15 Aug 2020

Truth-finding using public information

From Saturday Morning, 11:06 am on 15 August 2020

An open source investigative journalist working for the BBC in London says it is important social media sites don't censor content that can alert reporters to clues about human rights abuses and disinformation.

Over the last number of years Benjamin Strick has relied on a laptop and internet connection to give him access to the public information that lets him find out truth, solve mysteries, and crack grotesque crimes.

Ben Strick (Supplied)

Ben Strick (Supplied) Photo: Supplied

In 2018 he was part of a Peabody Award-winning BBC team that investigated the filmed murder of two mothers and their children in Cameroon in The Anatomy of a Killing.

Using Google Maps, satellite images, on-screen shadows, and details of the perpetrators' clothing and weapons they were able to pinpoint the exact time and place of the murders and bring the people responsible to justice.

In July 2018 a horrifying video began to circulate on Twitter and social media. The captives are blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times.

Strick tells Kim Hill a number of clues were built on, eventually leading to the identification of the killers and the approximate time of the incident.

After internet speculation pointed to several potential African nations, Strick decided to look at one – Cameroon, after identifying the dialect of the soldiers.

“There were accents being spoken for instance, really hard French accents being spoken. The area was very dry, but not too mountainous. But there were mountains in the distance and when the women were walking down the road these soldiers were slapping them and they were saying ‘move bee-ach’… We knew ‘bee-ach’ stands for Boko Haram, so it this must be in the Nigeria-Cameroon area.

“There were a few clues online from people, a lot were saying it could have been far north Cameroon.

“So, we were having a look around there and there was this mountain line we could see in the background. We drew a little red line on the screen shot the video and if you hop on Google Maps and you tilt it sideways you get a 3D view of mountains and so we thought ‘can we possibly match this mountain ridge line with what we’re seeing in this video.”

After weeks of searching around, someone mentioned a northern town and when they looked the ridgeline matched. It placed the killing on a dirt road outside the village of Krawa Mafa.

It was unclear whether the women were affiliated to Boro Haram, but he says it is common for refugees to come over from Northern Nigeria and villagers can be wary of them. Soldiers in this case, did not give them a fair trial.

The footage was shot in 2016 and the motives of whoever uploaded onto Twitter remain unclear.

“What we do know is that it was filmed either by a friend or one of the soldiers and we say one of the soldiers because the person knew the names of the soldiers when they were recording.”

The incident is a snapshot of the types of human rights abuses in the region and the video is considered a macabre show of pride in killing, Strick says.

The date and time of the killing was determined by other clues in the film, which was estimated between March and April of that year. Looking at local news reportage and talks with Amnesty International shed more light in the circumstances.

Government soldiers in Cameroon had been battling the jihadists in the area since 2014. The Cameroon Government initially dismissed the video as fake news. They then announced that seven members of the military were under investigation after Strick and his team identified them.

“There has been a trial but it has been behind closed doors, so we haven’t been able to identify the information. Subsequently in the lead-up to the trial there were many others announced and they were delayed or cancelled. So, there’s been a lot of shifty activity.”

Other stories being investigated include a human-rights focus on West Papua and alleged attempts by the Indonesian government to spread disinformation on the independence protests. Strick was able to prove it was disinformation and a means of hijacking popular hash tags in a propaganda war.

“It was centred on the protests in August 2019 and it was a resurgence of separatism and racial tension in West Papua. It was quite interesting because the internet was shut off as that was occurring and I was investigating this thinking ‘okay, this is going to be another mass human rights crime committed in West Papua and it just had the right settings for it.

“But instead when the internet went off and I was searching online, I was seeing these tourism commercials at West Papua and I was also seeing these videos on Facebook and Twitter about the great work the Indonesian Government was doing for the people in West Papua and they were using these hash tags ‘west papua genocide,’ ‘free west papua’ and I thought to myself, this has nothing to do with West Papua genocide, promoting tourism in this area.

“So, I started to have a look at the accounts of those posting this content and a simple cut and paste of one tweet and putting it in a search box on Google, I could see that there were hundreds of different accounts spreading the same video, the exact same tags and the exact same texts.”

He was able to determine that these were bots because they were posting on timescales, running on an automated algorithm posting content. The difficult part was finding out who created the bots.

Phone numbers left on the bot websites were however able to be tracked down to a PR marketing firm in Indonesia.

Strick says it is essential social media platforms don't censor content as journalists like himself and human rights activists would not be able to chase leads and have the opportunity to hold people to account.

"It's a really fine line for these platforms to strike a balance between protecting the people that aren't used to seeing this and the people that need to get this out there."

However, he says Facebook and Twitter removed the accounts of those it found had abused its platforms in the case of the Indonesian propaganda campaign and sent out a caution over the incident to users.

"All of these social media platforms have done their own clean-up process essentially and have stopped this from happening. They have also accelerated that increase of people now knowing this really happens. I guess it causes people to think twice before they like, share or retweet something."