Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: We Need to Talk About Twitter – A Consideration of OSINT as a Knowledge Formation Project

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: We Need to Talk About Twitter – A Consideration of OSINT as a Knowledge Formation Project

[Michael Elsanadi is a trainer and researcher with Mnemonic and is currently pursuing an MA in Data in Culture and Society at King’s College London.] 

In the past ten years, the open source investigations space has exponentially grown. The increasing presence of OSINT bios, dedicated accounts, and general discussion demonstrates the familiarity and presence of open source investigative reporting and methods online. Through memes, threads, subtweets, and quote tweets, OSINT researchers on Twitter discuss current humanitarian crises and wars. It’s where researchers turn to ask questions and show their work. 

In these discussions on Twitter, including the geolocations, memes, and subtweets, a lasting knowledge of locations, conflicts, and peoples is produced. This process of knowledge production holds significance both for the credibility of OSINT and the future histories of the conflicts we’re researching. It requires our community of open source investigators publicly present online to think hard not only about the impact of the work we ourselves create but also of the work we share and encourage. This post is to deconstruct the power dynamics inherent to the OSINT researchers’ presence online and, hopefully, provide a method to understand and critique our online presence. 

We Should Think of OSINT as a Knowledge Formation Project

With every tweet, geolocation, and meme posted online, OSINT researchers are taking part in a knowledge formation project. This suggests that every tweet, in the context of Twitter as a social media platform and in OSINT as a developing methodology of research, holds the potential to cement and perpetuate certain truths or understandings of a conflict or people. In the case of OSINT, we can think of Twitter as a museum. Users on the timeline peruse different pieces and artifacts, or geolocations, area of control maps, subtweets, congratulatory tweets, disagreements, etc. In this perusal, certain truths and understandings of events, people, and nations are reinforced both in the present and for those researching past conflicts and events in the future. This presentation, decided both by algorithms as well as by the users themselves in their tweeting frequency and developed online personality, legitimizes certain forms of knowledge, just like a museum legitimizes information about a culture, history, or conflict. 

Because of its origins, OSINT is already predicated on predominantly western, mainstream notions of authority, objectivity, and knowledge. In combination with the mechanisms of Twitter, this develops a power dynamic where arbiters of information, a small group of investigators predominantly based in North America and Europe with a strong online presence, can significantly influence who we view as authorities in the OSINT space, who we choose to work with, and what knowledge is reliable or useful in OSINT. 

Engaging in the online space of Twitter and other social media platforms, our knowledge formation project is gamified; our view of OSINT is skewed by both algorithms and those researchers most dominant on Twitter. In doing this, research with non-traditional forms of knowledge, led by citizen journalists, and/or outside of OSINT’s traditional goals and purpose, for example, are erased. This power dynamic visible online needs an impact review. If we want the OSINT space to be diversified, which is necessary for quality work to be completed, we need to directly confront the systems of power present in one of our main forums of dialogue. 

Questions We Need to Ask

An integral part of thinking of OSINT as a knowledge formation project is understanding the positionality of its prominent researchers and their online presence. Although prominent out of control variables definitely influence our newsfeeds, OSINT researchers on Twitter can transform their habits to acknowledge and legitimize researchers, forms of knowledge, and projects not only diverse in background but in purpose. 

To assume full responsibility in this knowledge formation project, we need to critically examine who we as a community regard as credible or of authority and why. This requires a collaboration and open discussion on who and what OSINT is for. Asking question such as:

  1. How do the compositions of research teams influence perceptions of objectivity and quality of work? 
  2. Who are the loudest online OSINT voices and why? 
  3. What influences do these voices have on our thinking and methodologies concerning OSINT? 
  4. What sorts of knowledge and information do we miss in the noise?
  5. Who are we helping when we tweet? 

The credibility of OSINT is reliant and intertwined with its diversity. The presence of an OSINT ‘character’ or type on Twitter inherently dampens the field’s credibility, especially when that character is often white and residing in North America or Europe. It discredits other researchers and the potential diversity of OSINT, leaving it to commodification and a misunderstanding of the research method’s nuance and potential purposes. 

An ethics framework that disregards the positionality of individuals doing the work will ultimately fail. Diversifying OSINT requires a developed long term foresight, understanding that our actions, tweets, and reports now both influence current perceptions of the OSINT field and later knowledge of past conflicts and events. A diverse OSINT space is one of careful thought that begins with each and every researcher. 

Careful Thought in Response to the Present

Diversifying OSINT does not only mean DEI hiring schemes led by management. It can begin in understanding how we each individually, in our tweets, trainings, and reports, reproduce or change the power dynamics inherent to open source investigative work. A diversification of OSINT and its improvement as a knowledge formation project, requires a patient understanding and response to the present. It requires an emphasis on those outside of Twitter rather than those in it, specifically the people and locations discussed in our geolocations and reports. Reckoning with OSINT as a knowledge formation project requires an acceptance of the world’s urgency with eyes towards the future, understanding our roles in producing and distributing knowledge. 

In flipping power dynamics and sharing researchers, collectives, organizations, and activists outside the mainstream, we can understand new methodologies and lend credibility to new voices and forms of knowledge on the platform. We should allow the online OSINT character stereotype to dissolve in favor of a new image of OSINT where information is freely shared by researchers and activists of varied classes, races, ethnicities, disciplines, etc. By uplifting new voices, mainly those who are from or related to the areas and conflicts we are researching, we create room for new ideas of justice and accountability, ones that may not always reflect the ambitions and goals of organizations based in North America and Europe. By treating OSINT as a knowledge formation and challenging the pull of online engagement, we can ensure the work we are conducting is one with purpose, guided by an ethics framework centering all those in the OSINT pipeline. In critically examining ourselves and our online presence, we can put into practice the elimination of the power dynamics that currently inform OSINT work. With a reflection of ourselves and our roles in the OSINT field, we can truly consider our work, outputs, and impacts as well as create a better space for all those involved in the field.  

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