Information war has become an integral part of the present-day world. The influence of mass media (in the broad sense of this word) on society is enormous now. The one, who has control over information, is controlling public opinion and makes a significant impact on policymaking circles.
In such authoritarian countries as Iran, Russia, Syria and North Korea political propaganda, which can’t have or involve interpretation of events that differs from official line, is perhaps the only source of information. Our task is to help our readers (including those ones who can receive truthful information only from the Internet) form an objective opinion about what is happening around them in the world. In democratic countries it is normal thought process to have different and even polar points of view.
In recent years, the independent citizen journalists assume increasingly greater importance in presenting detailed picture of reality because they are people who deliver their material from events’ center, who are not involved with conservative corporate policies, editorial line, policy templates and other stereotypes of ‘professionals’. They are independent and have forcibly expressed civic awareness. Their word is realistic outlook on life.
But still we need to perceive the differences between those who work for conveying truthful information to the readers, and those who only grandstand in the quest for fame and high ratings.
Osama Ali Suleiman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), who uses the name of Rami Abdulrahman in his blog posts, is a good example of the second type of ‘citizen journalists’, for his actions bring discredit on all non-indifferent people. With the start of Syrian civil war SOHR became one of the main information sources that focused on civilian casualty figures. But eventually it came out that SOHR was only a one-man show and this man was Suleiman who lived in the UK and confirmed his ‘play-by-play bulletins’ with messages from social networks accounts, whose ownership is rather questionable. Moreover, it became known that Suleiman was engaged in juggling with facts and descended to fake, which threw discredit upon SOHR competence in the quality of the information office.
Eliot Higgins, a former finance worker, is another telling illustration. He specializes in making investigation through using open-source information on the Internet.
Higgins also embarked upon his career during the war in Syria. Despite the fact that all blogger’s beliefs about warfare and weaponry, according to his own statement, were based on video games and blockbusters, Higgins gained the character of weapons expert and made interest with leading media companies. He was the first person who reported that Assad’s regime made use of barrel and cluster bombs as well as chemical weapons against own people.
On 15 July, 2014, exactly two days before (!) the Boing 777 crash near Donetsk, he founded Bellingcat project. The investigation of this catastrophe was the main task of his group there, though it has not been finished up to now. You should direct attention to the fact that the whole time no one in Bellingcat group visited the Boing crash site. However, this fact could not care less either the researchers, or the media, or public institutions that use Bellingcat reports. Meanwhile, many so-called ‘facts’ that experts use to draw their conclusions on are estimated questionable.
For instance, Dutch journalist Max van der Werff found out that Bellingcat used photos of the launch of ADMS Buk missile that was counterfeited. In addition, Bellingcat experts stubbornly ignore statements of the locals that were published, for instance, in The Telegraph or BBC, where it is said that they had not heard or seen anything like surface-to-air missile launch either on the day of the tragedy or ever yet.
There is also doubt in the authenticity of the famous photo of ADMS Buk that was claimed to had been taken in the town of Torez (picture 1). According to some experts in graphics, this graphical proof was created from two different images (picture 2).
Bellingcat report shows that, according to the photo, the Buk vehicle’s size is 9 meters (picture 3) but it should be equal to almost 12 meters. Thus, the photo’s creators made a mistake either in the distance to the operator or in the size of the truck together with the Buk (picture 4).
In addition to that, detail loss of some places in the image seems rather strange. When you rotate a draft of the truck in the photo, the cabin of the Volvo perfectly fits the front of the Buk vehicle while the image of its back fades, and vice versa (pictures 5, 6, 7).
Furthermore, there are no shadows of the tree in the photo (picture 8) that should be easily visible here (pictures 9, 10).
The two Paris Match photos showing area inside Donetsk city. Paris Match published the first (top) photo on July 25, 2014. The full version of the second photo (bottom) appeared on the Internet in January 2015.
There are a number of areas in these Paris Match photos that suggest they are a product of a photo manipulation software like Photoshop. Take a close look at them (open their higher resolution versions by clicking on Picture 11 if necessary). The first impression is that they look ‘strange’, they look unlike any normal photos or even stills from a low resolution video. Compare the back of the truck’s white cabin with the Buk vehicle (these areas are marked in Picture 12). The back of the cabin looks sharp, as if it was taken from an excellent quality, high resolution source, while Buk looks fuzzy everywhere you look. No effects like motion blur or camera’s low resolution can explain this difference in picture quality. The cabin’s picture quality should be just as bad as Buk’s or Buk’s quality should be as good as cabin’s. You can see this startling difference in picture quality between the Buk vehicle and the truck’s cabin in both photos.
Picture 12. The area marked orange has significant difference in picture quality in comparison to the one marked blue.
There is a night and day difference between the cabin’s edge and Buk’s edge in terms of their sharpness in the first Paris Match photo (Picture 13). Buk’s edge is fuzzy. It almost blends with the background.
Picture 13. A comparison of picture quality of cabin’s edge with Buk’s edge in the first Paris Match photo.
In the first Paris Match photo, it is incredible how you can clearly see the telephone number, how sharp the back of the cabin looks, but how at the same time, you can barely see even the shape of Buk’s wheels on this normal day (Picture 14).
Picture 14. A part of the first Paris Match photo showing the area of Buk’s wheels.
Another area that doesn’t look possible without the use of tools like Photoshop (Picture 15).
Picture 15. A part from the second Paris Match photo.
The reflection from the car’s dashboard is not the same in both photos (Picture 16). The area inside the orange box should have the same black patches that are visible in the second photo.
Picture 16. A comparison of dashboard reflection between the two Paris Match photos.
The full-sized version of the second photo was not published for 6 months, Paris Match initially wrote that the first photo is from Snizhne rather than Donetsk, and the story is suspicious: Someone is driving in Donetsk city on July 17 at around 11:00 on a car. He takes photos of impossible picture quality, showing a part of a car (visible in the first Paris Match photo), truck and Buk, parked almost in the middle of a large city. He then sends these photos exclusively to a French magazine named Paris Match, all while there is not a single other known picture or video material of a Buk vehicle inside Donetsk city made by anybody else since the beginning of the conflict.
Beyond all doubt, so polar opposite conclusions of different groups that use similar methods of analysis cannot allow an honest man to take any one’s side. However, Bellingcat rejects any other interpretations as some kind of conspiracy. So much like the best traditions of authoritarian propaganda.
Another issue is the level of professionalism and Bellingcat experts’ ability to interpret data adequately.
After Bellingcat research group accused Russia of satellite images’ editing at the aim of showing Ukrainian air defense activity in the area of MH17 downing, German image forensics expert and a founder of IRISPIX website Jens Kriese, publicly stated that Bellingcat ‘Error Level Analysis’ (ELA-analysis) gives almost nothing except developing the group’s PR campaign. As to the ELA-analysis’ founder Dr. Neal Krawetz, he considers that Bellingcat experts’ report ‘is nothing more than reading tea leaves’ and a good example of ‘how to not do image analysis’.
The bias of activities of ‘independent’ journalists’ group discredits the idea of the very possibility of obtaining reliable information from open sources. You can treat Bellingcat activities in different ways, but it is a thankless task to trust this group’s experts or others like them because at this stage they have no reliable or un-disproved materials.
Our politicians and well-heeled journalists, who take up any ‘roasted information convenient for them; often take the lead from such messengers of likes and on-line viewings as Suleiman and Higgins. And together they form a virtual reality, which is far out.