Smartphones and digital platforms are enabling people to watch the state—uncovering lies and holding the powerful to account. Evidence from open-source investigations is now being used by the United Nations and The International Criminal Court.
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Modern technology is helping the state watch its citizens but that same technology is also letting citizens watch the state.
The rise of social media and the proliferation of smartphones has made it easier than ever for people to consume news - but not all this information is true. Some governments use these platforms to disseminate propaganda and monitor citizens behavior. Now this technology has also helped to turn the tables on of the powerful.
Alexa Koenig is a law professor and investigator. She gathers evidence from multiple digital sources to investigate some of the biggest human rights abuses in the 21st century. Miss Koenig's team has helped investigate atrocities in Myanmar, Syria and Yemen. Unlike traditional investigators her team uses open source evidence. The team has investigated atrocities in Myanmar in 2017 - the evidence proved that the army had used Facebook's wide reach in the country to post false information inciting hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority. This type of evidence is gaining traction and is being used by the International Criminal Courts.
Meanwhile Bellingcat, a group of open source experts, has been investigating the poisoning of a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018. They have made some striking discoveries. Bellingcat disclosed the names of three Russian agents who they allege were involved in the attack strengthening the suspicions that it was sanctioned by the Russian state. In response the Russian authorities claimed that the men were tourists but Bellingcat proved that the three men were high-ranking members of the Russian army. One of the agents had even been honored by President Vladimir Putin personally.
Bellingcat cross-referenced photo and video evidence released by the British and Russian authorities with social media to find the men's true identities. This is not the first time a state has been accused of trying to cover its tracks.
Eyal Weizman is an open-source expert based in the UK. The most recent incident which he has investigated raises questions about the death of Palestinians during an Israeli airstrike. In 2018 these two boys were sitting on a rooftop - they were killed moments after taking this selfie. The Israeli Armed Forces said they fired non-lethal warning shots to clear the area of civilians. They call this tactic knocking on the roof. Hours later the Israeli army released a video which appears to show full warning shots followed by the main strike - but forensic architecture stitched together mobile phone and CCTV footage disputing their claim. They allege the Israeli army did not release a video of the first shot which killed the boys - instead it substituted it with a video of the third strike from another angle. The Israeli army denied distorting evidence.
Investigating state operations isn't cheap - it takes time and resources. The evidence and practices of groups such as Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture are open to everyone. This evidence is traceable and verifiable but lawmakers must approach it with caution. The use of this evidence in court is in its infancy and raises several problems.
It is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction - but crowdsource investigations offer a new way, giving a voice to victims and holding the powerful to account.
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