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OSINT is Changing … How We Fight Political Propaganda (or that time some PhDs used Russia’s OSINT tools against them)

Open Source Intelligence is changing the world around us. In our ongoing “OSINT is Changing …” blog series we’ll take a look at how OSINT is impacting our daily lives in distinct and sometimes unseen ways.
Written by
Steven Sheffield
Published on
August 24, 2022

There is no tool better than Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) for finding out if something is true or false. The ability of anyone with a computer and good critical thinking skills to discern carefully crafted fakes from authentic media artifacts is one of the great strengths of OSINT. This is particularly important in the modern era of political disinformation we find ourselves enduring.

Disinformation in politics is nothing new. In bygone eras it might have been called propaganda or media manipulation. With the rise of the internet that enables a single human to have global reach through social media and mass chat apps like Telegram, disinformation has become a larger issue than ever.  Fortunately, OSINT technologies have evolved just as quickly to enable the public to ascertain what is fact vs fiction.

Enter Dr. Linvill and Dr. Warren

In the academic space, there are quite a few professors fighting to counter disinformation.  Among the leaders of this movement are Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren of Clemson’s Media Forensics Hub. [Please note: the author of this piece is an assistant researcher with them on some of their projects.] They have been involved in the fight against the Internet Research Agency’s political influence campaigns since 2016 when they initially began to look at manipulation of Twitter narratives. The Internet Research Agency is the information operations branch of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.  

Bunk Debunks of Disinformation that are then Debunked

During the early days of the war in the Ukraine, Russians needed to discredit Ukrainian successes in the war. Russians claimed Ukraine was losing and that stories of their success were lies. They tried to grant legitimacy to these statements by distributing what they asserted was Ukrainian disinformation and debunking. Noticeably, the fake videos had only circulated on Russian social media, and never appeared in Ukrainian channels. This drew the attention of the researchers at Clemson as they monitored known Russian disinformation sharing accounts. They decided to dig a bit deeper into these alleged debunkings.

It quickly became apparent that the debunks were fake. The real tipper was the availability of the source images they had altered to create their fake debunks. They still hung on the internet and were clearly older, or of different origins than the Russian claims. Researchers from Clemson University found the original images the Russian disinformation operators had altered. They meticulously documented these source images and their earlier origins. In a particularly delicious bit of irony, they did this using none other than the Russian reverse image search on Yandex. They didn’t stop there. They were able to find the Telegram channel where these fake pieces were being released. That resulted in the researchers gaining access to the metadata under the various pictures and videos. Telegram does not strip metadata from media that is posted on it, unlike nearly every other social platform. That metadata allowed them to learn quite a bit about the videos’ origins, including  the identities of some of the fake debunks creators.

To learn more, read about it here in ProPublica.

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Steven Sheffield

Steven Sheffield is a career intelligence professional with a background in special operations mission support, targeting, and OSINT collection. During his 20+ years in the industry, he has worked as both an analyst and a user experience researcher. This experience uniquely positions him to manage intelligence shops, design new analytic processes incorporating the latest technologies, and write AGILE user stories for developers building next generation OSINT products. He is currently a PhD candidate at Clemson University in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design.