Ride the Lightning

Cybersecurity and Future of Law Practice Blog
by Sharon D. Nelson Esq., President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

Using TikTok and Other Social Media to Investigate War Crimes in Ukraine

August 23, 2022

I was amazed at the CBS August 21 report on how a team of online data detectives called Bellingcat are amassing data on the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

Since 2014, Bellingcat investigations have exposed Russia’s undercover hit squads and tied Russian troops to atrocities. The Russian government denies all the allegations, naturally.

Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, has created a method of mining online data and social media to prove that war crimes are being committed.

Higgins has said, “I feel it’s almost my duty that when we’re faced with all this information showing terrible things that are happening, it’s to put it out there. It does involve risk. But then defending liberty, human rights, democracy involves taking risks. It’s when we stop taking risks and we let the fear take hold that we see democracy die.”

Eyewitness accounts of attacks on neighborhoods, assaults on hospitals, and murders of civilians are being collected and published on Bellingcat’s website for all to see. Bellingcat is combining tens of thousands of social media posts to make them searchable by place and time.

Higgins says, “we look [at] as many sources as possible and use those sources to build a picture of what happened. Videos, photographs, satellite imagery. Then we look at the witness statements and the various allegations made by either side.

Locations and times are corroborated with independent sources including satellite images and Google Street View. The goal is to provide verified evidence for future criminal trials.

Where does the name Bellingcat come from? As Higgins says, “it comes from the name of a fable, Belling the Cat. And it’s about a group of mice who are very scared of a very large cat. So, they have a meeting, and they decide to put a bell on the cat’s neck. But then they realize that no one knows how to do it, and no one is willing to volunteer to do it. So, what we’re teaching people to do is bell the cat.”

Christo Grozev, executive director of Bellingcat, leads its 30 full-time researchers. His personal focus has been on Russian political assassinations.

Grozev said: “What we have found out is that none of these crimes could have been perpetrated without Vladimir Putin being– in the know, and not only aware but approving of all of these crimes. So, in a nutshell, what we found out was that Putin is operating an industrial-scale assassination program on his own people.”

Grozev has said, “We already have been approached by the International Criminal Court. We’ve been approached by several prosecution authorities in Europe, who want to initiate their own cases– into war crimes. And we not only hope, but we know that our database, our search now will be used in a future let’s call it something like a Nuremberg trial. There may be no accountability for Russia in a courtroom, but the work of traditional journalists and Bellingcat’s expanding database are overwhelming Putin’s propaganda.”

I particularly liked the language Higgins used at the end: “Ukraine will be the most thoroughly documented war in history. Russia says no civilians have been harmed by its forces and scenes of atrocities are staged. But Putin’s defense is a throwback to a previous century. Analog denials in the age of the digital witness” (emphasis added).

Hat tip to Dave Ries.

Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., PresidentSensei Enterprises, Inc.
3975 University Drive, Suite 225Fairfax, VA 22030
Email:   Phone: 703-359-0700
Digital Forensics/Cybersecurity/Information Technology