In the beginning of April, As Ukraine began to reassert control over Bucha and other small towns northwest of Kyiv, horrific images began to circulate Telegram and other social networks. Photos and videos show bodies on the streets and suffering survivors describing loved ones, civilians killed by Russian soldiers. In Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, lawyer Denis Rabomiso has painstakingly created an archive of gruesome evidence. Its purpose is to keep social media posts it can help prove Russia’s war crimes.
“Psychologically, it’s very difficult to watch,” says Rabomiso, who coordinates a team of more than 50 volunteers who collect online materials and also contact witnesses of the alleged atrocities to gather evidence. “So I’m thinking about trying to archive it all properly so I can use it in the future.”
Such evidence could be presented in the coming months and years to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which said in February it will launch an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. Actions in Ukraine can also be brought before the European Court of Human Rights or in countries such as Germany that prosecute certain crimes outside their borders.
“The social media takeover from Ukraine is an incredible source of evidence,” says Alex Whiting, deputy prosecutor at the Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague and visiting professor at Harvard University. The flood of messages on TikTok and Telegram could greatly increase the amount of evidence of Russia’s alleged war crimes, but they will only help the prosecution if judges accept such material in court.
War crimes cases are usually built on eyewitness testimony, documents, and routine forensic evidence, but all of these are difficult to put together after the chaos of war. Open-source investigative techniques that combine evidence from social media posts and other sources can fill important gaps, Whiting said. But until now, they rarely appeared in such cases, and materials posted by unknown individuals were considered unreliable and at risk of manipulation.
Rabomiso and others working on the conflict in Ukraine, including investigators from bellingcat, believe they can change that with new, more stringent protocols and technologies for archiving messages. “Ukraine is likely to be the first place where open source evidence will be widely tested in court,” says Nadya Volkova, director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group. She helped Rabomiso and others document potential war crimes through an alliance of Ukrainian human rights organizations called the 5am Coalition, named after the February 24 moment when the first bombings hit Kyiv.
Although open source evidence has not been well tested as evidence of war crimes, there are signs that the idea is becoming more popular. In December, the United Nations Human Rights Office and UC Berkeley lawyers issued a legal advisory titled Berkeley protocol, to collect, verify and use evidence of human rights violations from open sources and social networks. Volkova followed protocol, and the Berkeley Human Rights Center advised her and others in Ukraine.
Gathering online evidence to meet criminal court standards requires painstaking work. The links registered by Rabomiso and his volunteers are donated to the nonprofit Mnemonic, which has created software that downloads social media posts from multiple platforms and generates a cryptographic hash to show that the material has not been altered. It stores the messages in a digital archive that will be available to investigators. Mnemonic operates similar collections for conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Sudan. His materials contributed to criminal cases filed in Germany and Sweden against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but the cases never made it to court.
This is not the first time Ukraine has become a testing ground for using online posts as evidence of war crimes. The Bellingcat team, which pioneered and promoted the public use of open source data, or OSINT, gained notoriety for investigating Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
In 2015 Bellingcat concluded that the plane was shot down by a Russian army missile, in part by analyzing photographs posted online showing the missile launcher moving through part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists and losing one missile along the way. An investigation by the Netherlands later independently reached the same conclusion.
A few years later, Bellingcat investigators spoke with lawyers from the nonprofit Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) about how gaps in evidence of civilian deaths in Yemen from Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes were an impediment to lawsuits. Since then, the two organizations have used the open source video to contribute to a case brought under UK law against arms suppliers whose products were used in the attacks. GLAN and Bellingcat are also jointly developing a stricter methodology for collecting online videos and other materials used in investigations. The protocol is still under development, but it will be used on material from Ukraine that the court believes could reveal potential crimes. Bellingcat plans to publish the methodology once it’s finalized.
This protocol requires investigators to use a clean and unused computer account and cookie-free web browser, and to carefully record each step taken, such as what search terms they entered and why. Designed primarily for law enforcement, software called Hunchly also records every action an investigator takes. It captures every page a person views, assigns it a timestamp, and stores a cryptographic hash. “This is a little more onerous than a normal investigation, but we are trying to get to the point where you can present our evidence to a judge who has never heard of OSINT and has never been on Twitter,” says Nick Waters, a Bellingcat investigator who works with GLAN. “I want to use this information to hold people accountable for their actions.”
Last year, Waters and Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins took part in a parody of the court co-organized with GLAN, during which opposing lawyers argued over the credibility of the material the group had collected in front of a British judge who now serves on the International Criminal Court. Ultimately, the judge decided that open source evidence was valid.
Bellingcat also passes links to posts from Ukraine that merit further investigation to Mnemonic for archiving. It has helped the nonprofit sell several hundred thousand items since it launched in March. Mnemonic has also developed tools to help investigators search for and verify open source information as they build cases around specific incidents. Hadi al-Khatib, chief executive of Mnemonic, says the volume of material from Ukraine is far greater than from any conflict he has seen before, and the amount of material posted on TikTok and Telegram is greater than in previous conflicts documented by open source researchers. sources.
What is not new about working on the war in Ukraine is that social platforms often pull messages is of interest to investigators for violating the violence image policy. According to al-Khatib, valuable evidence that is not collected in time by Mnemonic or others through rigorous methods could be lost forever. “I don’t understand why social media companies don’t create tools to help the human rights community do what we do,” he says.
Twitter spokeswoman Elizabeth Busby did not comment on whether the company specifically supports open-source researchers, but said all researchers can use the company’s “uniquely open” API to access public tweets. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment; Meta spokesman Drew Pusateri declined to comment.
Even without the help of social platforms, investigators will have a potentially huge amount of material to sift through. ICC Prosecutor last month requested new funding for technology to help his office process video and other digital evidence. Despite new archiving protocols, the required screening can be a sticking point in court. “The defense will be concerned that the information is carefully selected and that potentially exculpatory information has been omitted,” says Whiting, Kosovo’s deputy prosecutor.
Al-Khatib and others working to gather evidence of potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine remain optimistic that the flood of tweets, TikTok and Telegram messages could lead to more accountability than in previous conflicts. “If it starts to be recognized as a standard, you will have a much larger pool,” says Dirbla Minogue, a GLAN lawyer. “And it will greatly increase the chances of being prosecuted for any atrocity.”
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