WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In 2013, Eliot Higgins used videos posted online from Syria to track weapons and pinpoint a chemical strike in Damascus from a computer in the English Midlands.
This year, the British blogger and activist is using the same techniques to investigate the missiles in Ukraine believed to have brought down Flight MH17.
As conflict flares in the Middle East and Ukraine, the number of images posted on social media is increasing exponentially, giving observers half a world away unprecedented visibility of events on the ground.
Footage and still photographs have helped activists and experts identify what they say are Iranian aircraft in Iraq, foreign arms - including U.S.-made rockets - in Syria and killings from Gaza to Nigeria.
Last week, 16-year-old Farah Baker attracted worldwide media coverage after covering a bomb attack near her Gaza home live on Twitter.
Intelligence agencies, security firms and human rights groups are all showing growing interest.
After Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was blown from the skies over eastern Ukraine last month, video and still photographs of a suspected Russian-built SA-11 surface-to-air missile launcher were quickly identified.
Using Google Streetview, Higgins and colleagues located each of the pictures along the main road route between Donetsk - the stronghold of Russian-speaking separatists - and the border town of Luhansk.At the same time others were plotting the location of parts of debris from the downed Boeing 777 well before international investigators were able to reach the scene.
“The volume of social media information is increasing all the time,” Higgins told Reuters. “In Ukraine, much more is available than anywhere we have seen before. It makes it much easier to identify what is going on.”
The problem with social media is that what is reported is not necessarily accurate.
But, experts say, while it would be quite possible to fake a single video convincingly, falsifying large numbers filmed from different locations and on different devices would be much harder.
Tools such as Google Streetview also means locations can sometimes be independently verified online. In other cases, local activists have been able to visit the location in person to check details.
Moscow and Russian separatists in Ukraine deny involvement in the attack and have pointed the finger at Ukrainian government forces. Washington and its allies say they are certain the missile launcher came from Russia and that separatists probably fired on the airliner by mistake.
The U.S. government relied heavily on social media in making its case that a Russian-supplied missile battery was responsible for the crash, which killed 298 people. Washington also pointed primarily to social media evidence in the initial aftermath of a suspected chemical attack near Damascus in August last year which it ultimately blamed on the government of Bashar al-Assad.
“It is clear that (social media) analysis can provide an unprecedentedly granular picture of events on the ground that potentially makes a huge difference,” said Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and now head of transnational threats at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“BELLING THE CAT”
Higgins is not the only such activist and researcher out there, although he has become a high profile exponent.
On Syria, he was amongst the first to identify new foreign weapons, mainly Chinese made, reaching rebel groups. After the Damascus chemical attack, he located footage of the suspected warheads in hours.
On the site Ukraine@War, activists in Ukraine and elsewhere have also been following events on the battlefield including their own methods of tracking the SA-11 launcher.
Higgins began his “Brown Moses” blog - largely focused on Syria weapons - as a hobby while looking after his baby daughter after taking redundancy. It grew to become an essential resource for journalists and human rights groups, allowing him to get funding to pursue his activities full-time.
Last month, he launched a new website aimed at helping other part-time activists perform similar work in conflict zones worldwide. The project is dubbed “bellingcat” after a fable in which a community of mice protect themselves from a cat by attaching a bell to its collar so they know where it is.
So far, it has raised more than 35,000 pounds on fundraising site Kickstarter.
The site includes multiple resources such as a new tool from Amnesty International allowing activists to examine YouTube videos. It extracts metadata from video and also indicates to what extent the video footage has been edited and when.
Metadata is the additional data attached to still and video pictures indicating what kind of device was used to record them, when it was recorded and sometimes a GPS location.
Shot from ground level and often at close range, such videos can often yield more information than even overhead satellite or aerial reconnaissance footage.
Intelligence agencies and major governments have been paying more attention, particularly since being blindsided by the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts primarily organized over platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
After the MH17 incident, U.S. officials pointed to a pre-incident YouTube video of a SA-11 missile system in separatist hands as one of the major pieces of evidence linking them to the attack. But U.S. officials had not highlighted that video before the incident.
An ITAR-TASS story from June 29 liberally shared on social media in which the separatists announced they had seized an SA-11 from government forces also passed without official comment.
Either piece of information, aviation and security experts say, could have raised questions about allowing commercial aircraft to fly over the danger zone.
Some in the intelligence community say agencies simply do not have time to track the huge volume of potentially useful social media information on top of the signals and human intelligence that already swamp them.
“Intelligence agencies exist to collect intelligence no one else can get,” said former British spy chief Inkster. “I suspect this is an area in which governments will increasingly look to private sector contractors to provide analysis which they can then combine with other data streams.”
Editing by Peter Graff/Mike Peacock