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On December 15, the ‘Digitalisation and Peacebuilding’ team of FriEnt hosted an one-hour panel discussion on the impact of open-source investigation on public and political discourse. The panelists, Tobias B. Bacherle (member of the German Parliament, Alliance 90/ The Greens), Julia Tappeiner (journalist) and a lead open source analyst from the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) elaborated on open source information to document human rights violations in the context of the war in Ukraine.
As the war in Ukraine enters its 10th month, tragedies like the massacre in Bucha (March 2022) shed a light on the severity of human rights violations occurring in Ukraine on a daily basis. While heavy fighting on the ground continues, physical access to many areas often remains restricted, leaving a multitude of human rights violations unexposed. This is why human rights investigators and journalists progressively draw on digital open source data, claims the Yale HRL investigator during the FriEnt panel. “Open source information”, she clarifies, “is any type of information that is publicly available, including social media posts, documents, images, videos, audio recordings, satellite imagery, or government-published data”. In the context of the war in Ukraine, she considers the collection of open source data of particular importance, given the broad, unprecedented, and continuous engagement with social media platforms like TikTok or Telegram. “While increasingly more citizens document relevant incidents with their smartphones as they occur on the ground, it is our job at Yale HRL to analyse and verify this data”, specifies the HRL analyst. “Ultimately, our goal as investigators is to gather evidence which proves that atrocities were committed and by whom.” In a further stage, this body of evidence may then serve as the factual foundation for human rights advocacy or legal accountability purposes.
The method of open source investigation relies primarily on technological tools and ideally produces impartial and fact-based findings. What happens, however, when those findings are embedded or mobilized in value-driven public or political discourses, is an issue that Julia Tappeiner, journalist and author for ‘Perspective Daily’, raises during the panel: “Should open source data stand independently or should it be contextualized for the public discourse; and if so, by whom”? Tappeiner illustrates this query by drawing on the recent debate surrounding the Amnesty International report on Ukrainian War Tactics, launched in August 2022. Based on open source information, the Amnesty report alleged that Ukrainian forces may have violated international humanitarian law. The publication triggered large emotional outrage in the German public sphere, for which citizens, but also journalists and experts accused Amnesty International of reversing the image of the perpetrator and the victim, ultimately supporting Russian propaganda. Part of the public response consisted of demands for the authors to resign and pressing for a funding stop for Amnesty International. During the FriEnt panel, Tappeiner voices her concern primarily about the way experts and journalists elevated the discourse from a factual to an emotionally-driven level. According to her, every human rights violation must be approached in an equally impartial manner, regardless of the circumstances. As such, Tappeiner emphasizes that open-source information actually allows for a factual analysis of human rights violations within a specific conflict setting. This in turn, can enable a nuanced response. Accordingly, public discourse could allow for a solidarization with Ukraine, without ignoring the responsibility of Ukrainian actors for human rights violations.
Nowadays, due to the ever-growing accessibility of information and the expanding participation in the digital realm, social support on a grand scale can be mobilized in a short amount of time. Consequently, this increases political pressure, says Tobias Bacherle, member of the Committee on Digital and Foreign Affairs for the Green party. While in principle Bacherle encourages public citizen engagement, he also voices concerns regarding the increased circulation of unverified data. “Legally, it is not a crime to share information out of context or to purposefully disregard contextual elements. You are allowed to highlight one side of the medal but as soon as policymaking is subjected to manipulated or false information, it becomes dangerous.”, Bacherle claims. The Yale HRL analyst further stresses that in a digital environment where information travels exceptionally fast, it is becoming increasingly time-consuming and difficult to identify fake content for open source researchers. This raises yet another challenge related to open source investigation, such as the allocation of time, funding, and other resources. Indeed, Bacherle contends that conflicts in which less open source information can be gathered due to e.g. national censorship laws and users’ access to social media platforms, consequently receive less political attention compared to conflicts with a rich information landscape. According to Tappeiner, a complication that adds to the underrepresentation of certain conflicts is the reinforcing cycle that emerges as a result of staff shortage and deadline pressure in the journalistic sphere. For this reason, many media publishing houses would rely on research conducted by NGOs to receive factual data which can then be used for contextualising evidence on human rights violations. However, many NGOs are funded by donors and direct their research focus accordingly.
To tackle the primary challenges which were highlighted during the panel, each panelist put forth a concluding remark (see below). As a general consensus, future public and political engagement with open source information ought to be improved through an interdisciplinary approach, in which the three actor groups should perceive each other's respective strengths and weaknesses.
Human rights investigators should be aware of their own biases and enforce methodologies to combat those accordingly. This may include building strong partnerships with local journalists, researchers or organizations that operate on the ground to ferret out cultural biases, and anticipating the potential of aggravating further human rights abuses through hasty publications.
Journalists and media outlets should dedicate more time to in-depth research on the conflict context, countering the trend of headline journalism and avoiding inaccurate or over-emotional reporting. As such, journalists should take efforts to renounce audience-based reporting and gain better skills in anticipating how their publications may affect public discourse.
Policymakers should make efforts to push IT companies to regulate content, so that false information will be deleted or at least contextualized. Moreover, policymakers should invest larger resources into strengthening media literacy in the population.