberattacks are a new front in all present-day military operations, and everyone is learning how to be on the offensive and the defensive.

Despite cyberattacks, the Internet in Ukraine was still broadly accessible, indicating that the Kremlin does not want to suppress footage depicting any success on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the top OSINT sleuths try to pick holes in Kremlin rhetoric. For example, by closeup analyses of the wristwatches of several participants in a security council meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, researchers determined it was not a live session as announced by the Kremlin, rather a staged event.   

MAPS — Maps are another web information tool for authenticators. Researchers comb-over satellite traffic maps on Google to determine real-time troop movements amidst the chaos in Ukraine. In the old days, citizens relied on news reporters on the ground, but now researchers pore over satellite map services on the Web for scenes of people fleeing battlefields. This is because map applications or earth observation companies such as Capella Space typically track real-time cellphone locations to indicate a traffic jam or a car crash.

SOCIAL — Social media unravel a new “fog of war” situation. Social media companies are constantly learning how to deal with the new dynamics of human upheaval, including in recent years grappling with a pandemic, Middle East instability, a fraught US presidential election and political insurrection, and now as the war unfolds in Europe.

So much that already on the first week of the Russian invasion, Facebook and Twitter shut down at least 40 purveyors of misinformation. In turn, Russia shut down Facebook.

It is a fact that TikTok videos, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms took much of the element of surprise out of warfare and preparations for war with images that, of course, always need strong validation. The challenge is to keep the channels open amid the fog of manipulation.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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