Artwork for podcast NeedleStack
Where Woodward meets Holmes: OSINT and investigative journalism
Episode 2727th September 2022 • NeedleStack • Matt Ashburn, Authentic8
00:00:00 00:19:47

Share Episode

Shownotes

The intersection of open-source information, disinformation, social media and journalism has spawned a new breed of investigator.

Meet Brecht Castel, fact-checking journalist and OSINT aficionado. In this episode, Brecht shares his advice on how to be good at both. Learn how his background as a journalist helps him dig deeper, beyond “hashtag OSINT” and get the bigger story. And how his passion for OSINT has led down many interesting paths — from locating one tree in the whole of Africa to explaining why a mosquito with a number on its back is not part of Bill Gates’ plan for world domination (or even a mosquito, for that matter).

Transcripts

Speaker:

I got a phone call from my now boss,

Speaker:

the editor-in-chief of Knack, to ask if I wanted to become a fact checker.

Speaker:

I had to Google what a fact checker exactly did.

Speaker:

At the time, I was not really familiar

Speaker:

with it but I quickly find out that's really my cup of tea,

Speaker:

debunking viral videos, looking for the truth,

Speaker:

seeing what's what I can find online to prove something right or wrong.

Speaker:

Yeah, that's really what I love to do.

Speaker:

OSINT is my main tool for it.

Speaker:

Like it's being Sherlock Holmes

Speaker:

online and I just love it.

Speaker:

Welcome to NeedleStack, the podcast for professional Online research.

Speaker:

I'm your host, Matt Ashburn.

Speaker:

I'm Jeff Phillips, tech industry veteran and curious to a fault.

Speaker:

Today, we're continuing our series

Speaker:

on fact-checking and debunking. We're going to turn our attention to the growing

Speaker:

importance of independent researchers and journalists that are putting their

Speaker:

findings out on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Speaker:

We've talked about this in past episodes that the war in Ukraine has really put a

Speaker:

spotlight on the open source information available on social media and other public

Speaker:

sources as well as the individuals that analyze that info.

Speaker:

We're joined by one of those individuals in this episode.

Speaker:

Brecht Castel is an independent journalist and fact checker.

Speaker:

You can find his work in the Belgian magazine, Knack among other publications.

Speaker:

He's very active on Twitter at @brechtcastel with tons of tips

Speaker:

on OSINT and visual forensic, how he debunks viral videos in fact-checking.

Speaker:

Definitely go check that out.

Speaker:

Welcome to the show Brecht. Thank you very much.

Speaker:

Nice introduction. Good.

Speaker:

Hopefully, we covered it all.

Speaker:

It's quite the background you have there, sir. Let's jump into that.

Speaker:

Where did your experience in fact-checking begin?

Speaker:

Did you already have an interest in OSINT

Speaker:

or is this something that's been fostered as you've gotten into fact-checking?

Speaker:

Well, yeah I started as a normal freelance journalist and the first of April 2020.

Speaker:

In the midst of the COVID crisis, I got a phone call from my now boss,

Speaker:

the editor-in-chief of Knack to ask if I wanted to become a fact checker.

Speaker:

I had to Google what a fact checker exactly did.

Speaker:

At the time, I was not really familiar with it, but I quickly find out it's

Speaker:

really my cup of tea, debunking viral videos looking

Speaker:

for the truth, seeing what I can find online to prove something right or wrong.

Speaker:

Yeah, that's really what I love to do.

Speaker:

OSINT is my main tool for it.

Speaker:

Like it's being Sherlock Holmes online and I just love it.

Speaker:

Yeah. That's great.

Speaker:

Something we talked about earlier was

Speaker:

that researchers need to be both persistent and creative in your work.

Speaker:

How do you latch onto something that you

Speaker:

really want to investigate what drives you for that?

Speaker:

No.

Speaker:

Actually, I always start from one picture or video.

Speaker:

If it's intriguing to me,

Speaker:

it's mostly intriguing to other people, that's why it's mostly going viral because

Speaker:

a lot of people think like this is strange, it's interesting.

Speaker:

Where does it come from?

Speaker:

What do we see actually?

Speaker:

This is also the question I'm asking.

Speaker:

If it's going viral, it doesn't mean that maybe some people

Speaker:

have looked into it, but didn't find what it actually is.

Speaker:

I try to get a bit further and see what we actually see.

Speaker:

For example, recently there was a video

Speaker:

going viral of a mosquito with a number on it.

Speaker:

People linked it to Bill Gates

Speaker:

and microchips into ants and very weird conspiracy theories.

Speaker:

But still, I was wondering, what actually do we see?

Speaker:

Is it a real number?

Speaker:

Is it a real mosquito?

Speaker:

Where does it come from?

Speaker:

What is it?

Speaker:

These basic journalistic questions like what's true, what's not?

Speaker:

Where is something? What do we see?

Speaker:

Very basic questions.

Speaker:

They just drive me.

Speaker:

I just want to continue digging harder and deeper to find what we actually see.

Speaker:

Now, you have me curious about this mosquito and what that was, I guess.

Speaker:

Well, that's a good point.

Speaker:

Actually, it wasn't even a mosquito.

Speaker:

It was [inaudible 00:04:33] another type of ant.

Speaker:

The number we see is just like natural spots on the ends.

Speaker:

We think it's a number.

Speaker:

It's our human brain would just see

Speaker:

numbers, see patterns, it's wired like this.

Speaker:

It's not really a number.

Speaker:

Yeah, that was the explanation I got

Speaker:

from talking to experts and from doing OSINT investigation.

Speaker:

That's awesome.

Speaker:

It's how our brains are wired to see faces and people see faces in rock formations

Speaker:

and leaves and trees and everything else, even though they're not really there.

Speaker:

Exactly.

Speaker:

The conflict in Ukraine is obviously a big topic now.

Speaker:

How has the role of OSINT changed in fact-checking?

Speaker:

How has all of this changed during the conflict in Ukraine?

Speaker:

Or do you think that OSINT and fact-

Speaker:

checking is just getting more attention now?

Speaker:

It's definitely getting more attention.

Speaker:

If I read the newspaper now, for me,

Speaker:

mostly it's old news because I've seen it on Twitter the day before and I've seen

Speaker:

videos being debunked or verified and then the day after it's in the newspaper.

Speaker:

I think that's a major change because

Speaker:

in the war in Syria, there was already some fact-checking going on.

Speaker:

I think [inaudible 00:05:49] gets started.

Speaker:

It was the spark of OSINT and war journalism.

Speaker:

But still journalists were skeptic about it.

Speaker:

It was like a marginal thing.

Speaker:

Now, I think most of our journalists is really driven by OSINT.

Speaker:

Also, we see a lot of journalists working at home, not on the front line

Speaker:

and collaborating with journalists in Ukraine to really verify things.

Speaker:

I had a very interesting case about

Speaker:

a burned body was a shared widely on Russian platforms.

Speaker:

It was compared with pictures of ISIS.

Speaker:

They were saying, "Look,

Speaker:

those Ukrainian soldiers, they burned his body and they put it

Speaker:

in a cage just like ISIS did in Syria." I started investigating this picture.

Speaker:

We found the location.

Speaker:

We tried to prove if it was tortured alive or it was set on fire afterwards.

Speaker:

We couldn't prove that,

Speaker:

but we still find out a lot of things about this one picture.

Speaker:

After publication of this fact check,

Speaker:

I got in contact with a photographer was on the ground, was in Ukraine and he took

Speaker:

a photograph of this body a few weeks later.

Speaker:

When I called him, he knew less about it than I did after an OSINT investigation.

Speaker:

For me, it was so weird, he knew there was this body.

Speaker:

He wanted to photograph it for a couple of days or weeks.

Speaker:

The Ukrainian army was saying, "No,

Speaker:

you cannot go there, we don't want you to take a picture of it."

Speaker:

Behind my laptop in Belgium,

Speaker:

I drew a lot of social media posts and a lot of talking to experts,

Speaker:

I knew more about this burned body than this photographer in Ukraine.

Speaker:

That's crazy.

Speaker:

It doesn't mean that we don't need journalists on the ground, they are hugely

Speaker:

important and they do a much more dangerous work that I do.

Speaker:

Of course, we need them definitely.

Speaker:

But I think in combination with OSINT investigation, it can be very strong.

Speaker:

Yeah. It's almost an abdication

Speaker:

of responsibility if you don't provide that context that you're talking about

Speaker:

there and if you provide only a photograph and then a quick blurb about it.

Speaker:

Rumors and false stories can run amuck and be very damaging.

Speaker:

Yeah.

Speaker:

You should also be very transparent about what you can find and cannot find.

Speaker:

OSINT is very powerful, but it also has limitations.

Speaker:

These experts said to me,

Speaker:

"I cannot say if this body was burned alive or not if I not can do an autopsy

Speaker:

on the body." Only from the pictures, it's not possible to say it 100% for sure.

Speaker:

Then you also have to say this to your

Speaker:

audience to say, "Okay, we did our best to be analyzed a lot.

Speaker:

We worked hard. We talked to experts.

Speaker:

But the conclusion is, inconclusive." I think we gain... How to say.

Speaker:

If people don't trust the media, it's also because we don't do this.

Speaker:

We have do this more often, we have to be more transparent about what

Speaker:

we know for sure, which we're doubting about.

Speaker:

That's amazing input.

Speaker:

If we stick on the Ukraine a little bit,

Speaker:

we're all following that news, are there certain sources or tools

Speaker:

at the moment that are helping you either from the journalism side or from the fact-

Speaker:

checking side against maybe specific to the war on Ukraine?

Speaker:

How are you getting your information in?

Speaker:

Open source intelligence starts with open sources.

Speaker:

Finding these sources is a first important step.

Speaker:

For this in the war in Ukraine,

Speaker:

there is a great website, very easy to remember, osintukraine.com.

Speaker:

It just created some bots, we're just scraping a lot of contents.

Speaker:

For example, they're following 90 telegram channels, Russian telegram channels,

Speaker:

90 Ukrainian telegram channels, and they put it in one feed.

Speaker:

They also do automatic translation from these videos.

Speaker:

You can just follow the war in real time and see a lot of sources.

Speaker:

Of course, this is only the starting point.

Speaker:

There can be a lot of fakes in there.

Speaker:

You have to be very careful.

Speaker:

The Ukrainian sites want to tell their story.

Speaker:

The Russian sites want to tell their story.

Speaker:

There is a lot of propaganda there.

Speaker:

But if you're just new to the conflict and you just want to start somewhere,

Speaker:

it's a good way to get away from what news media are saying and just try to see what

Speaker:

is being shared on social media in Ukraine and in Russia.

Speaker:

With automatic translation, nowadays,

Speaker:

it's even possible to follow Russian videos, Ukrainian videos and so on.

Speaker:

Both sides. That's super interesting.

Speaker:

What are some of the strategies that you

Speaker:

use in trying to combat false information or to debunk things?

Speaker:

What are some of the principles, I guess, that are consistent across your work?

Speaker:

One principle is always find the oldest version.

Speaker:

If you find the oldest version online,

Speaker:

then you get closer to the real context and if you find the real context,

Speaker:

the meaning of the picture can change or you can get closer to the true.

Speaker:

That's very important.

Speaker:

Contextualizing what we actually see, that's a very important one.

Speaker:

Of course, also see if there has been some manipulation.

Speaker:

Also, if you find the oldest version,

Speaker:

you will see it immediately if this is like this.

Speaker:

Combining sources,

Speaker:

never take one sources for granted, try to combine Russian and Ukrainian

Speaker:

sources, combining a lot of points of view that really helps.

Speaker:

For example, the burnt body we found different videos from different angles.

Speaker:

We could say, "Okay, the body was there for a long period of time.

Speaker:

We see different shades." It really helps to see what we really see.

Speaker:

Speaking of that, so I'm curious,

Speaker:

since you started off on the journalism side and then moved into fact checking,

Speaker:

have you surprised yourself with what you've been able to apply OSINT

Speaker:

to and what you've been able to figure out through open source sources?

Speaker:

Yeah, definitely.

Speaker:

Surprise on a daily basis, I would say.

Speaker:

The force of OSINT is amazing.

Speaker:

One aha moment that it's a bit strange

Speaker:

story is I was just fact-checking a picture of an old tree

Speaker:

and it was said that it was 6,000 years old in South Africa.

Speaker:

I was like, "I want to find where this

Speaker:

tree is and how old it can actually be." B y combining Instagram, YouTube, Flickr,

Speaker:

a lot of social media platforms, and Google Earth, of course,

Speaker:

I could really find the exact location of this tree.

Speaker:

This was like stunning for me.

Speaker:

If you're a bit persistent.

Speaker:

If you work hard enough, you can really find one tree in the whole world.

Speaker:

That's crazy if you think about it.

Speaker:

That's a force of open source intelligence.

Speaker:

If you combine a lot of platforms, a lot of sources, you can really get close

Speaker:

to the truth and using it to find a tree is a bit silly.

Speaker:

I agree on that.

Speaker:

But you can also use it to find this burnt

Speaker:

body in Ukraine or to investigate war crimes.

Speaker:

I'm doing this for a couple of years.

Speaker:

But OSINT investigators

Speaker:

from Amnesty International are doing this for over a decade.

Speaker:

This is not new.

Speaker:

But for me, this is eye-opening.

Speaker:

When I was a normal journalist just

Speaker:

talking to people, basically, that's what you do.

Speaker:

You talk to experts, you talk to people.

Speaker:

I didn't know that there's such a wide

Speaker:

world of open source intelligence and combining the two is also great.

Speaker:

Talking to experts and doing your OSINT

Speaker:

investigation, go with your OSINT investigation

Speaker:

to experts and see like this is what I found out.

Speaker:

Does it make sense or why can it not be like this?

Speaker:

That's really wonderful.

Speaker:

A quick follow-up because this has come up in some other episodes and talking

Speaker:

with different individuals, what are your thoughts from a journalism

Speaker:

perspective about working with some of the amateurs that are out there?

Speaker:

There are a lot of amateurs loose these days.

Speaker:

What are your thoughts in using those sources?

Speaker:

First and foremost, if a tweet has a hashtag OSINT, it doesn't mean it's true.

Speaker:

Let's all agree on that.

Speaker:

Some people just see OSNIT and they think, "Yeah.

Speaker:

That's true." No, it's not like a magic word to say the truth.

Speaker:

Most of the times it's just people

Speaker:

who found the video on Telegram and put it on Twitter.

Speaker:

That's not OSINT.

Speaker:

But I love working with amateurs.

Speaker:

I've worked with them a lot of times and they helped me immensely.

Speaker:

I keep coming back to this fact check of this burnt body.

Speaker:

But for example, I keep coming back to this factor for this burn body.

Speaker:

I was looking for the location to start digging, but I didn't find a location.

Speaker:

I went to some amateur OSINT people I know.

Speaker:

I put it out there.

Speaker:

After a few days, they found a location

Speaker:

and that was actually the starting point of my investigation.

Speaker:

If you cannot find it yourself, use the community and you're stronger together.

Speaker:

Definitely.

Speaker:

The good thing about OSINT is you don't have to know the person behind the screen.

Speaker:

You don't have to...

Speaker:

I work with anonymous people, which I don't trust per se.

Speaker:

But if they tell you something, you can verify.

Speaker:

You can check these open source they used to get there, I could get on Google Maps,

Speaker:

Google Street I see, yeah, it's definitely this location.

Speaker:

How this person found it,

Speaker:

I'm not sure and he definitely worked a lot of long hours to get it.

Speaker:

But we can see it's true. I can trust it.

Speaker:

That's great. They help me a lot.

Speaker:

I love amateur OSINT investigators.

Speaker:

A lot of people out there who are going to like hearing that.

Speaker:

Absolutely.

Speaker:

Sometimes, they don't see the journalistic value of what they do.

Speaker:

That's where I come in and like, "Okay.

Speaker:

Now, you find this location.

Speaker:

It's not finished.

Speaker:

We have to dig further and talk to experts and so on." Usually,

Speaker:

they are very happy that they can contribute to something bigger.

Speaker:

If they want, I take them on Twitter or I give them some reconnaissance in this way

Speaker:

or sometimes they just want to stay anonymous and I don't mention them at all.

Speaker:

But I'm just open that I didn't find it myself, of course.

Speaker:

Yeah.

Speaker:

That's great. Brecht, as we start to close out, what are some of the tips or

Speaker:

techniques that you want to leave with the audience today?

Speaker:

Well, mostly people are asking for specific new tools.

Speaker:

Well, I'm going to disappoint you.

Speaker:

I will not give you one of the latest tools.

Speaker:

If you want to stay up to date,

Speaker:

I would recommend to the Newsletter Week in OSINT.

Speaker:

I think it's a great weekly update of the newest kit on the blog.

Speaker:

For me, OSINT is all about creativity and persistence.

Speaker:

Creativity, I mean, combining a lot

Speaker:

of sources, combining a lot of techniques, looking for new ways to find something.

Speaker:

For example, now I'm fact-checking a video of Chinese troops entering Ukraine.

Speaker:

That's the claim they make and we see Chinese vehicles.

Speaker:

If I can prove that this video was

Speaker:

recorded somewhere else in Russia close to Vladivostok, that's good proof.

Speaker:

If it's not possible, I can also look for another way to prove it.

Speaker:

For example, if I find a number of plates

Speaker:

of these vehicles and I find other videos and I can geolocate these videos.

Speaker:

That's, for example, a creative way of thinking, how can I fact-check this?

Speaker:

Another thing is persistence.

Speaker:

Sometimes people are like, how can you find this?

Speaker:

It's impossible. Well, yeah, it took me a few days.

Speaker:

It's hard work sometimes.

Speaker:

If I cannot sleep, I get up.

Speaker:

I search a few hours and sometimes then I find the location of a video or picture.

Speaker:

Persistence and creativity are key.

Speaker:

You just learn it by doing it.

Speaker:

I just start and you get better it day by day.

Speaker:

I think I'll be a better OSINT

Speaker:

investigator year in one year from now than I'm today, that's for sure.

Speaker:

That's great.

Speaker:

Brecht, thank you so much for joining us today.

Speaker:

I really do appreciate the conversation with you.

Speaker:

If you're listening at home, you can always find Brecht Castel

Speaker:

on Twitter @brechtcastel, first name, last name.

Speaker:

If you liked what you heard,

Speaker:

you can subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcast.

Speaker:

You can also watch our episodes on YouTube and get more information at our website

Speaker:

that's authentic8.com/needlestack, authentic with #8.com/needlestack.

Speaker:

Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter as well.

Speaker:

Needlestack Pod is our handle on Twitter.

Speaker:

We'll be back next week with more

Speaker:

information on debunking and fact checking and all things OSINT.

Follow

Links