Open Source Investigation – the Modern Snake Oil?

Graham Phillips

Open Source investigation sounds really cool. On-trend. Similarly ‘citizen investigative journalism’. It’s reading Vice in Brick Lane on an Apple 6, while paying £5 for a bowl of cereal.

snake oilBut then back in the day ‘snake oil’ sounded quite the thing too, the elixir to cure all ills enthusiastically gobbled up for over a century across the US before finally being exposed as –

So what are the constituent parts of the ‘open source investigation’ Bellingcat have become such celebrated exponents of. Striped of the #trendyfancy nom sobriquet? Well, let’s take as a case study the Bellingcat report which played such an integral part in the MH17 investigation (cited as such in numerous media), and round up with what happened when ‘open source’ investigation tried to catch me out.

Taking photos from anywhere and everywhere is a huge part of open source investigation. Here, in the Bellingcat report, photos published on Paris Match of Fullscreen capture 14102015 025741.bmpwhat it claims are a BUK launcher moving through Donetsk on July 17th, 2014, between 10 and 11am. Bellingcat can’t be sure of the time of photos, as they admit. And that’s another key component of open source investigation – not really being sure about stuff.

‘Paris Match has claimed that the images were taken around 11 am on July 17,[5] and social media posts indicate that the Buk was in Donetsk after 9:40 am. SunCalc shadow analysis by the Ukraine@War blog suggests that the time the photograph was taken was approximately 10 am to 10:15 am.[6]

Another core of ‘open source’, the use of the word ‘claim’ – do an f and search
for the word ‘claim’ on Eliot Higgins’  ‘MH17 – The Open Source Evidence’ and watch the article light up. And one of the key ‘open source’ tenets – blurry photos, that you can say whatever you like about. 

Never mind that the ‘claimed’ (see what I did there?) BUK photos above are a Fullscreen capture 14102015 003958.bmplittle muffled, what about these of a low-loader, supposedly in 4 different places with the clarity of photos varying so much they do look like an Instagram filter has been applied. ‘Open Source Investigation Blur’, perhaps….

Once again, our audience are whisked along in the thrall of those bedroom geniuses who’ve cracked enigma, found Jack the Ripper etc and so on… they do so due to another must-do of open source, make an awful lot of all this stuff. But before that don’t care who puts this stuff out there – another open source ever-present. A screenshot taken from the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior slapped up there without so much as a passing mention that taking material from a party which could hardly be more ‘interested’, is a bit, you know, biased. So maybe that should have been choose stuff from whichever side you’re on, treat it as bible, ridicule any stuff the other side put out – as anything Russia has put forward is given short shrift indeed.

‘Since the July 21 press conference, it has been possible to establish that all four claims were false, and, in some cases, involved the Russian Ministry of Defense Fullscreen capture 14102015 002258.bmpproducing fabricated evidence to support their claims.’

So that’s that then. Another open source cornerstone is just get anyone to confirm the location of your photos (actually, these photos are usually screenshots of course, that guaranteed fuzziness they bring fertile ground for open source speculators indeed). This shot, absolutely key in the alleged ‘BUK trail’, confirmed by a ‘Luhansk local’. Well, that’s encouraging then.

Then, there’s stuff in the distance and the shadow stories – the further away it is, the more open source loves it. And those shadows, from a place of course the budding open source sleuth has never been – another open source favourite, never actually bother going to the places in question – well, just as good as a digital clock, to our open source Sherlock.

As for who posted all of this open source gold (another one below)? ‘Locals sharing information on social media’, ‘posted online several hours later’, ‘Buk missile launcher appears in one photograph and one video shared online’. The answer leads us to another sad Fullscreen capture 14102015 023234.bmptruth of open source. Sad, because I really believe open source has a part to play in journalism.

It should be an insightful augmentation to the real work of journalism – going to the place, speaking to people, ascertaining reliable source, examining evidence on site. But, that’s not how it’s worked out on MH17. Instead it’s been take the content of absolutely anyone online if it matches what you want to say, completely dismiss anything that doesn’t. 

I’ve interviewed dozens of witnesses for MH17, photographed, and video-d thousands of parts of the plane. But have Bellingcat ever once shown any interest in using my material (apart from their misusing it, another article entirely)? No, not once. Clearly I’m just not open source enough.

Maybe not. What I believe in as a journalist, is getting to the scene. The location gives you tangibles and intangibles a sofa YouTube screenshotter could never capture. There’s real people, recorded video statements (something notable by entire absence in Bellingcat report). There’s intangibles such as spending time in the place, feeling the place. To spend time on the MH17 site, just taking moments reliving events of that day, is to comprehend what happened in a way an open source shadow analyser never can.

Fullscreen capture 14102015 040834.bmpAnd on the scene, if you really put yourself there, things happen – a man gave me an important part of MH17, which had fallen by his home. I tried to get that into the official investigation for over 2 months, then yesterday, put a photo of it online. What happened? A budding, Bellingcat-aligned open-sourcer swiftly identified, from a screenshot of my GoPro footage, a ‘bow-tie fragment’ in the part (connected to the BUK missile connected to Russia), enthusiastically sharing this to followers more than keen to tweet it on – indeed it was retweeted by Eliot Higgins himself.

What did I do? Well, I had the part to hand, upon seeing this latest open source gem, took high resolution photos, posted them up on my own Twitter. 

1part 1part1

The result, an immediate open source backtrack, with ridiculous accusation that I’d somehow altered the part with a screwdriver!

Fullscreen capture 14102015 042559.bmp

And that’s what it’s come to now. Open source, so used to being feted and fawned over that, even when it’s caught out, and called out open source never admits it’s wrong. 

Snake oil was reduced to a stock joke in western movies, a part of speech. Open source is unlikely to go the same way. However it would be good to see it used in the proper way – an accompaniment to real journalism, rather than replacement. A theory based on interpretation, not a scientific validation.

My MH17 documentary will be released soon. I’ve been on the site over 60 hours now, using new technologies there – GoPro, a drone. I believe in incorporating new technologies into the work of a journalist. However the rush to embrace open source just because it’s new and ‘cool’, has come at a real cost to factual reporting.

6 thoughts on “Open Source Investigation – the Modern Snake Oil?”

  1. “so used to being feted and fawned over that, even when it’s caught out, and called out open source never admits it’s wrong. ” Sounds just like Obama / Cameron / Hollande / … fill in your favorite Western leader or lackey and Bellingcat is well on his way to political top dog any day now. Thanks for the on site reporting!!!! It’s much appreciated in this age of “official” sources who always remain anonymous and far from the actual events they claim to be experts on.


  2. Well done Graham they have tried and failed to discredit your work dont get sucked In to there traps. You have a huge following of people who know what truth is when they see it.


  3. ‘Open Source Investigation Blur’ … sounds like an excellent name for a new Instagram effect. Make the important parts of the image blurry and grey, while the irrelevant/background remains in crisp focus and full colour.


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