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The online volunteers hunting for war crimes in Ukraine

Skills honed after the January 6 Capitol riot are helping amateur sleuths document atrocities.

March 16, 2022
hand holding smartphone with a video of an apartment block in Mykolaiv on fire following a Russian attack
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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.

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.

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 someone else help to confirm the evidence is useful to avoid tunnel vision), a Bellingcat researcher independently verifies the information. Then the cycle begins all over again. 

It’s an impressive effort, but Lindsay Freeman, the law and policy director at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says the sheer number and diversity of efforts presents a challenge. Despite their good intentions, some may simply fall too far short of the burden of proof required to prosecute war crimes.

Local resident looks at a shelled area on March 5, 2022 in Markhalivka, Ukraine.
Local resident looks at a shelled area on March 5, 2022 in Markhalivka, Ukraine. Regional police said six people died, including a child, and four were wounded in a Russian air strike on this village southwest of Kyiv.

Remarkably, up until recently there was no single document or group that lays out rules for how to properly collect, archive, and present data from conflict zones for possible war-crime prosecution. It’s a problem that reflects the sprawl of international organizations like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and an array of human rights and aid organizations that have varying powers and jurisdictions—and plays into the hand of war criminals who know they may never truly face justice.

In 2020, Freeman helped lead the drafting of the Berkeley Protocol, an effort to codify the ethical use of open-source intelligence. The protocol, backed by the United Nations, offers a rulebook on how to handle and file digital data. A lot of the document was informed by Syria, Freeman says, and the fact that different formats made data collection a very difficult task there. 

The Protocol is a first step toward creating a system for the deluge of data coming in from Ukraine, but Freeman acknowledges that it’s not enough. While many aid groups have adopted the Protocol, many others are set in their ways and have their own internal systems for filing information..

Freeman says the Berkeley Protocol also “does not really address crowdsourcing,” which is a huge factor in not only the war in Ukraine but also other conflicts over the years. Increased citizen access to technology and social media mean that getting information directly from those affected to those in power has never been easier, yet the Protocol sidesteps the question of how to properly document this information.

Part of the reason, Freeman says, is because the International Criminal Court (ICC) is selective about what type of evidence it permits, often favoring official sources like closed-circuit televisions with timestamps over shaky, pixelated camera phone footage.

What the Berkeley Protocol illustrates is the tug of war between what the International Criminal Court deems as admissible evidence and crowdsourced efforts to collect this evidence. While the Protocol represents a huge first step in creating a more solid case against war criminals, it also represents an acknowledgment of how the ICC remains behind on how people use technology, both as victims of war as well as outsiders looking in. (The ICC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

None of this is stopping Aeden from continuing his efforts. “I sometimes worry that the impact of this work might come too late for the victims of this conflict, but I do believe that justice achieved retrospectively is still far better than none at all,” he says. 

Correction: A previous version of the story that said Lindsay Freeman helped found the Berkeley Protocol has been corrected to state she helped lead the drafting of the Berkeley Protocol. We regret the error.

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