Thousands of amateur detectives are sharing their findings on war crimes and troop movements from the comfort of their living room. They hope their work can one day be used in court. Could this come true?
Justin Peden waves into the phone camera. He's sitting in his dorm room in Birmingham, Alabama, and still looks a bit baffled. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shaken up his life, too. He is now someone journalists want to talk to. The day before our interview, he was contacted by a Japanese broadcaster; they're sending a camera crew over soon to shoot a documentary about him.
No ordinary 'college kid'
"It's surreal, I'm just a regular college kid from Alabama!" Peden keeps repeating. But alongside hanging out with his fraternity brothers and worrying about upcoming exams, the 20-year-old is also one of the most prominent Twitter detectives.
Peden has never been to Eastern Europe, but that hasn't dampened his interest in the region. Since he was 13 years old, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, he has been fascinated by the Ukraine conflict. He spends much of his free time virtually flying over the disputed territories in eastern Ukraine, "in his little Twitter plane," as he says. "If I ever went to a Jeopardy! game that was exclusively Ukrainian geography, I think I'd do pretty darn well!" he says, chuckling.
Freely accessible sources
Peden, who goes by "Intel Crab" on Twitter, scours the internet for satellite images, flight trajectories and TikTok videos. He then shares his findings with his 255,000 followers, posting analyses of troop movements or the exact coordinates of a missile attack.
Kyle Glen also has two lives. During the day, the Welshman works in the field of medical research. In the evening, he also conducts "open source intelligence," OSINT for short. "Open source" because the sources the Twitter sleuths work with are all publicly accessible.
The core piece of this detective work is geolocation, because it's so simple and effective. Whenever they get a hold of a video or image of a conflict, OSINT hobbyists comb through the material for landmarks and particularities with which to determine the exact location of the shown event. This allows them to verify the accuracy of the material or to debunk false reports.
Back in 2014, the OSINT network Bellingcat used only freely accessible sources such as satellite and cellphone images to prove that the passenger plane MH17 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft unit.
Twitter Sherlocks' finest hour
Since then, the community has grown even more resourceful. At the start of the war in late February, OSINT fans tracked the movements of Russian military convoys using videos from Tiktok. Others signed up on dating portals like Tinder to catfish members of the Russian military near the border in Belgorod, using false personal profiles to deceive them into revealing information.
"OSINT has really taken off in the last six months," says Glen, who notes that after eight years of never being asked for interviews by the mainstream press, it's now happening every day.
Governments and intelligence agencies also appreciate the value of this new type of swarm intelligence. Through a Ukrainian government app called Diia, citizens can now upload geotagged images and videos of Russian troop movements. "We receive tens of thousands of messages a day," Ukrainian Digital Transformation Minister Mikhailo Fedorov recently told The Washington Post. "They are very, very useful."
Tweets in the courtroom?
What motivates digital investigators who rival more traditional intelligence agencies? It's hard to say. Peden calls the community "decentralized and collaborative, but also somewhat chaotic." Many members have military expertise or are ex-soldiers. Others remain secretive about their true identities.
Peden, at any rate, feels deeply connected to the Ukrainian people. "I see these videos and they look like my mom, like my sisters and my friends," he says, sitting in front of Ukraine's blue and yellow flag. He dreams of one day seeing his tweets used as evidence in an international criminal trial.
It's not an impossible dream. "Groups at the International Criminal Court, whether they're trial attorneys or investigators, have really begun to explore the potential of open source investigations," says Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with DW. The challenge for investigators, she says, is the sheer mass of information. In the Ukraine war, Facebook and Twitter have been joined by other platforms: Tiktok, Telegram, Russian social media site VKontakte and many more.
Peden against Putin?
Hobby investigators like Justin Peden and Kyle Glen are helping in practical terms to increase the political pressure needed to initiate costly and resource-intensive legal proceedings in the first place. But whether their work will actually be admissible in a courtroom in the end is another question.
That's why Koenig initiated the "Berkeley Protocol," together with legal investigators, human rights activists and journalists. That document sets standards on how to collect and process open-source information and how this information should be preserved.
Copying and pasting a link to a video showing a war crime, for instance, isn't enough. Videos can be re-uploaded and falsified, or they may simply be deleted if the algorithm classifies them as "extremist content."
"We want to maximize the value of this information for courts," says Koenig.
Ukraine's prosecutor general talks to DW
What makes OSINT strong, its openness and democratic nature, also has pitfalls. "Anyone can call themselves an OSINT account and post any information they want," says Glen. "But unlike mainstream media, there are simply no consequences for publishing false or misleading information."
And yet, a poorly placed tweet can have real-life consequences. Peden recounts receiving a video from Kherson, southern Ukraine, in early March. The city had been under Russian occupation since late February. A woman — Peden recalls she had beautiful hands — had filmed a patrol of Russian occupation police from her balcony and shared the video. Easy to locate, a home run for Peden, who posted the geolocation. And deleted the tweet moments later.
Will Russia be held accountable for crimes?
"It clicked to me that, oh my God, this is a woman, a real person. I cited her Twitter. Let's just say it was not full of pro-Russian ideas. I could have had her killed," he says. In the six minutes the post was online, it had already been shared a hundred times. For Peden, it was just a click but for the woman in Kherson, possibly a matter of life and death.
Since then, Peden has toned down his presence. He says he thinks more about the consequences of his work, for himself and others. That's another reason he wants to appear with his real name. But despite the huge responsibility for a 20-year-old, Peden isn't thinking about quitting.
"Even if I lost all my followers, I would continue," he says. He wants to bear witness — and to make the fog of war at least a little less dense.