#digitalsherlocks 360/OS: Berlin Unbound

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero

It’s meaningful to have the opportunity to reflect on my two days in Berlin (June 22–23) attending the 360/OS conference. The stated purpose — this “cross-sectoral network of “Digital Sherlocks” will create and cultivate techniques needed to expose falsehoods and fake news, document human rights abuses, and report the actuality of global events in real-time.” Being part of it makes the past two years of work feel worthwhile. Yet, it reconfirmed the complexity of issues and the enormity of the challenge to defuse disinformation in a hyper-connected world.

Here are some highlights and a few musings. Omission isn’t an indication of disinterest or having a personal hierarchy of importance. I learned something from every speaker. The conference held true to its name, valuing the importance of having a 360 degree point of view along with the potential of Open Source Intelligence (data collected from publicly available sources).

I’ve suggested 2018 is the year of “Post-Trust”, and noted @DFRLab Managing Editor and Director Graham Brookie’s comment that “Open Source equates directly with trust.” As well, regardless of one’s organization (media, civic, technology or government), him saying “don’t assume your own credibility” is something worth paying heed too as well.

With our online public space floundering in untrustworthy headlines, images, and videos, Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins, added that Open Source intelligence is operating to “identify, verify, and amplify.” The frustrating quandary is knowing the production, distribution, and amplification of disinformation exponentially outstrips current resources and capacity of the human intelligence needed to dispel the lies.

Eliot Higgins

There is no shortage questions that need framing and asking. A two day conference wasn’t meant to deliver all of the answers. Again, we’re still coming to terms with “speed” in relation to the speed of human deliberation versus the speed of how spread of lies and the flows of disinformation.

We need to consider the implications connected to the speed of response. For instance, how do we respond even with proof that a state or non-state actor’s disinformation campaign is an attempt to influence or is an act of interference? We’re also forced to ask, who do we respond to? What shape of form would a remedy take? Can we set rules or codes of conduct in cyberspace? If so, who sets them? Can we even talk of rules? Who’d play by the rules? And,we also have to ask ourselves — who are the arbiters of truth? Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that the complexity of the disinformation problem only galvanizes our resolve to find solutions.

Having tools at one’s disposal doesn’t ensure the ability to communicate a solution. Getting digital forensics right was well illustrated when Nick Waters (Bellingcat) presented, Verification in Person: Finding Bana (read the story). In this case, the safety of Bana’s family far outweighed Bellingcat going to press with the proof they uncovered. It was a moving moment.

Nick Waters talking with Bana

We “played” table games including the Geolocation Challenge, & Aggressors and Atrocities. We worked as small teams comparing visual evidence while trying to verify the actual sources. It was a humbling exercise.

Time ticking on a “table game”

It became clear that we’re also facing an increasing danger of platform enabled machine censorship. The social media platforms (Facebook,YouTube, and Twitter) play such key distribution and amplification roles while at the same time they are under increasing pressure to mediate the publicly generated content. Machines function and act on what they are programmed to do. They do not discern between jihadist propaganda and potential evidence of human rights atrocities.

Sam Dubberley (Manager) Digital Verification Corps (Amnesty International) talked about using open source research to verify human rights abuses around the world. He spoke of particular a change with Google Earth Pro (satellite imagery) which saw them lose 12 years of lost archived geolocation data.

While Hadi Al Khatib (Founder & Director) Syrian Archive described how they lost 400,000 YouTube videos. In both cases these algorithmic content “take-downs” or significant changes to a tool take place with no discussion, no collaboration and no regard to the forensic value. Platforms can show us today’s atrocities while their technologies could ensure the perpetrators may never face tomorrow’s justice.

I noted an important comment (but not who deserves the attribution) about how it’s one thing “to have intelligence versus having the intelligence of how to use it.”

There’s my permanent record of Ben Nimmo’s — Four D’s (dismiss, distract, distort, dismay) for responding to truths deemed inconvenient, thatnow goes with me everywhere. I’m also holding onto his advice “don’t feed the trolls.”

Andrea Bruce (National Geographic Photojournalist) — Storytelling: Power in the Proof, reconfirmed it’s “not about looking.” For Bruce it’s about what her lens sees of a subject rather that looking for a story. For us, this is how we approach analyzing data. The data tells the story, we don’t fit the data to a story.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started the final day of 360/OS, and her observation that, “People talk with 21st Century tools; Government listens via 20th Century media; and then delivers 19th Century policy,” is scratched into my notebook.

While the event was about about disinformation, it was also about our connection with history. In particular three modern post-war periods (WWI, WWII, and the Cold War) influence our world today. Regardless of how uncomfortable any past is, willfully ignoring it solves nothing. Even more concerning are those who wish to deny or attempt to erase history, only ensures it’s repetition.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The collective absorption of immediacy has a hand in creating today’s distorted realities. While exploring Berlin, I was also juxtaposing images of yesterday and today. I don’t see history as an exercise of pining for the “good old days,” but one of understanding how our yesterdays will define the tomorrows to come.

Dealing with the disinformation problems to come, we will need (which 360/OS represents) a coalition of resources, and participants including government, technology companies, civic organizations, and citizens.

  • From government — we need access to resources (human, data, and funding) not laws or legislation.
  • From technology company’s — we need design understanding for human intentions, not more technocratic-utopianism.
  • From civic organizations — we need new solutions designed with ground-up thinking, not yesterday’s top-down driven models of charity.
  • From citizens — we need collective civility and reject constructs of the consuming individual. The value of being informed is eroding. The harvesting of attention now makes amusement and outrage a premium.

The solutions to disinformation entails more than new cyber-security or Artificial Intelligence technologies and better tuned “black box” algorithms.

Inoculation from information operations that are influencing, interfering, and manipulating public opinion or perception might start with us imagining a society where all citizens have access to a home, to food, and the opportunity to be fully literate. Delivering these basics can forge a foundation of human cognitive security.


Recommended reading:

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks

The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte

I owe special thanks to the Atlantic Council, Jay Brown, Mike Edwards, Bosco Anthony, Jan Enns, Kim Bowie, Elliot Funt, Dave Davies, Randall Lucas, Sam Sullivan and Travis Truong for helping make my attending 360/OS happen.


To help you see through the complexities of this rapidly evolving landscape, we’ve written the four-volume eBook series, Ecosystem of Fake: Bots, Information & Distorted Realities. We invite you to learn more about today’s information battlefield, proposed solutions, and a further reading resource today. Let’s work towards making cyberspace of more human place.


John (CEO & Co-founder)

Mentionmapp Analytics

Mentionmapp Investigates: See if your social reputation is at risk or explore collaborative research opportunities with us. Contact: john [at] mentionmapp [dot] com