Insights from Bellingcat on Russia's Ukraine ambitions
Christo Grozev is a journalist and executive director of Bellingcat. He has received multiple awards for his investigative journalism, including the Nannen Prize for investigation in 2021 and the 2019 European Press Prize Investigative Reporting Award for an investigation into the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Why verification matters
- Worldwide, concern about misinformation has been on the rise, reaching 58% in 2021, according to our Digital News Report.
- Over 650 instances of fake news relating to the war in Ukraine have been detected and debunked by #UkraineFacts, a project involving 63 fact-checkers in 52 countries.
- The Centre for Information Resilience is leading a crowdsourced map of verified incidents in Ukraine, to which Bellingcat have also contributed.
Watch the video of Christo’s talk
Seven highlights from the seminar
1. A strong focus on data. “Information is often valuable, but you need to net it out of the agenda, of the noise and find the valuable information,” Christo said. He explained that this is why Bellingcat’s work is data-focused rather than based on sources, as sources often have agendas. Before the war, Christo’s team received tip-offs about what was going to happen. As these were unverified claims from sources, they didn’t publish them but they gave them some hints about the situation in the Kremlin.
“Almost a year ago I received some credible-sounding information that things would change in Russia in 2022. That it would be like nothing we've seen before, that Russia would become a dictatorship. That Russia would be North Korea 2.0 and journalists would be jailed and the free media (well, the remaining islands of free media) would be shut down. And that the country would become an army or it would run like an army,” Christo said.
More tips came in late last year, this time concerning a war with Ukraine. “Again, this was a source we couldn't use but it scared us, and it forced us to look for the data that would support or disprove this,” Christo said. As Russia amassed troops at the border, Bellingcat got to work.
2. Belingcat’s top priority: documenting war crimes. "At this point, the most important thing we can do with a relatively small team is archiving any evidence of war crimes for the near future," Christo said. Possible instances of war crimes need to be carefully fact-checked. This work isn’t yielding immediate results, but is building a valuable record for the future. Bellingcat did this during the war in Syria. But Christo said that the role of propaganda and misinformation in this conflict is different.
“It's like nothing we've seen before,” he said. “But we switched our resources to trying to archive and validate, prove and disprove war crimes and human rights violations. A lot of this work is invisible. A lot of this work will end up in courts in the future.”
3. How Bellingcat investigates the war. "Databases have allowed us to pinpoint the search of data to a particular subgroup. For example, military people or FSB [former KGB] people involved in preparations for a war," Christo said. Bellingcat is using this to track these people’s communications and movements, in particular data surges that can suggest something is being planned. They combine this with open-source public data to find an explanation.
To identify and verify possible war crimes, the process is long and involves several steps. Christo explains:
- “We have automated data collection bots that look for any TikTok, Twitter or or other social media evidence of explosions, where there seems to be residential or other buildings hit and therefore there's likely to be civilian casualties. We then duplicate all of this humongous archive of data we're getting and we've put out an appeal on Twitter to anybody who sees something that looks like a war crime. So the first step is deduplication."
- "The second step is geolocation and verification and crono-location, which is also important because a lot of the data out there on social media is actual war crimes but it's not from now. It's from other conflicts. It's from 2014 or 2015 so we have to crono-locate the event to be sure that it's from the current war."
- "Then the next step is trying to find conclusive evidence that it's the Russian side or the Ukrainian side that is the originator of the crime. And to do that, we have to look for the smallest piece of evidence such as the angle in which the crater is slanted, in one direction or another. And then try to geolocate the exact crater, put it on a compass and then to see what the angle of approach of the missile would have been, essentially creating a reverse analysis to see from where it would have come.”
This is similar to what Bellingcat has already done for previous conflicts, such as the 2015 artillery strike on Mariupol’ in South Eastern Ukraine, which they determined came from Russia. Christo said that similar investigations for the current war will be published in the future.
4. Why journalists’ role is changing. Christo explained what digitalisation means to wartime reporting: “One of the things that makes this war different from anything else is the digitalisation of the war. And the fact that because much of it is digital and the information part of it is completely digital, it has equalised the sovereign states who previously owned the propaganda machine to non sovereign actors like Bellingcat, or to real biased parties on each side who actually have the capabilities, the sophistication and the data to either put out the truth or to put out a disguised truth."
Christo explains why this is a challenge: "This makes the role of journalists a thousand times more important than in previous wars, when you only had a binary choice and when you only had to find out whether this was a piece of propaganda issued by this government or by this other government. Now we're talking about multi-vector propaganda messaging coming from bad actors on one side and from good actors also putting out fakery. So we journalists have to be the gatekeepers and to simplify this for the audience.”
5. Russian media is a minefield of fake news. "It's impossible to get on Twitter or Facebook in Russia. So Russians are defaulting to VK, the Russian version of Facebook, which is penetrated by the FSB and where every second post is a planted post," Christo said.
However, misinformation is also coming from official sources. "In the first days we saw a lot of false equivalence in European coverage, and it was dangerous. Many outlets reported on claims of both sides as if they were equivalent in value. We saw it in Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy," Christo said. Now, however, this is no longer happening and he thinks European media is doing well in their coverage of the war.
Despite warning about the dangers of giving Russian claims uncritical airtime, Christo does not support banning Kremlin propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik. "Blocking them is not really achieving any outcome other than getting Russia the false equivalence to block the BBC or Deutsche Welle," he said, noting that the German public service broadcaster has already been banned in Russia.
6. Possible next steps in the conflict. “Sources say that people around Putin are freaking out and they're thinking how to minimise the damage to themselves. And that does include thinking about how to get rid of him. And it's natural. It is not something that we haven't seen before in history,” Christo said. However, this comes from human sources and not from the data Bellingcat usually analyses. “It doesn't have to be a conspiracy theory," he said. "It's the natural inclination of the oligarchs who brought Putin into power and are now suddenly threatened, their livelihood, their existence is threatened by his anti-pragmatic behaviour.”
7. On the ethics of reporting on the Kremlin. Christo explained how Bellingcat’s transparent methods are inadvertently offering inspiration to bad actors, who read the journalists’ investigation and then use it to make their own dealings harder to spot. “In our own case, we've seen this as a multi-layer computer game where we go one level and then we teach the bad actor how to upgrade themselves,” he said.
Christo gave a disturbing example: “Yesterday I was exposed to a bad actor who is under arrest now. They found in his computer a report, an article that I had written about a an assassination attempt in Europe, and this bad actor had analysed my report. And had come up with a list of suggestions for improvement of the assassination next time around. So essentially, what we do, while it exposes a lot of the bad actors' activities, can be used as a training manual.”
This creates a moral dilemma for outlets like Bellingcat, which have to evaluate this possibility and weigh it against the public interest of their work when they choose whether or not to publish.
However, there are also clear benefits to the transparent way in which Bellingcat chooses to work. “[We are in touch with] many new allies, hackers we didn't use before, the hackers that previously were hacking for money, hackers that actually had hacked us before because they received money from the FSB. [All these people] are now leaking to us because they see that this is an evil war. So I think the downside of being too transparent is being offset by the increasing number of allies who are willing to help us get data,” Christo said.
The bottom line
Truth in war is always difficult to identify. This is complicated even further by the ease of creating and sharing content, and by the abundance of information we have access to in the digital age. However, this also means that there is ample data out there for journalists like Christo to work with and to transcend the fog of war. The verification and compilation of evidence is invaluable to hold bad actors to account and to ensure that any war crimes are exposed. In the meantime, don’t believe everything you see online.
If you want to know more...
- Follow Christo on Twitter
- Read the Bellingcat pieces identifying the suspects involved in Sergei Skripal’s poisoning in Salisbury
- Read this article on the use of open-source intelligence to obtain information about the war in Ukraine
- Read our Digital News Report 2021 for more on misinformation and trust in news globally