Ethical issues for journalists in OSINT, investigation, and online verification

Man using a computer in a dakened room
Man using a computer in a dakened room
Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

* This post is based on a recent talk given at Trusted Media Summit 2020 that is also part of workshops on online investigation and verification given to journalists worldwide. It consists of thoughts and anecdotal examples arising from a decade of working in the field, and is not to be taken as legal advice.

Over the past few years, increasing numbers of people have become aware of the possibilities of digging up online information. …

The rules around using other people’s content have been muddied in the age of social media — for journalists, these 10 tips should help

(* The tips and best practices provided in this article have been incorporated in the COVID-19 Social Monitoring Toolkit created by Fathm to help newsrooms deal with working in a distributed environment)

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Karin Hiselius on Unsplash

The shockwaves may not have been felt beyond the digital media industry, but a recent ruling by a New York court could have far-reaching consequences for the inclusion of video and photographs in reporting.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss a copyright claim made by a photographer after Newsweek embedded one of his Instagram photos in its website. …

When the torrent of mis- and disinformation is more than anyone can handle, you have to learn to pick and choose, or risk being overwhelmed by trivia

Graphic of a person spinning plates
Graphic of a person spinning plates

It’s a regular conundrum for journalists and fact-checkers: they come across, or are sent, a post, video, photo, or meme that, on the surface, looks like it needs to be fact-checked. But the flood of such information has become such that it’s not humanly possible to keep up with it.

Indeed, this is a tactic that those wishing to control and manipulate information networks try to use — Steve Bannon infamously said the way to wrongfoot the media was to “flood the zone with shit”. …

Line graphic showing someone surrounded by ideas and looking puzzled
Line graphic showing someone surrounded by ideas and looking puzzled

“Where do I begin?”

In years of training people to investigate content, information and sources online, it’s one of the questions I’ve heard the most. As well as during workshops, I get messages almost daily with a link to a video, photo, post, or website, asking: “How do I get started on this?”

It’s completely understandable. You’ve learnt about scores of tools, how to use them, and how to work without them. It can be a daunting body of information and, if you’re a typical journalist, you’re sure to have a lot else on your mind besides.

So I’ve finally got around to creating a simple reference tool for when you can’t remember where to go next. …

  • tl;dr Give your chats random, difficult-to-guess urls, and don’t think setting a password makes everything secure

Let me start by saying: I use Jitsi regularly, I like it, and I think it’s a good thing that there’s an open-source alternative to the really big players.

Also, if anyone knows of a simple way for occasional users of it to avoid these issues, let me know (my DMs are open).

I started using Jitsi a couple of years ago, and like the simplicity and the functionality that’s impressive for a free platform.

One of the things I didn’t like for a while was the bizarre auto-generated urls you got for your chats, which usually (but not always) took the form…

Knowing how to formulate effective searches can be a big help to your OSINT or verification efforts

Random Latin text
Random Latin text

Despite the ubiquity of visual media, text is still arguably the backbone of the internet. Even sites that are primarily visual, such as YouTube, depend on it to keep organised. When searching for information or content — whether on a breaking incident or in an effort to debunk or verify — effective use of keywords is crucial to effectiveness and efficiency. These tips should help you formulate better searches.

1. Be specific, and vary

All content will not be described in the same way. Try to put yourself in the position of multiple uploaders. As well as “bushfire”, try fire, wildfire, blaze, burning… and as many as you can think of.

Image for post
Image for post

* What’s that font?

On September 3, “Uncertified Ethical Hacker” Inti De Ceukelaire posted a Twitter thread drawing attention to a widely used tactic that still elicits shocked expressions every time you demonstrate it:

As Inti pointed out, this trick is pulled off by substituting a lowercase “L” with an uppercase “i” (I’ve reversed it here for the sake of being clear on what the letters actually are).

As well as the points mentioned, it’s also worth pointing out that the fakery is helped by internet services defaulting to sans serif fonts — for the typographically challenged, those are fonts without the little stylistic “tails”. …

Three clocks showing different times.
Three clocks showing different times.
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Understanding how timestamps applied to online content are determined is very important to journalists and factcheckers. Misinterpreting the time a tweet, video or article was posted can lead to embarrassing mistakes.

Most of us are familiar with timestamps — usually small, unobtrusive pieces of text accompanying posts — but it’s crucial to know the criteria used to determine what’s displayed.

So for anyone working in news media — or, for that matter, anyone interested in accuracy — Twitter changing the way its timestamps are determined is a vital piece of information.

*I don’t know exactly when this change took place. A cursory search didn’t bring up any mention of it, and I decided it was more important to get the information out than to spend too much time searching.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

Everybody loves tools. It’s a basic instinct that probably kicked in around the moment the first caveman — or woman — realised that the jagged piece of flint they’d just stepped on would make skinning wildebeest much faster and more efficient.

Fast-forward just a little, and the dawn of the smartphone era made “There’s an app for that” a universally understood phrase — and most of us now carry around in our pocket a collection of programs and gadgets that a generation ago would have filled a small room. Cameras, calendars, word processors, detailed interactive atlases and entire encyclopedias that are constantly updated. …

Image for post
Image for post

Let me tell you a secret.

I’m not altogether happy with calling my website “OSINT Essentials”. It was, to an extent, a piece of semantic trickery — but then again, most headlines and titles are.

The site arose from workshops and talks I’ve been privileged to deliver all over the world. I thought it would be useful to have links to the most useful — and user-friendly — free tools and services that I advise people to employ in investigating online content and information.

Tools alone, however, do not equal OSINT. Simply having them at your disposal doesn’t mean you’re going to duplicate the output of the likes of the New York Times, Bellingcat, or Storyful. …


OSINT Essentials

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store