Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many people across the world were first introduced to the term “OSINT,” which stands for open source intelligence. The practice of using photographs posted to social media, free-to-access satellite images, and other readily available sources of information to confirm where, how, and when important world events took place has existed for many years, but has been popularized during the biggest conflicts as more people signed up to social networks, which allowed anyone with an internet connection to participate in or consume it.
OSINT’s appeal is obvious. Rather than relying on government sources and narratives, and with new access to information on the internet, outside organizations or experts could attempt to confirm or deny those claims for themselves. Early on in Russia’s invasion, for example, Bellingcat, a non-profit organization that uses OSINT in many of its investigations, showed that Russia used cluster munitions in urban areas which resulted in civilian deaths. Bellingcat is known for its rigorous approach to OSINT and has repeatedly used OSINT techniques to break news on important global crises including the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, the Syrian Civil War, the Christchurch shooting, and the January 6 insurrection.
OSINT is a useful way to try and verify claims, and 404 Media sometimes uses it in the course of its reporting. One of the reasons OSINT is so popular is because it is accessible to anyone, though experienced groups often use more sophisticated techniques than others. Major newsrooms have increasingly hired people specifically for their own OSINT teams. But what the current war in Israel and Gaza has made clear in recent days is that there are many verified, popular accounts on Twitter that use the OSINT term to give legitimacy to shoddy work that only creates more confusion. What exists now is a profit and engagement driven ecosystem of non-experts who in some cases may be spreading videos for the clout and cash, rather than to inform readers about what is actually true. One respected OSINT expert, known as Obretix, told 404 Media that Twitter now is “self promoting aggregators, posting thousands of tweets to get some revenue share from Elon.”
And everyone stands to lose when the quality of information on Twitter makes it harder for ordinary readers, or even some experts, to understand what is true and what is not. Paweł Wójcik, who has been an analyst on Twitter for years with a particular focus on terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, told 404 Media in an online chat that “there has always been misinformation and fakes, however for people who have been observing wars on this platform for over a decade, today's problem is unprecedented.”