Hidden in plain sight?

Photographer: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Social Media Cracked the Case of MH17

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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The report issued Tuesday by the Dutch Safety Board determined that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was brought down by a Russian-developed Buk missile over eastern Ukraine. It will be several months before a separate Dutch criminal probe determines who is to blame for the tragedy, which killed almost 300 people.

But you may not have to wait that long to find out.

Instead, just go to the source for some of the evidence supporting that investigation -- a group of Internet sleuths who trawled social media and other open sources in the days after the July 17, 2014, downing and were able to establish that pro-Russian separatists had done the deed. Their remarkable forensic achievements are just the latest example of a citizen-driven open-source intelligence revolution that democratic policy makers must learn to welcome, even when it is a source of embarrassment.

Using photos and videos posted online in social media, as well as commercial satellite imagery, the British blogger Eliot Higgins and his collaborators were able to track the movements of a Buk missile launcher through rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on the day the plane was shot down. (Traffic camera footage from rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine was also helpful, notwithstanding the subsequent rebel shutdown of the cameras.) Much of this timeline was corroborated by subsequent reporting in the mainstream media. The report on bellingcat.com, the website founded by Higgins, also discredited several alternative theories of the MH17 shoot-down advanced by Russian authorities. Its blunt conclusion:

On July 17, 2014 a Buk missile launcher, originating from the 53rd Brigade near Kursk, Russia, travelled from Donetsk to Snizhne. It was then unloaded and drove under its own power to a field south of Snizhne, where at approximately 4:20 pm it launched a surface-to-air missile that hit Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew over Ukraine. On the morning of July 18, the Buk missile launcher was driven from Luhansk, Ukraine, across the border to Russia.

Higgins had played an important role in surfacing the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, methodically sifting thousands of gruesome YouTube videos for footage of telltale shards from munitions. His site, which bills itself as "by and for citizen investigative journalists," has recently featured reports not just on Syria and Ukraine, but on the U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and what Instagram and public webcam footage reveal about luxury yacht rentals by Vladimir Putin's cronies. It also serves up various "how-to" primers for budding citizen journos on using databases and geolocating tools.

Of course, U.S. intelligence and its "Five Eyes" allies -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. -- as well as other government services are already hip-deep in the social media monitoring business. As General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Wall Street Journal last year, "Social media is a new form of signals intelligence."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, funds a wide range of open-source and social media research, as do individual branches of the armed services.

Not all of it would bring a smile to Thomas Jefferson's face: A recent article described a U.S. Air Force research program that could be deployed "to use social media to control people like drones." The U.K.'s intelligence service reportedly has the capability, among other things, to change the outcome of online polls, masquerade Facebook Wall posts or manipulate a website's traffic. You can imagine what less scrupulous -- or less constrained -- intelligence services are doing.

That's why the work of Higgins, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and other noncommercial open-source intelligence outfits is so important. It advances transparency, civic engagement and government accountability, especially (but not only) in the parts of the world that lack all three. Such groups can be more nimble than government bureaucracies. They also have more credibility -- something that the intelligence agencies of some Western democracies have squandered with skewed findings, serial violations of privacy and repeated evasions of oversight. For one thing, because the material Higgins and others draw on is publicly available, anyone can check their findings. And in dangerous places beyond the easy reach of a free press, the analysis of commercially available imagery and social media monitoring offers a valuable window.

Governments can assist them. Funding can help, though it carries a whiff of sulfur and brimstone. The Middlebury Institute's Jeffrey Lewis also advocates speedier declassification of imagery -- especially footage that predates widespread commercial satellite coverage -- putting more civil databases online and ensuring the integrity of that information (not stripping out material).

Even making available older intelligence analyses to compare with subsequent discoveries and the open-source information available at the time can be a useful teaching tool. The larger challenge is to encourage the development of more peer communities that can apply rigorous analytic methods and shoot down false leads, disinformation and conspiracy theories -- exactly what's needed not just to watch the watchers, but to shine a spotlight on things that governments don't want you to see.

(Corrects 10th and 11th paragraph with name of Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, which changed its name from Monterey Institute of International Studies earlier this year.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net