The independent news collective is teaching a new generation of journalists and citizens to spot the stories in plain sight.
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The attack occurred in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists and seemed the result of a surface-to-air missile. Everyone on board was killed.
The event triggered public outrage and an international season of the blame game. Western Europe, led by the U.S. and Ukraine, pointed fingers at Russia, while Russia tried to pin the blame on Ukraine, going so far as to claim a Ukrainian military jet tailed the commercial aircraft immediately before the disaster.
Later that year, an investigative team put out a report linking the pro-Russian separatists to the Buk-M1 missile launcher likely responsible for the tragedy. The team compiled photos, satellite imagery, and video evidence to follow a missile transport from Donetsk to Snizhne immediately before the downing of the aircraft. They then confirmed the transport leaving the area later, sans one missile.
This report was not filed by an NGO or a legacy news organization like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, nor did the team have access to insider or classified information. Its authors were a small, independent collective of researchers and citizen journalists called Bellingcat, and their information came from social media posts, Google Maps satellite imagery, and videos uploaded to YouTube. In other words, the facts were out in the open for anyone to see. Bellingcat simply knew where to look.
Following the data
Dutch Safety Board Chairman Tjibbe Joustra speaks in front of the MH17 wreckage to present its final report into the attack.
Bellingcat was founded by Eliot Higgins, a citizen journalist who gained online prominence investigating weapons smuggling during the Syrian war. The collective's report into the MH17 attack would serve as its breakthrough, and it would continue to improve our understanding of the tragic event and countering Russian disinformation.
Since then, Bellingcat has legally registered as a foundation in the Netherlands and has continued to unearth consequential details to some of the most important news stories of the last decade, including the Syrian War, the Christchurch mosque massacre, and the poisonings of Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalny.
The foundation's model of journalism is known as "open-source investigation." According to Aric Toler, Bellingcat's director of research and training, it's less an overturning of investigative journalism than a "genre" within it. This type of investigation follows digital data trails that are freely available on the internet. The bread crumbs could be found in public records, media reports, photos on Twitter, or people silly enough to upload a video of themselves committing a crime on Parler.
"Bellingcat's rise reveals something new about our digitally mediated times: spying is no longer the preserve of nation states – anyone with an internet connection can do it. The balance between open and secret intelligence is shifting. The most useful stuff is often public," writes Luke Harding for the Guardian.
The vast amount of data available online allows Bellingcat's researchers to piece together timelines or connect seemingly disparate events to reveal their connective, underlying thread. In its investigation into the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, researchers created a timeline of radicalization through her social-media footprint; they also mapped her journey during the Capitol Riot by locating videos showing her in the crowd and comparing background details to publicly available floorplans of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Like a fussy math teacher, the foundation employs a "show-your-work approach" to maintain credibility, transparency, and back-of-the-book peeking. Each article or report meticulously presents its data points through links and images, building the trail of evidence crumb-by-crumb. By the end, readers have seen the same evidence as the researcher and can decide whether said evidence supports the researcher's conclusions.
Aware such evidence can sometimes vanish—either by the people who upload it or corporations fretting over public relations—Bellingcat has also gone to great lengths to archive and back up important data before they are lost.
Balancing clarity and caution
While today Bellingcat employs a small team of journalists and editors, it still relies on volunteers and citizen journalists willing to dedicate the time and effort to scrape the internet for leads.
This, Toler told us in our interview, is an advantage to Bellingcat's investigative methods. While traditional news outlets contend with shrinking budgets, less personnel, and more information to wrangle than ever, they simply lack the resources necessary to explore the deluge of data we call the internet. Conversely, Bellingcat can overcome these barriers by tapping into a pre-existing group of enthusiasts who thrive on a sense of devotion, interest, and personal satisfaction. And the more people who team up to solve a problem, the lighter the work becomes.
But there are challenges. "It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have a clear gap in information. It's just not feasible for large outlets to cover this stuff to the degree it should be. But also, the people who do have time and do it, there's not as much responsibility on them, and who knows what they could do that causes harm," Toler said.
Consider the open-sourced nature of the evidence. Bellingcat's show-your-work approach is necessary for clarity and transparency, but it also creates a set of instructions for those looking to duplicate the formula. While Bellingcat maintains the guidelines of a traditional newsroom, others may not and bad actors could locate information Bellingcat deemed sensitive enough to redact and use it to harm others by, say, doxing.
"There's really no good solution because you can't control what the mob does. If someone is angry, they can dig into this stuff because it is open source, and if you give the transparency of how you got your stuff, then you can't avoid the fact that it can then be reproduced and found," Toler said.
Because of this, Bellingcat hopes to serve as a type of intermediary. Like a traditional newsroom, it vets its sources, sets up fail-safes to catch misinformation, and writes its reports to protect bystanders and prevent libel. It hopes these practices will serve as an example for citizen journalists to emulate. On the obverse, it aims to show established news outlets the power and reach of open-sourced investigative techniques and these online communities.
Recently, Bellingcat has worked to investigate the Jan.6 Capitol Riots.
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Looking to the larger media landscape, Bellingcat doesn't see itself in competition with traditional news media. It views its position as one of cooperation. The foundation has worked with several news partners to investigate stories and promote its work, such as sharing the findings of its Riley June Williams investigation with NBC.
It also offers training workshops to teach open-source investigation. These are not only attended by journalists wishing to hone their skills but professionals like lawyers and finance managers looking to add these techniques to their trades. Because the foundation sees its methods as an extension of investigative journalism, not a replacement for it, it isn't looking to corner a market. Rather, it aims to evolve a profession to meet the challenges of its new 21st-century environment.
As Toler told us: "Journalism doesn't work one way or the other. It should be both. Do some open-source sleuthing to compliment and boost your on-the-ground reporting.
"Our gospel of open source, we're trying to spread that as much as we can. We want to make this a very mainstream part of traditional news. If we're made obsolete, that's a good thing because we'd like for more traditional news outlets to be doing digital investigation and verification work."
Can playing video games really curb the risk of depression? Experts weigh in.
- A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health.
- Young boys who played video games daily had lower depression scores at age 14 compared to those who played less than once per month or never.
- The study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health. The study suggests that boys who play video games frequently in early adolescence (around age 11) are less likely to develop depressive symptoms throughout the following years. Additional findings in this study suggest that girls who spend more time on social media appear to develop more depressive symptoms.
How do video games and social media impact young kids?
The study gained interesting insight into the link between depression rates at age 14 and video game usage a few years earlier.
Credit: Pixel-Shot on Adobe Stock
The study's lead author, Ph.D. student Aaron Kandola, explains to Eurekalert: "Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful."
How this study was conducted:
- These findings come as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, where over 11,000 (n = 11,341) adolescents were surveyed.
- Depressive symptoms were measured with a Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (age 14).
- "Exposures" were listed as the frequency of video games, social media, and internet usage (age 11).
- Physical activity was also accounted for on a self-reporting basis.
When comparing young boys (age 11) who played video games to those who don't, the study showed interesting results:
- Boys who played video games daily had 24.3 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- Boys who played video games at least once per week had 25.1 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- BOoys who played video games at least once per month had 31.2 percent lower depression scored at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
When comparing how depression impacted young girls based on their social media usage, the researchers found that:
- Compared with less than once per month/never social media usage, using social media most days at age 11 was associated with a 13% higher depression score at age 14.
Can playing video games actually be beneficial?
There has been a lot of speculation in the past two decades about screen-time, social media, and video games. Whether it's linking video games to violence and obesity or linking social media to depression and anxiety — this seems to be a controversial question. According to the research, the answer to this question is yes, video games can be beneficial in moderation when paired with physical activity and real-life application.
Adding in some physical activity could be the difference between beneficial and harmful.
The above-mentioned study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
Previous studies have concluded there are some mental health benefits to playing video games.
A 2020 study by the University of Oxford analyzed the impacts of playing two extremely popular games at the time: Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" and Electronic Arts' "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville." The study used data and survey responses from over 3000 players in total — the games' developers shared anonymous data about people's playing habits, and the researchers surveyed those gamers separately about their well-being.
Results of this study found that time spent playing these games was associated with players reporting that they felt happier.
Additionally, previous studies (such as this University of Arizona study) have linked video game usage with new learning opportunities: "
Games like Minecraft are being used in more and more classrooms around the country. MinecraftEdu (recently purchased by Microsoft), allows teachers to structure a sandbox-style play environment around any curriculum. Students can work together to learn the scientific method, build farms, or take advantage of turtle robots to learn basic programming. Not only do these activities improve team-building skills, but they give students the chance to develop and practice technological literacy."
"Everything in moderation" is an important factor in determining whether video game use is beneficial or harmful.
While there can be some positive impacts from playing video games, research (such as this study conducted in 2013) has also shown that people who spend a predominant part of their day gaming are at risk of showing lower educational and career attainment in addition to problems with peers and lower social skills.
In the future, you might voluntarily share your social media data with your psychiatrist to inform a more accurate diagnosis.
- About one in five people suffer from a psychiatric disorder, and many go years without treatment, if they receive it at all.
- In a new study, researchers developed machine-learning algorithms that analyzed the relationship between psychiatric disorders and Facebook messages.
- The algorithms were able to correctly predict the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders with statistical accuracy, suggesting digital tools may someday help clinicians identify mental illnesses in early stages.
For the 20 percent of people with a mental illness, early identification of the condition is key to getting the best treatment. But people often suffer symptoms for months, even years, without receiving clinical attention. Part of the problem is that psychiatrists have few tools to identify mental illnesses; they rely mostly on self-reported data and observations from friends and family.
The field is, in some ways, "stuck in the prehistoric age," according to Michael Birnbaum, MD, an assistant professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and an attending physician at Zucker Hillside Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital at Northwell Health.
But digital tools could help bring psychiatry into the modern age.
"It became apparent, in my work with young folks, that social media was ubiquitous," Dr. Birnbaum told Big Think. "So, we started to think about ways that we could potentially explore the utility of the internet and social media in the way we diagnose our patients and the care that we provide."
The results of a recent study, conducted by Feinstein Institutes researchers and IBM Research, suggest that social media activity can provide useful insights into who's at risk of developing mental illnesses like mood disorders and schizophrenia spectrum disorders.
Published in the journal njp Schizophrenia, the study used machine-learning algorithms to analyze millions of Facebook messages and images, which were provided voluntarily by participants, ages 15 to 35. The data represented participants' Facebook activity for 18 months prior to hospitalization.
...the health disparity between people with mental illness and those without is larger than disparities attributable to race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status.
Identifying psychiatric disorders
The goal was for the algorithms to analyze patterns in these datasets, then predict which group participants belonged to: schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSD), mood disorders (MD), or healthy volunteers (HV). The results were promising, showing that the algorithms correctly identified:
- The SDD group with an accuracy of 52% (chance was 33%)
- The MD group with an accuracy of 57% (chance was 37%)
- The HV group with an accuracy of 56% (chance was 29%)
The study also showed interesting differences in Facebook activity among the groups, such as:
- The SSD group was more likely to use language related to perception (hear, see, feel).
- The MD and SSD groups were far more likely to use swear words and anger-related language.
- The MD group was more likely to use language related to biological processes (blood, pain).
- The SSD group was more likely to express negative emotions, use second-person pronouns and write in netspeak (lol, btw, thx).
- The MD group was more likely to post photos containing more blues and less yellows.
These differences tended to become more apparent in the months before a patient was hospitalized. But even 18 months before hospitalization, the results revealed signals that hinted participants might be on the path to developing a psychiatric disorder. That's where these tools may someday help improve early-identification efforts.
"In psychiatry, we often get a snapshot of somebody's life, for 30 minutes once a month or so," he said. "There's the potential to get much greater granularity with some of these new assessment tools. Facebook, for example, can allow us to understand somebody's thoughts and behaviors in a more real-time, longitudinal fashion, as opposed to cross-sectional moments in time."
Dr. Birnbaum noted that everyone has a unique style of online behavior and that certain behavioral changes may contain clues about mental health.
"The way that we're understanding this is that everybody has a digital baseline, a way they typically act and behave on social media and the internet," he said. "So, ultimately here we would want to identify this baseline for each individual—a fingerprint—and then monitor for changes over time, and identify which changes are concerning, and which are not."
Using digital tools to better identify psychiatric conditions could someday reduce the number of people who suffer without treatment.
"There's an alarming gap between the number of people who experience mental illness and those who receive care," said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. "It's especially troubling when you consider that the health disparity between people with mental illness and those without is larger than disparities attributable to race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status."
A step toward the future of psychiatry
Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
Although previous research has examined the relationship between online activity and psychiatric disorders, the new study is unique because it paired online behavior with clinically confirmed cases of psychiatric disorders.
"The vast majority of the data thus far has been extracted from anonymous, or semi-anonymous individuals online, without any real way to validate the diagnosis or confirm the authenticity of the symptoms," Dr. Birnbaum said.
But before clinicians can use these kinds of digital approaches, researchers have more work to do.
"I think that we need much larger datasets," Dr. Birnbaum said. "We need to repeat these findings. We need to better understand how demographic differences, like age, ethnicity and gender, can play a role."
Privacy is another consideration. Dr. Birnbaum emphasized that these kinds of approaches would only be conducted on a voluntary basis, and that the Facebook data used in the recent study was anonymized, and the algorithms examined only individual words, not the context or meaning of sentences.
"This isn't about surveillance, or that Facebook should somehow be monitoring us," Dr. Birnbaum said. "It's about giving the power to the patient. I imagine a world where patients could come into the doctor's office and express their concerns, but also provide some additional clinically meaningful information that they own."
Dr. Birnbaum said the long-term goal isn't for algorithms to make official diagnoses or replace physicians, but rather to serve as supplementary tools. He added that these tools would be used only for people seeking help or information about their risk of developing a psychiatric condition, or suffering a relapse.
"Hopefully one day, we'll be able to incorporate this and other information to inform what we do, the same way you go to a doctor and you get an X-ray or a blood test to inform the diagnosis," he said. "It doesn't make the diagnosis, but it informs the doctor. That is where psychiatry is heading, and hopefully this is a step in that direction."
New research from MIT is unintuitive but could lead to a better system.
- MIT researchers conducted a study with 2,683 volunteers on the efficacy of fact-checking.
- Showing "true" or "false" tags after the headline proved more effective than showing it before or during.
- The researchers believe this counterintuitive discovery could lead to better fact-checking protocols in the future.
Not only do most people get their news from social media, a majority of users never make it past the headline. The infinite scroll means that once a headline is consumed and a judgment is rendered, chances of returning to the story are low. The memory of the news is quickly filed. Once solidified, changing your mind is nearly impossible.
We all know the dangers of news-by-tweet. On Facebook you might see a headline and lede, arming you with one additional sentence of information. Still, it's not enough, especially given the complexity of politics. Add misinformation and disinformation into the mix and the results are intellectually and socially toxic.
Yet that's the environment we live in. Share an article from a fact-checking website like Snopes and you're guaranteed to hear about a past incident involving the founders or the notion that Politifact is biased. The Washington Post tracked over 30,500 lies or misleading claims by Donald Trump in four years; his followers never blinked.
Rarely are debates argued on the merits of content. Emotionality rules on social media. If the site is not agreeing with the narrative you've already told yourself, it must be wrong.
Does that make the very concept of fact-checking impossible? A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues against that idea—with caveats, of course. As MIT professor and co-author David Rand says, "We found that whether a false claim was corrected before people read it, while they read it, or after they read it influenced the effectiveness of the correction."
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For the study, 2,683 people viewed 18 true and 18 debunked news headlines. Three groups saw the words "true" or "false" written before, during, or after the headlines, while a control group saw no tags. They then rated the accuracy of each headline. A week later everyone returned and again rated headline accuracy, only this time no one received "true" or "false" prompts.
As with everything in life, the researchers discovered that timing matters. And it really matters, given that 44 percent of Americans visited "untrustworthy websites" leading up to the 2016 presidential election—certainly enough of an impact to sway an electorate.
When volunteers were shown the label immediately before the headline, inaccuracies were reduced by 5.7 percent; while reading the headline, 8.6 percent; and after the headline, 25.3 percent. Rand notes his shock at discovering this sequence.
"Going into the project, I had anticipated it would work best to give the correction beforehand, so that people already knew to disbelieve the false claim when they came into contact with it. To my surprise, we actually found the opposite. Debunking the claim after they were exposed to it was the most effective."
AFP journalist views a video on January 25, 2019, manipulated with artificial intelligence to potentially deceive viewers, or "deepfake" at his newsdesk in Washington, DC.
Credit: Alexandra Robinson/AFP via Getty Images
While there's no silver bullet for battling misinformation, the researchers speculate that allowing people to form an opinion and then providing feedback might help the information "stick." Prebunking headlines might seem like the best strategy, though it actually has an opposite effect: readers gloss over the headline knowing it to be false. When later asked to judge, they didn't properly categorize the news as they weren't actually paying attention.
By contrast, showing the tags directly after reading the headline seems to "boost long-term retention" of truthfulness. One interesting phenomenon: the sense of surprise after a low-confidence guess turns out true reinforces the stickiness of the information. Learning the truth after an initial judgment seems to be the best course of action.
How this could be implemented in the age of infinite scrolling remains to be seen. But it does run counter to current practices by Facebook and Twitter, which mark false stories with a warning before you're allowed to view them. While this seems to be the right way to go, recall human nature: we love forbidden fruit. Tell us "this is wrong" and watch the results.
In fact, you don't need to—the MIT researchers did it for us. We know we need new models of news gathering and consumption. This study could provide at least one mechanism for achieving such a model.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Older people are in grave danger of being left behind.
Many young people have embraced the convenience of digital technologies such as online shopping, car hailing, digital payments, and telemedicine. But many elderly without a grasp of the latest knowledge are at risk of being left behind.
Several news reports in China during the outbreak of COVID-19 put this issue in the spotlight: an elderly woman who wanted to pay for her medical insurance with cash was refused due to concerns that her cash might be carrying the virus.
The woman, who had not set up mobile payment, was left alone in the service centre at a loss.
In another case, an elderly man without a phone was asked to get off the bus after failing to show the driver his health-status code via the app used at all public places in China.
These incidents are stark reminders of the widening digital gap for the elderly.
China: an ageing population puts a spotlight on the digital divide
The challenge is not unique to China, but it is particularly pressing for the country given the rapid transformation of its massive population of 1.4 billion into an aging society.
Around 2022, China is projected to become an "aged society" with 14% of the population above 65 years old – some 200 million people. It would typically take nearly a hundred years for many countries to reach this stage, while it will only have taken 21 years in China.
What's even more staggering is that by 2050, the number of Chinese elderly is estimated to reach 380 million, amounting to nearly 30% of the country's overall population.
With just a small population of the elderly online, more needs to be done to provide access and guidance before the problem exacerbates with the rapidly rising aging population.
Pandemic pushes the elderly out of offline comfort zone
According to statistics from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), out of the 274 million mobile phone accounts of elderly users (those 60 years old and above) in China today, about 134 million are using smart phones to browse the internet. This means approximately 140 million still lack access to it.
The pandemic, however, has pushed a great number of elderly people online, in China and globally. The Chinese government issued plans in November last year to help elderly people overcome barriers to using smart technology.
Meanwhile tech companies, such as e-commerce company JD.com, are stepping up their efforts to ease the transition. Here are three major trends in this arena:
1. Taking online in-store
Brick-and-mortar stores have started to arrange assistants in dedicated zones to help elderly customers make sense of everything from digital payments to robot services. These are all services that many young people, who grew up with the internet from an early age, take for granted – but they can also be learned.
At JD's omnichannel supermarket SEVEN FRESH, elderly customers are guided by staff to place grocery orders online, that are then delivered to their doorsteps at a specific time. Similarly, in JD's offline pharmacy, customers can sit on a sofa inside the store and wait to collect their medicine, pay for it with the help of in-store assistants, and walk away with professional healthcare advice.
"We are keen to use and benefit from these new technologies, but getting to grips with them is no easy task for us," said Ms Zhang, 78, an empty nester who tried to use a self-help health screening robot in a JD pharmacy store.
Her words speak to the difficulties many elderly people face. "By using this machine, I have not only experienced advanced technology, but also gained confidence," said Ms Zhang, after having mastered the robot.
In terms of online services, many elderly customers shy away from voice systems or chatbots. In light of this, China's top three telecom operators recently announced a speed-dial system to transfer users above 65 directly to human service personnel.
Furthermore, upon the request of MIIT, adaptive versions of more than 150 apps and websites in China are being built, featuring simpler interfaces, fewer pop-up adds and more anti-fraud support.
2. From louder smartphones to voice-activated home appliances
Tailormade smartphones play an important role in easing elderly people's transition into the digital space. Phones with big buttons, larger font size and high-volume speakers have popped up recently.
Last year, JD launched China's first 5G smartphone for the elderly in partnership with ZTE. The phone is equipped with services such as remote assistance, synchronised family photo sharing album and fast medical consultation services – handy for both the elderly and their children.
Importantly, it enables adult children to manage their elderly parents' phones from afar – something that is becoming more necessary as families are increasingly separated by the demands of work in a location far from home. (JD data found that 70% of elderly consumers believe children are indispensable in their care process and 68% want to spend more time with their children, but this is not always possible.)
Besides customised smartphones, JD and other companies are exploring a variety of ways to adopt advanced technologies to improve elderly people's lives.
These include: voice-activated IoT home appliances for users with limited mobility; an AI-powered speech recognition system that can communicate in a variety of dialects; and a big-data based health management system that can provide more accurate health advice.
3. Enabling the elderly a good investment for brands
Training goes a long way to abating the fear surrounding new technology. Last year, JD organised classes for the elderly on how to use digital devices, starting with basics like downloading apps, and increasing in complexity to cover how to line up for a hospital appointment virtually, scan QR codes and use mobile payments.
This has economic benefits too. With more and more elderly finding their footing in the digital world, they are adding fuel to the already booming silver economy.
During 2020, JD saw more elderly consumers start shopping online due to COVID-19; and they've kept up the habit since, appreciating the added convenience and plethora of choices. This has led the company to use big data to work on more products designed specifically for elderly consumers.
But it's about much more than just learning how to use the technology. With a better grasp of e-commerce, elderly parents are now turning around and making purchases for their children. Some are even joining flash sales campaigns, participating in the highly popular new phenomenon of group buying, and even grabbing digital red envelopes.
And, in diverting themselves from loneliness, especially during the pandemic, they are turning to livestreaming, short videos and singing apps for entertainment.
Behind these skills are newfound confidence, freedom and connection; the idea that they are "too old" or that "technology is just for young people" is simply a thing of the past.