Staff at the international collective Bellingcat are investigating allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine by using publicly available material on the internet — including photos and videos posted on social media.
"We are discovering the enormity of war for the first time in our lifetime in a way that is near us and a way that we can see it in social media, and Instagram, and TikTok videos," said Christo Grozev, Bellingcat's executive director. "And the volume of war crimes that we believe we are discovering in our daily work is overwhelming."
that more open-source information exists from the war in Ukraine than in any other previous war. In previous conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria, static photographs were more common and available than videos. New social media platforms, such as Telegram and TikTok, have changed that. Grozev estimates that about 70% of the evidence Bellingcat is gathering about the war in Ukraine now comes from TikTok content.
According to Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, information from the video sharing platform began amassing prior to Russia's February invasion, when civilians posted TikTok videos of tanks driving down Russian streets. These videos not only showed the buildup before the invasion, Higgins said, but they also identified the specific units and equipment the Russian military planned to use. In instances where Bellingcat suspects Russians deployed cluster munitions into Ukraine from rocket launchers fired from inside Russia, Bellingcat says they can identify the units likely responsible.
"In some cases, it's actually possible to see these convoys through their entire journey from their base all the way to the border," Higgins said. "So all these bits of information give us additional evidence that we can use for accountability purposes in the future."
To preserve the evidence of possible war crimes, the U.S. House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees in May sent letters to social media companies to urge them to archive the content on their platforms. Chairs of the two committees wrote to the CEOs of Meta, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok and asked that they preserve content, including metadata, that could potentially be used in international court to prove war crimes and human rights violations in Ukraine.
Bellingcat has also used open-source evidence to dispel Russia's claim that potential war crimes committed in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha were perpetrated after Ukrainian forces had reentered the town. In one example, researchers at Bellingcat verified aerial video filmed by Ukraine's military reportedly on March 3, when Russian forces held Bucha. The video shows a woman walking a bicycle onto a street where a Russian armored vehicle sits. As the woman rounds the corner, the Russian vehicle fires at the woman.
Another aerial video shot in late March by Ukrainian forces and verified by Bellingcat shows a body lying in the road at the location where the woman was shot. The Ukrainian military entered Bucha at the beginning of April.
The Kremlin has responded to Bellingcat's investigations in the Ukraine war. In a statement released in May, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "In general, the information of Bellingcat must be perceived through special filters: sometimes with a sense of humor, and sometimes as a deliberate lie and distortion of reality."
Russia's Prosecutor-General in mid-March blocked Bellingcat's website, preventing those in Russia from accessing the group's investigations, including research about Russia's assassination program. After all the evidence his team has found while looking into the atrocities Russia has allegedly committed, Higgins knows Bellingcat's work invites the potential for danger.
"It does involve risk," Higgins said. "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."
The video above was originally published on May 15, 2022 and was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Will Croxton.
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