Twitter Sherlocks are coming of age

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.
Twitter Sherlocks are coming of age

Chennai: 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.

“It’s surreal, I’m just a regular college kid from Alabama!” Peden says. 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.

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.

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 said. “They are very, very useful.”

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.

Related Stories

No stories found.