In July 2018 a video showing women and children being blindfolded and gunned down by men in military uniforms started circulating on social media. Amnesty International raised accusations that the Cameroonian soldiers were responsible for killings occurring in the country. The government of Cameroon initially dismissed the reports, calling them “fake news” and insisted that the soldiers were not Cameroonian.
Through digital forensics and open-source journalism Africa Eye, BBC’s investigative unit on Africa, was able to identify when and where the killings occurred, the type of weapons used and the identity of the perpetrators. The investigation proved that the military uniforms worn by the soldiers in the video were indeed those worn by some divisions of Cameroonian military.
Open-source journalism and investigations involve using public information — such as satellite imagery, open data sets and social media — to tell a story or verify disputed events. Journalists can mine, verify and analyze readily available data or information over the internet.
The investigation caught a lot of attention mainly because of the horrific nature of the killings and the techniques used to investigate and illustrate different aspects of the story. Africa Eye published a twitter thread published that summarized the investigation report that received more than 70,000 likes and 50,000 retweets.
THREAD— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) September 24, 2018
In July 2018, a horrifying video began to circulate on social media.
2 women & 2 young children are led away by a group of soldiers. They are blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times. #BBCAfricaEye investigated this atrocity. This is what we found... pic.twitter.com/oFEYnTLT6z
Series producer at BBC’s Africa Eye, Daniel Adamson, and open-source investigator Benjamin Strick, spoke to IJNet about how they were able to carry out the investigation.
Determining an investigative framework
BBC Africa Eye investigators sought to answer three questions: Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was responsible?
Outlining the elements one hopes to discover, and how to get there faster, will make an open-source journalism project easier. To get an idea of the core elements that would be needed for a particular investigation, Adamson suggests being exposed to other open-source work.
“Start by following Bellingcat on Twitter,” he said. “Read all their work, and look at the tools they use. Also follow the New York Times Visual Investigations team – they’re brilliant on open-source work. For investigative documentary work from across Africa, follow BBC Africa Eye on YouTube. If you watch all these films, you’ll start to develop a feeling for the core elements of an investigation.”
Once you have a framework, doing the actual investigation requires following particular procedures or processes that help organize and speed up the investigative process. Each approach might not be exactly the same for everyone, but it helps to have systems in place for more efficiency, said Strick, who often works backwards in his investigations, eliminating what he knows not to be true.
Utilizing free tools
The tools that the team used to investigate the murders are readily available to anyone with a computer and internet access.
“Open-source work can be done by anybody. The tools are mostly free. It just takes a willingness to learn, a methodical approach and patience,” says Adamson.
Strick used a video player to analyze the video frame by frame and Google Earth to identify the location of the video. The team also used Sentinel Hub, a cloud-based system to analyze satellite imagery, to match with footage to confirm the locations, and SunCalc, an online application that shows sun movement and sunlight phases during a given day in order to determine what time the murders occurred.
Collaborating with non-journalists
Open-source journalism relies heavily on collaboration with non-journalists to contribute and verify facts. The team working on the project included three BBC reporters and a group of about 15 other collaborators that were organized in a Twitter group and a Slack channel. Analysts and researchers from Amnesty International also contributed to the investigation.
“There is a whole community of open-source analysts out there online, many of whom have specialties and areas of expertise. Their collaboration is essential for these investigations,” said Adamson. “All the findings, of course, are independently verified by the BBC.”
While collaborations provide a depth of skill and knowledge, Adamson also noted that the process of working with open-source investigators can be a challenge since they are used to publishing information as they find it.
“The open-source investigative community is used to working in a very transparent way, publishing each individual finding as they go along on Twitter,” said Adamson. “It was a challenge to say to [them], ‘Hold off, keep that information quiet for now. Let’s get to the very bottom of the whole story and then publish.’”
Main image is a screenshot from the BBC video explaining the investigation.