The online volunteers hunting for war crimes in Ukraine

Like many people, Aeden felt helpless when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. He was a 23-year-old based in the UK with no connection to the country, but he was good at open-source intelligence gathering, which involves scouring the web to collect publicly available data. 

So he put his hand up to volunteer for investigation outlet Bellingcat to help authenticate images and videos of possible war crimes being committed in Ukraine. The hope is that the work could lead to eventual prosecutions by the International Criminal Court.

“If we want to have any hope of holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions, we need to make sure we have done the groundwork, and that is what we are doing now,” says Aeden, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his security.

To support MIT Technology Review’s journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber.

Since the war started, people around the world have been trying to help refugees and the Ukrainian cause. For those with investigative skills like Aeden, who has volunteered for Bellingcat before, that means using their time and effort to analyze material posted on the web by Ukrainians to document possible war crimes, such as bombing civilian buildings or protected spaces like hospitals, and confirm their exact location.

Skills gained from the January 6 insurrection in the US and subsequent efforts to find the rioters online have translated to online sleuths using those same skills in the war in Ukraine. But whether and how that effort will actually result in admissible evidence for a potential war crimes prosecution is unclear, especially without a universal system to categorize the flood of incoming evidence.

Human rights organizations have already sent professional investigators to Ukraine to collect data of possible war crimes. Rich Weir, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, landed in Kyiv on February 23; the next morning, he woke to news of the invasion. 

“I was supposed to be joined by a colleague in Kyiv, but the airspace got shut down,” he told me from Lviv, where he had transferred. “I was there alone.”

Weir’s work during the first days of the war were tumultuous. He heard about air strikes or attacks from locals and visited sites to investigate damage and civilian casualties, whether it be injuries or deaths. 

In an information war where rumors and disinformation fly rampant, verification is key. It’s not enough to just see a video of an attack or a photo of dead bodies, and with internet communication down in many parts of the country, Weir has had to resort to analog methods to confirm incidents, trekking to locations or talking to refugees to get a firsthand account of what happened.

Archival work has grown more sophisticated with every passing conflict, says Weir, who has spent time in Syria and Myanmar doing similar work. He credits social media and increased access to cell phones with cameras.

“Syria is a very good example where there was a flood of photos and videos documenting what was happening in these possible abuses and violations of international law and human rights,” he points out. And yet, even with all that data, justice has been slow, thus far sparing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from international prosecution.

That’s the risk in this war. Even if the war ended tomorrow, prosecution of Vladimir Putin or any Russian commanders involved in war crimes would take years, if it happens at all. Building a case would require that investigators geolocate and verify all digital evidence.

What could speed this timeline up is the legion of people around the world who are willing and able to do such work, thanks in part to the experience of documenting the events of January 6, 2021, in the US.

“We’ve streamlined our process since the January 6 riot, which was a predecessor to this,” says Giancarlo Fiorella, an investigator with Bellingcat. “Those lessons of working on an event that produced a massive quantity of data are helping us. We’re capturing a greater proportion of data and evidence of potential war crimes.” That’s thanks in no small part to volunteers like Aeden.

It’s been so encouraging to see the open source community organize in the @bellingcat Discord server recently.

Earlier this year, the server was quiet. Today, it’s got 6,500+ members. Dozens of them are active every day, geolocating images from Ukraine.

— Giancarlo Fiorella (@gianfiorella) March 12, 2022

Aeden has been spending his time geolocating evidence of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. He will get a photo or video from the internet assigned to him, and he’s tasked with using tools like aerial satellite imagery and street view on Google Maps to verify the location. Once Aeden and a fellow volunteer agree on a location (Aeden says having

Read More


By: Tanya Basu
Title: The online volunteers hunting for war crimes in Ukraine
Sourced From:
Published Date: Wed, 16 Mar 2022 09:00:00 +0000

Did you miss our previous article…

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

Cancel reply


Exit mobile version