Bellingcat: The Value of The Crowd in Countering Propaganda

On November 14th 2017 the Russian Ministry of Defence’s social media pages uploaded images accompanied by text in Russian, English, and Arabic claiming to show “irrefutable evidence” that the US were covering ISIS combat units so they could cover their combat capabilities, redeploy, and use them to promote American interested in the Middle East.

An incredible and damning claim, especially coming from the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, but one that fell apart immediately. Followers of the Russian Ministry of Defence Twitter account recognised one of the alleged drone images used as “irrefutable evidence” as a screenshot from the mobile phone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator, taken from a YouTube video promoting the game. To put it simply, Russia had used a computer game screenshot as “irrefutable evidence” of the US and ISIS colluding.

This rapid reaction was thanks to Twitter users being “inoculated” against this particular piece of disinformation because of an earlier misuse of the same video on Twitter, claiming it showed a Predator drone attacking a convoy in Mosul, Iraq, which resulted in the video being shared over ten thousand times. Twitter users focused on conflict, the type to follow the Russian Ministry of Defence on Twitter, quickly identified it as being from a computer game.

Because of this, when the Russian Ministry of Defence shared the image on Twitter it was almost immediately debunked by those same users, humiliating the Russian Ministry of Defence, and forcing them to make a rare retraction of one of their false claims. As a result, rather than the Russian claims about the US helping ISIS making it the news, headlines across the world reported on Russia’s failed attempt at misinformation, mocking their use of a computer game screenshot as “irrefutable evidence”.

Had the social media community not engaged with the earlier misuse of the video then it would have likely resulted in the Russian claim making it into the media, and even once the truth about the image was shown some damage would have already been done. When countering misinformation of this type being able to react as rapidly as possible is essential, preventing the misinformation from taking hold in the information ecosystem.

In May 2016 supporters of ISIS began to share images taken in various European countries as part of an ISIS social media campaign, an attempt to spread fear in Europe that ISIS supporters were everywhere, and nowhere was safe from their influence and violence. Most pictures included a piece of paper, with the hashtag written on it, and backgrounds of various type. These included the interior of a newsagent, some leaves, and other locations that provided little information to where they were taken. Some included a lot more information, such as out of focus views of the streets they were taken on.

By sharing these images with Twitter users it was possible to crowdsource the location of these images, some within 10 minutes of them being shared. This caught the attention of journalists following the topic, and the narrative around the social media campaign moved rapidly from “ISIS is everywhere, be afraid” to “ISIS supporters are idiots who give up their locations to police on social media”.

When working to counter propaganda and disinformation of this type it is always worth remembering the value of online communities who can contribute to both debunking false information, and spreading the debunking of that information. This not only has an immediate impact, but also engages the community in the process of debunking, and helps prevent future disinformation from spreading.

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