Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: The Case To (Re)new Community of Practice for the Open Source Investigative Field

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: The Case To (Re)new Community of Practice for the Open Source Investigative Field

[Raja Althaibani is a Senior Program Manager at WITNESS, who manages the organisation’s MENA program and projects in Syria and Yemen, and specialises in community-based documentation in conflict zones.]

[Libby McAvoy is a Legal Advisor for Mnemonic where she specialises in digital evidence archives, litigation support, and open source investigations into international crimes and human rights violations.]

[Dalila Mujagic is the Legal Lead at WITNESS, who manages the organisation’s Video As Evidence program and specialises in emerging technologies for international justice and accountability.]

In February 2015 Syrian national Mouhannad Droubi was found guilty of war crimes in Sweden, with the case lauded as a rare and speedy universal jurisdiction victory that prominently featured video evidence. Prior to his conviction, Swedish and international media outlets reported on the shocking video footage in question, sourced from Droubi’s email and Facebook accounts, depicting a “torture-like” assault of a bound regime soldier by Droubi and other members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

After Droubi’s conviction, a journalist based in Turkey discovered a very important detail when locating the victim from the video: his affiliation was with FSA and not with the regime. Given that the victim’s assumed regime affiliation was a key element in the trial, this prompted Droubi’s acquittal during retrial (though the Court of Appeals later reinstated the charge on grounds unrelated to his affiliation). Droubi’s case shows us that even experienced practitioners in the media, legal, and investigative fields can lack critical subject-matter expertise and situational knowledge in order to understand basic information shown in a video sourced, in part, online. 

As open source investigations have helped identify and convict perpetrators across the globe, a wealth of previously elusive information has opened up to bolster justice and truth-telling efforts, in turn spurring the growth of the open source investigative field over the last decade. However, the existing community of practice in this field is non-functioning. The status quo is for outsider researchers to form an echo chamber, mirroring, contributing to, and entrenching harms already thriving in the documentation-to-justice pipeline.

Instead, how do we take good intention and turn it into truly good practice

The issues discussed below demonstrate flawed approaches that many outsider open source researchers – commonly Global North folks investigating the Global South – take when self-situating in the work. These issues shaped the existing community of practice, so we interrogate them in order to move forward. Each issue is presented here alongside hypotheticals drawn from repeatedly observed phenomena in lived experience. 

Issue 1: How We Frame and Value Different Roles in this Work 

The current, different roles in the open source investigative pieces of the documentation-to-justice pipeline are siloed and non-relationally framed. This can contribute to inadvertent and sometimes bizarre mis-valuations of each. 

Casual failures to appropriately self-situate manifest in some of the common language choices seen in English-language presentations of open source research. Outsider open source researchers describe “discovering” information, “determining” event locations, or “documenting” incidents by finding footage about them online. Contextually, the casual use of these and other terms can reveal researchers’ objectification of content and othering of the subjects of their investigations.

Another example: Global North practitioners in the open source investigative field have posited that the personal identities of Global South practitioners create insurmountable objectivity biases. This argument might appear like an assertion that people cannot produce impartial investigations about incidents happening in their own communities, even broadly speaking. Use of the phrase “independently verified” in this context can signal that a researcher’s distance from communities and community knowledge is indicative of their integrity and rigour, and therefore a highly valued characteristic. In effect, this negatively impacts the diversity, fairness and equity of the open source investigative community of practice. 

But this is a particularly bizarre value perception given that Global North identities are rooted in the creation of and complicity in oppressive structures with worldwide destructive influence – scholarship hierarchies, the military industrial complex, and philanthropic wealth management are all especially relevant to this field. When practitioners implement Global North identities as signifiers of their impartial participation in open source work, this reveals individual subjectivity and bias characterised by allegiance to colonial practice. 

Practically, then, talented practitioners in the open source investigative field are excluded, which can only lead to weaker justice outcomes. This, when added to a type of work for which there is no methodological imperative to otherwise directly engage with impacted communities, has a compounding effect: community harm. To prevent this harm, the characteristics of open source work that lend themselves to exclusionary practice must be interrogated.

Issue 2: How These Roles and Valuations can Co-opt Participation and Resources From Impacted Communities

The high valuation – externally – and personal embodiment – internally – of the “open source researcher” role can lend itself to siloed, opportunistic behaviours through which intervenors are incentivized to co-opt justice participation from community practitioners. A small subset of the existing community of practice carries the largest megaphone.

Following deep-dives into crisis documentation, outsider open source researchers can feel armed for advocacy by their newfound knowledge. This, coupled with structural access points and other privileges that many outsider open source researchers can take for granted, means they might inadvertently become over-empowered. They are called in as self-perpetuating experts. They take up space in rooms and in decision-making conversations otherwise characterised by closed, partial, or less effective access for members of impacted communities. Many outsider open source researchers do not need to apply for visas for meetings in Europe or the United States, do not need to worry about their interventions being “lost in translation,” or do not need to worry about whether their wifi connection will be good enough for virtual participation in a “hybrid” event.

Even with good faith efforts, structural barriers built on centuries-long systems of gatekeeping and oppression cannot always be overcome in every circumstance. Regardless, we can still interrogate passive-yet-pervasive practices that illustrate how outsider open source researchers nevertheless self-situate in harmful ways when invited to restricted spaces. When answering these calls for expertise or otherwise taking up space in these conversations, are open source researchers likely to do so in ways that appropriately frame and value their role in the room – especially relative to community practitioners? 

From direct experience of Ahmed Mustafa, Head of Documentation at Libya Crimes Watch, shared how important it is that all outsider members of the open source field of practice improve their communication with in-country experts and diaspora experts and practitioners: “Communication is limited if not non-existent. They take information and they produce reports and investigations that are overcomplicated, with lots of words, but often don’t reflect the reality and truths on the ground. They don’t always reflect context. It’s also driven by their own interests and we are expected to fit that mould and help achieve that for them.” Absent deliberate communication beyond the outsider information silo, then, the open source investigation piece of the documentation-to-justice pipeline is extractive to a fault.

The practical consequences compound over time. Narrowed networks and participation means confined perspectives and “experts” who lack the knowledge necessary to craft globally relevant and useful strategies, skills, methodologies, tools, policies, and more. This means misinterpretations and other mishaps, researchers overlooking important information and cases, and lower quality investigations. On balance, the work is less effective and less targeted, if only for the simple reason that it is wholly, remotely digital and therefore largely disassociated from lived reality. 

Issue 3: How Impacted Communities Can Pay the Price of Innovation for Innovation’s Sake

In addition to narrowed networks, the race to keep up with the widespread adoption of information technologies and digital commoditization has led to a false dichotomy between innovation and collaboration – two forms of social interaction that communities of practice depend on for impactful work.

Going with the flow, outsider researchers slip into an eagerness to use and test out the latest tools in ways that can distract from the basics like engaging situational knowledge. Or, outsider researchers might test new tech with information uploaded by a community in crisis whose consent was not sought out. It seems that the current dynamic – whereby innovation comes at the expense of collaboration – can lead to lapses in outsider researchers’ duty to the people impacted by events under investigation.

Community researchers and practitioners also face the reality that many open source tools and methodologies are not fit for purpose – at least, not for them. To nevertheless attempt to make the misfit tools and methodologies work, community researchers and practitioners take on undue burdens, which can include: high subscription or access costs, language barriers stemming from mistranslations, absence of multilingual working options, prohibitive equipment and internet requirements, structural barriers like requiring a Global North-based address or bank account, and tools without accurate or updated coverage for remote areas. Beyond these basic access point issues, community researchers note the obvious need but also obvious absence of the sustained funding, training, and mentorship necessary to successfully leverage new tools and methods. This is akin to hiring someone to be a surgeon without giving them a residency programme, medical licence, equipment supply line, or hospital to work in.

It seems plain that so long as outside advocates or technical intervenors are primary drivers for trends in practice – in these and other ways that risk similar effects – resulting burden sharing inequities can only continue to deepen. This issue could also be posed to funders or field-adjacent practitioners: arguably, people who seek to fund or rely on open source investigations should also be doing this due diligence of understanding if the new actually responds to a community need

Co-creating a More Inclusive Community of Practice 

The issues and examples are offered above not to shame but to highlight the practical reality of the day-to-day of this work, which both shapes and is shaped by the existing dynamics of our community of practice. As a field, we have been talking about these issues along with the broader, ethical imperatives of open source investigative work. Let us now walk the walk through collective action. As a pivotal first step to get to where we need to go, we call on our peers to join us in co-creating a properly inclusive, holistic Community of Practice for the open source investigative field: one that is founded on open and intentional communication that encompasses the rich spectrum of our community.

Proper inclusivity means we will engage the range of disciplines, skill sets, positionalities, and roles that accurately reflect our field as a whole. It means that we will not only engage outsider researchers but also deliberately centre researchers with situational knowledge and experience with the face-to-face realities of human rights violations. 

Consider the CORAL Network – known as the Gathered Collectives of Latin America – an example of an existing community of practice that brings together diversely skilled practitioners to work alongside, or who are themselves, land defenders and members of indigenous communities. As a community of practice, the Network learned that to look out, the collective also needed to look in. The mission to dig out and counter the capitalist, colonial roots of extractive industries required that the collective also interrogate how these same roots can take hold in and influence their own practice. CORAL member Luisa Cardoso, a representative of the Forum of Traditional Communities of Ubatuba, noted that “It is important to think about how we communicate non-hegemonic thought within our communities, without using Eurocentric, sexist and racist narratives. It was very important to make this [a] collective construction.” 

The CORAL Network shows us how practitioners who are engaged in properly inclusive communities of practice are better situated to produce impactful, globally relevant work. As exemplified by CORAL, for a functional community of practice within the documentation-to-justice pipeline to succeed, it is not characterised by their technical advancements and collaboration alone, but by a grounding of the community in a shared ethos of fairness, equity and diversity. 

We aim to co-create a robust Community of Practice for the open source investigative field that deliberately targets the human and social infrastructure needed to create more impactful justice outcomes, in addition to advancing expertise as a global collective. It is intended to overcome the siloing of different actors across the open source investigation field of practice, replacing it with a fair, equitable, and collaborative working community. We invite all to join this initiative and assess the needs that will guide the Community of Practice in collective action. You can do this here, by telling us you are interested by signing up via email, and sharing any issues – those mentioned above or otherwise – you believe are most important to ground future action. 

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