In the wake of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, from small Belarusian villages to Russian industrial towns on the Ukrainian border, local residents have been capturing images and videos on their phones and posting the footage on TikTok, which could one day be crucial evidence. about the conflict, reports wired.
The videos showed the tanks and military equipment stopping traffic near the Russian city of Kursk, along with cars queuing to cross the train tracks used to transport tanks from one place to another, and scores of military vehicles parked together. And this will not stop if Russia eventually invades Ukraine.
Russian tanks in Kurskpic.twitter.com/0AWEazhNaY
— marqs (@MarQs__) February 5, 2022
The Information Resilience Center (CIR), a nonprofit organization that focuses on countering influence operations, along with other open source researchers, have been busy verifying and mapping the videos of troop movements in Russia and Belarus for several weeks. These have painstakingly compared landmarks in video footage with satellite images and other official data to confirm their authenticity.
CIR’s verified video map traces the movements of military equipment and troops around Ukraine’s eastern flanks. In January, the CIR mapped 79 pieces of footage, and in February, it has verified 166 videos so far.
Since April 2021, the mobilization of Russian troops has been accompanied by reams of digital evidence. These come from a variety of sources, from smartphone images to Aereal images high-resolution images captured by commercial satellite companies, which have shown troops, helicopters and military equipment. However, for people on the ground, TikTok has become a key platform for showcasing military movements.
“TikTok is definitely one of the main platforms being used to document this,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of the open source research unit. bellingcat, who has been denouncing Russian espionage for years. Those images also often find their way onto Twitter or other social media platforms and join other images posted there.
TikTok videos from all over Kursk, the location of which has been verified by the CIR, are evidence of how powerful Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) has become. While user videos may be of poor quality and poorly framed, they show exactly what is happening at a specific moment and contribute to media reports and policy debates.
Accounts that share short videos of troops gathering, which have been reviewed by wiredappear to be from ordinary people, who, for example, post videos of tanks moving alongside clips of children playing.
This also means that not many people are watching them. Multiple verified videos from all over Kursk have less than 1,000 views and even fewer comments and shares. “There is no need for traitors, on TikTok all the movements of the teams will be shown” he says along with an emoji of a laugh one of the comments of a video, according to wired.
And while some people are just sharing videos of something unusual happening in their hometown, others are using TikTok much more deliberately.
Benjamin Strick, director of investigations at CIR, says he has seen numerous anonymous TikTok accounts set up to share images of Russian military activity on the Ukrainian border. According to the director, since the beginning of this year, the CIR has created new TikTok accounts to train its algorithm to display images of military movements in Russia.
TikTok’s algorithm, while somewhat shady, recommends similar videos that people have already seen, followed or liked. “That type of interaction was enough that after we updated our content sources, we started receiving the same type of content as a recommendation,” Strick said. Within a few weeks, the CIR had trained TikTok’s algorithm to display a constant stream of videos that appeared to be from the region.
— IgorGirkin (@GirkinGirkin) February 12, 2022
Russia has downplayed its intentions to invade Ukraine while holding negotiations with NATO and political leaders around the world. On February 15, President Vladimir Putin said that the country was still seeking a “diplomatic path” and avoiding confrontation. But after he claimed to de-escalate the situation and withdraw troops, officials at NATO and elsewhere said they had seen no evidence of this, something supported by Bellingcat and other open source researchers.
As more troops have headed toward Ukraine since early 2022, US and British intelligence officials have released details of what they think Russia may be planning. This includes plans of supposed false flag operations, which could be a precursor to an invasion. These intelligence reports are often scanned in detail, because the information is classified and difficult for outside sources to verify. But on the ground, TikTok videos will most likely reveal whether troops are advancing or retreating.
However, there are some risks. People sharing images from Russia and Ukraine, whether they are open source researchers, journalists, or people on social media, could end up spreading the wrong information if it hasn’t been verified first.
“We will have to be careful consumers of information and wary of the possibility of active measures designed to mislead us,” said Sandra Joyce, executive vice president and head of global intelligence at security firm Mandiant.
Joyce argues that the media could easily be manipulated through information overload, both in the context of Russia-linked cyberattacks and broader operations. “The media will also be especially challenged: they will be asked to clarify active measures, while adversaries will simultaneously try to take advantage of them to launder their narratives and content,” Joyce added.
But, in addition to legitimate videos and images about Russia and Ukraine, there will be efforts to manipulate this information. Russia’s disinformation operations are sophisticated and well-documented. For example, Russian military satellite images released as evidence in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) were previously doctored, as shown by bellingcat.
Strick also warns that “less reliable” images are already being released that claim to show military activity on the Ukrainian border: “It may be old material, it may be material that was along the Ukrainian borders, but from previous years, so as archival material of other conflicts”. Old or false information can potentially affect media reporting of what is happening on the ground.
The truth is that if Russia invades Ukraine, there will be more videos. About 61 percent of people in Ukraine have smartphones and, unlike the conflicts in Syria, it is easier for international media to access conflict sites.
However, there is a possibility that the sheer amount of information produced could overwhelm researchers, the media, and the public, in terms of its volume and the violence it could show. Videos circulating online will need to be quickly verified to ensure false information is not spread.
As digital evidence from the Ukrainian border continues to pour in, Higgins and others in the OSINT community are trying to salvage as much of it as possible. Bellingcat is using a Telegram channel to save links to TikTok videos that can later be archived for investigations or legal proceedings.
Troops gathering around the border may not reveal any illegal activity, but if war breaks out, details of the units involved and their previous movements could be hidden in the videos that were first posted on TikTok.