• Benjamin Strick

Eyes on Russia: Documenting conflict and disinformation in the Kremlin's war on Ukraine

The Centre for Information Resilience's Eyes on Russia project has operated since January 2022 with one simple goal: provide timely and reliable information to the world.

The CIR team, assisted by the wider open source community, created and now runs the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map. The map serves as an archive of verified information that can be used by justice, accountability and advocacy groups. It is the heart of the project.

This effort first started as a project to map and identify the buildup of Russia’s forces along Ukraine’s borders. In addition, CIR sought to investigate influence operations used by the Kremlin to frame the events taking place on the ground as a result of its invasion.

Conducting this work presents a number of unique challenges. Foremost is ensuring that our team maintains an updated repository of verified information on events on the ground, while noting the use of influence operations to frame Russia’s latest actions.

This article walks through the following common questions about the project:

  • The investigators verifying information on Ukraine

  • Building a database map of verified information

  • Identifying influence operations waged by Russia

  • Using public information to investigate events in Ukraine

  • Staying up to date with our coverage at Eyes on Russia

The investigators verifying information on Ukraine

We are not the only organisation documenting the conflict in Ukraine; however, our database has seen more than 7000 videos and photos collected and preserved, and more than 4000 of those have been investigated and verified.

That’s a lot of information, and CIR has been successful thanks to crowdsourced footage. At Eyes on Russia, we have a core team of over 20 investigators, and a wider team of over 30 volunteers that work around the clock to monitor, collect, and verify the content coming out of Ukraine.

We have partnered with investigation groups such as Bellingcat and Geoconfirmed who also contribute to the database. Bellingcat also provides archiving assistance.

Further to that, there is a much larger community of researchers that monitor and verify content, their work is present in our database, which is then reviewed by our core team at Eyes on Russia.

Where does that information go once it is reviewed by our team?

First, it is used by our investigations team to provide a deeper insight into events in Ukraine and to support media organisations in their investigations and coverage of what is happening in Ukraine.

Second, the information is also used by policy and humanitarian groups to assist in the identification of safe passage routes and policy proposals to increase the safety of Ukrainian refugees.

Finally, the database is also used by organisations working towards justice and accountability. Mnenomic, an organisation that helps human rights defenders use digital methods to archive human rights abuses and potential war crimes, is using our data to create an independent database similar to the Syrian Archive for judicial purposes.

Figure 1: CIR’s procedure for verifying information about Ukraine

Building a Database and Map of Verified Information

Figure 2: The Eyes on Russia workflow

Our main effort at Eyes on Russia has been to oversee the development of one of the biggest archived databases of verified information on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The team first started this database as a small project to document, verify and make sense of Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders. Much of this content, in the form of TikTok videos of Russian military vehicles, was logged in a spreadsheet by CIR.

Figure 3: A screenshot showing the database at the beginning of the project

The verification and mapping of openly available social media content is a process that our teams have excelled at in other projects such as Myanmar Witness and Afghan Witness.

The Eyes on Russia database is a curated set of social media evidence that is reviewed, verified, categorised, tagged, and saved offline.

Our database relies on expert collaborative assistance from Bellingcat, who support the auto-archiving of content relevant links which are stored on a secure server.

Figure 4: A figure showing how information is logged into the Eyes on Russia database

Verifying Footage

Our process for entering data is the following:

First, the information logged in the database is given an entry number, which is similar to a library reference for each individual piece of information.

The name of the investigator that logged the information is also entered, along with the type of media and the platform it came from.

This database is particularly unique because of its verification stage. Every single entry is a video or photo from social media, and our work is to ensure that where it was taken, and when it was taken, can be independently shown.

To do this, investigators undergo the process of geolocation, to identify where the photo or video was filmed. This involves looking at visual clues in the footage, and matching it with satellite imagery, Google Street view, or other related media, to determine the precise coordinates of the location seen in the video or photo.

For example, this music school that was bombed in Kharkiv was geolocated by cross-referencing the footage with Google Street view to match up the windows, door and front markings of the building.

Figure 5: A screenshot showing how a music school in Kharkiv was geolocated

Investigators also identify the date of the footage, which at times may be less certain than geolocation. However, through image reverse search and weather markings, investigators are able to ascertain the approximate time when the video or photo is captured.

Additionally, the Eyes on Russia team may also cross-reference the geolocation of specific imagery against others that were taken nearby. This is used to identify the approximate time when footage was taken.

This process of identifying ‘when’ something was filmed is important, as there is the ever-present danger of reused footage.

For example, this footage filmed from what is believed to be a Turkish Bayraktar drone in Ukraine, was in fact filmed in Syria in 2020.

Figure 6: A screenshot of reused footage filmed in Syria in 2020, attempting to appear as footage from Ukraine

When the process of geolocating footage is completed, investigators determine the privacy of the imagery. This allows investigators to ensure the safety of those on the ground. If footage is classified as a privacy risk it is not published on the publicly accessible map.

The Russia-Ukraine Monitor map does not share footage that reveals where people who filmed acts by Russian forces live, nor does it share footage that reveals private information such as names of civilians. Additionally, the Eyes on Russia team do not post geolocations of artillery or long-range strikes within the first 48 hours after they occurred.

In the building of this database, the Eyes on Russia team has implemented a peer review policy for every single entry into the database.

A specific team of senior open source investigators reviews content that is flagged as light green, signifying it is ready for review. The reviewer team essentially acts as a backup investigator: double-checking the geolocation, making sure the footage matches satellite imagery or other media, checking the data, description, violence level and the privacy classification. Any extra verification notes such as the weapon systems that were used are also double-checked by the reviewer team.

Once something is reviewed and corrected, it is flagged as dark green and the content moves to an external database that only a limited number of people have access to. Thereafter the content that is not marked as private is published on the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map.

Figure 7

A Safe Environment for Investigations

While the verification of the footage is important, one of the core values of CIR is to ensure that our teams work in a safe environment. While many of our teams are not in conflict countries and have minimal physical risks to our health, there is the ultimate effect on our mental health when looking at traumatic footage for extended periods.

When documenting conflicts, there are a number of mitigating factors we undertake to regulate some of these risks.

One of those steps is the use of a violence level category, where the videos and photos are ranked on a scale from one to five. This allows reviewers, investigators and those viewing the footage to prepare themselves for graphic imagery. The table below represents the value of that grading.

Figure 8: A table showing the different violence levels that can be attributed to each footage in the dataset

Identifying Influence Operations Waged by Russia

Documenting the truth of what has been happening on the ground in Ukraine and neighbouring regions has not been without the difficulties of discerning fact from fiction.

The information space has been subject to volumes of targeting by state-backed narratives and malign agendas, predominantly those in support of the Russian Government.

The Eyes on Russia project has a dedicated influence operations monitoring team that focuses on identifying, logging and building a database of influence operations that target events taking place in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

This involves the monitoring of social media, messaging channels, and media outlets in Russian, Ukrainian, and English amongst other languages.

The goal of this activity is to capture and analyse the content of influence narratives in the information space. These narratives usually take place through attempts to shift agendas, stoke divides and distort truths about the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

This work is as important as identifying Russian activities on the ground. By documenting attempts to blatantly distort information about Russian activities, the Eyes on Russia team is able to monitor efforts to shift narratives in favour of certain governments.

For example, when Russian forces left the town of Bucha after occupying the area, an overwhelming amount of footage surfaced. The imagery consisted of grim events: including bodies of those seemingly killed on the street and mass graves in the town.

The Russian Government has actively denied these events, claiming that the footage and satellite imagery was either staged or faked. Numerous diplomatic accounts of the Russian Government echoed similar narratives which were debunked in our report: “Disinformation & Denial: Russia’s attempts to discredit open source evidence of Bucha.”

Figure 9: A screenshot showing online attempts to distort the truth about the events taking place in Bucha

Further investigations conducted by our influence operations team at Eyes on Russia cover issues such as the Kremlin's "Polish invasion" narrative, an anti-Ukraine "report" spreading on Telegram, Russia's "International Public Tribunal on Ukraine" and more.

Using public information to investigate events in Ukraine

In addition to logging information on the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map, the Eyes on Russia team have conducted in-depth investigations about human rights abuses and other developments in Ukraine.

These investigations involve identifying several strands of information to piece together the facts about different developing events.

For example, by using satellite imagery, user-generated data, and social media footage our team was able to identify the construction of a Russian military outpost just over 3km from Chernobyl’s Reactor No 4.

The Eyes on Russia team have also conducted investigations about human rights abuses in Ukraine. For example in our investigation, “The Highway Killers: How Russian forces targeted and killed Ukrainians along highways near Kyiv” our team investigated isolated cases that saw at least 18 people killed in horrific conditions.

Through mapping and examining the events surrounding those killings, we were able to identify a trend that correlates the deaths of civilians with their proximity to Russian military checkpoints and outposts. In some cases, footage was identified of civilians surrendering to the Russian military, before being gunned down and dragged off the road.

Figure 10: A map showing highway killings of civilians by Russian military forces

In another investigation, titled “The Yalivshchyna Burial Site: Mass Graves after Russian Invasion”, our investigations team identified new mass graves in a forest in Chernihiv after a wave of Russian bombings in the area. This piece was covered by France24 in their reporting on Ukraine.

Figure 11: Satellite imagery showing newly formed mass graves in Chernihiv

Staying Up to Date with Our Coverage at Eyes on Russia

There is a wealth of information being collected, verified, analysed and reported on by our growing Eyes on Russia team. These include: data added to the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map; in-depth investigations about human rights abuses in Ukraine; and the ongoing monitoring of influence operations on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Our team is producing regular summaries on all of this information, which is being posted on our website at https://www.info-res.org/latest.

You can also stay up to date with the latest information on our Twitter account: https://twitter.com/Cen4infoRes.

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