The Israel-Hamas war highlights the power (and the limits) of open-source reporting

“This war has emphasised the need for newsrooms to build out this type of skill set,” says Nadine Ajaka of the ‘Washington Post’
8th December 2023

News organisations have struggled to report accurately on the Israel-Gaza war. The conflict presents many challenges. International reporters are not allowed to report from the ground. Local journalists are being killed in record numbers by Israel’s military campaign. Misinformation is constantly posted on social media by public officials and partisan sources, and filtering through public discourse. 

Amid this difficult environment, some reputable news outlets have made a few serious mistakes. The most prominent one was the explosion at the car park of Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City on 18 October. 

Many global news organisations initially published Hamas-led health ministry’s version that the blast had been caused by an Israeli strike. As new images of the site challenged this version, it became impossible to be certain about the cause of the explosion. 

As a result, media outlets issued a flurry of corrections. The New York Times even published a long Editors’ Note saying that their report “left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.” 

How can journalists avoid these kinds of pitfalls? One possible answer to this question is the use of open source investigation techniques, often referred to as open source intelligence or OSINT journalism. 

While these techniques have been employed in journalism for some time, they’ve received even more attention in the last few years for its role in covering the wars in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Gaza. Newsrooms like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the BBC have recently beefed up their visual investigation teams. In this piece, I spoke with three prominent OSINT journalists about the way they report on difficult issues and about the challenges posed by this powerful skill set. 

OSINT journalism: why now?

The term ‘open source journalism’ refers to doing investigations using data that is out in the open. This can range from social media posts to satellite imagery. “We rely on data sources we find through the internet, through some sort of digital means,” says Kolina Koltai, a senior researcher and trainer at Bellingcat, an outlet founded by Eliot Higgins which pioneered OSINT journalism in investigations such as the ones on the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 or the Salisbury poisonings

The proliferation of social media and smartphone cameras with high-speed internet connection has been crucial for the rise of open source investigations, says Manisha Ganguly, an investigations correspondent for the Guardian and an expert on the field. These factors have created an environment where it’s easier to document any events through its digital trace. 

This is why OSINT journalism is so valuable in war zones. “These kinds of visual evidence or imagery creates new ways of forensically analysing the ground reality that is being reported by civilians and allowing us to confirm the atrocities they are experiencing firsthand,” Ganguly says. “At the same time, it allows us to fact-check the claims being made by state actors engaged in conflict.”

Bellingcat’s Koltai, who’s also a specialist in misinformation, says that open source is especially important in times of conflict as there is much uncertainty as well as a constant influx of breaking news. “It is a ripe environment for misinformation and disinformation to flourish,” she says. “We're trying to fill what’s called data voids, so there's a lot of things we don't know and misinformation tends to fill those gaps really easily.”

OSINT journalism on Gaza

Since the war started in early October, open source investigations teams have been hard at work. Bellingcat analysed footage from the sites of two attacks at kibbutzim in Israel using geolocation to learn what happened. Similarly, the Washington Post’s Visual Forensics team used videos, photos and satellite images to map some of the places where the Israeli Defence Forces have advanced inside Gaza. 

Many teams also looked for answers on what really happened at the car park of the Al-Ahli hospital, but in this case their reporting was inconclusive. 

One of those teams looking at the blast was the Washington Post’s visual forensics team. Its executive producer Nadine Ajaka explains that due to the lack of weapons fragments, no team is in a position to say anything conclusively. 

“We took our time with the story by really carefully assessing what visuals were out there, putting them together and talking to several experts in a variety of different fields to see if we could better understand what happened,” she says. “The evidence was always going to be circumstantial, whether it's from us, or from any outlet without a crucial smoking gun. All we can say is ‘it likely is this or looks like this’, but we can’t really say conclusively what hit the hospital.”

While open source techniques can fill gaps in journalism, the key, however, is not just to rely on visual data to draw conclusions, but to combine open source investigations with traditional reporting techniques, such as testimonial evidence or on-the-ground reporting.  But on-the-ground reporting is particularly difficult and dangerous in this conflict, as Palestinian journalists are being killed, there is intermittent access to internet and electricity, and Israel has not been granting any foreign journalists entry to the Gaza Strip. 

Ajaka stresses her team does not operate in a vacuum. It works closely with other desks in the newsroom and with a variety of other sources and experts depending on the story, including national security advisors, rocket and missile experts and academic researchers, among many others. “There is always some sort of interplay between open source reporting and more traditional source-based reporting that factors into the stories that we do,” she says. 

At the Guardian, Ganguly, who has used her expertise to report on war crimes and hold perpetrators to account, says it is important to forensically analyse testimonies, work with journalists on the ground and review audiovisual evidence when reporting on war events and to make sure any conclusions you present are correct “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

For Koltai, the link with traditional journalism is especially important in wartime as it allows journalists to verify what opposing sides are claiming. “Open source helps put together additional components that add clarity at times when we don't know which side to trust. Sometimes it even makes us even check our own biases,” she says. 

An influx of misinformation

In the weeks since Hamas’ attack on 7 October, social media has been flooded with visuals of civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza. But we’ve also seen an onslaught of false imagery either from past conflicts or created with AI tools. 

“We’ve seen a ton of footage that was being recycled and reused from other conflicts that are not even related to Israel and Gaza going viral in the past few weeks,” Bellingcat’s Koltai says.

These images and videos range from claims of massive pro-Palestinian marches in Israel calling for a ceasefire and Israeli forces shooting inside Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital, to Hamas tunnels being exposed in Gaza and claims that Palestinian civilian casualties are fake crisis actors. Many of these claims have been spread on X by paying accounts and even by Israeli government officials and the official Israel account. 

“The one thing that's particularly egregious is that there’s already so many images that are real and authentic from Israel and Gaza showing actual horrible things that are happening that you don’t need to use content from other places to try to make it whatever message,” Koltai says. 

Ajaka and her team at the Washington Post have also noticed an increase of misinformation which she attributes to the nature of the conflict as well as to the sheer quantity of visuals there are to repurpose. 

“There are just a lot of other visuals to draw from,” she explains. “It also says something about people’s willingness to believe what they read or see because of preconceived notions.” 

This influx of misattributed imagery and disinformation is making it more challenging for newsrooms to keep up, particularly as they lack teams and journalists with open source skills. 

“Most of the world's leading organisations have quickly caught on and have hired staff journalists like myself, who focus exclusively on open source, investigative reporting,” says the Guardian’s Ganguly. “The ones that are not doing so are falling behind because their ability to fact-check is reliant on [outside] experts.”

Here come the fakers

This lack of open source experts might be one of the reasons why self-proclaimed OSINT experts with no affiliation have popped up on social media in the last couple of months. Many lack the professional skills learnt by journalists like Koltai and Ganguly and parrot partisan views on the current war. 

Ganguly says these self-proclaimed experts can often get the information wrong and spread misinformation as a result. 

She attributes their rise to two reasons. The first one is that new verification rules on X make it difficult to figure out who is and who isn’t an expert. It is worth pointing out that many of those blue-badge experts  also earn money from revenue and subscriptions, and the money they earn is based on engagement. The more views they have, the more money they get.

The second reason is the nature of the current conflict. “As OSINT went mainstream, grifters (or those with no journalistic or technical expertise) are filling up the space to capitalise on it,” Ganguly says. “In many cases, they are regurgitating state propaganda on what is possibly one of the most complicated and sensitive conflicts to cover. Most people covering it are white men in the Global North with little to no understanding of the historical context.” 

While Ajaka does not rebuke the idea of somebody who is enterprising and learns how to do this type of investigation, she warns against taking what we see online at face value.  

“A lot of this can be kind of convincing, and because not a lot of newsrooms necessarily have built out that expertise, it may lead to an environment where misinformation can flourish, which we have seen a lot with this specific conflict,” she says.

Digital skills for the digital age 

Big newsrooms can afford to beef up their teams with experts in open source investigations. But what about smaller newsrooms? How can they manage to surf this wave? These skills are not only useful to verify war claims. They can be used to cover many other issues. 

For example, the Guardian used a file uncovered in the archives of the India Office, the government department that was responsible for Britain’s rule over the Indian subcontinent, to detail the origin of many of the Crown’s jewels. Bellingcat used open source vessel tracking data to investigate claims from Equatorial Guinea's government that they use a luxury yacht for military operations. 

“There’s still people who’ll do the kind of old-school reporting that shows up at your door, talks to you and hits the street to get reports,” says Koltai. “But particularly when it comes to events that are happening outside of where we live, journalists need to have these digital skills.” 

Bellingcat has been at the forefront when it comes to providing journalists with these skills. They hold multiple workshops every year that allow journalists to start getting experiences in open source techniques. 

“Increasingly, because of the digital nature of the documentation of these conflicts, open source investigations are going to become a core part of news gathering techniques for most news organisations,” Ganguly says.

In 2022, the Washington Post’s visual forensics team significantly expanded adding six positions to their team. Ajaka, who leads the current team of eight, says that these reporting techniques can also add to transparency in reporting as it shows readers precisely what is known (and what is not known) and how investigations are carried out. 

“This war has emphasised the need for newsrooms to build out this type of skill set,” Ajaka says, “simply because there is limited access on the ground to what's happening and limited access to sources. I don't think that open source reporting techniques should replace traditional reporting. But when it can be a complement to it, that’s when the best work happens."

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