As Russian troops and armored vehicles enter Ukrainian territory, social media accounts sharing images and videos from the eastern Donbass and Luhansk regions have become a vital source of information, sharing footage of Russian helicopters heading for Crimea or tank divisions approaching the border.
However, as the crisis escalates, several academics who share this original data gleaned from social media — known as open-source intelligence or OSINT — have had their Twitter accounts terminated without warning.
According to tweets from Glen and a message posted by another OSINT group, OSINT researcher Kyle Glen was locked out of his account for 12 hours on February 22nd. Oliver Alexander, a security analyst, also claimed to have been locked out of his account twice in the span of 24 hours. The French-language OSINT account Neurone Intelligence, the Spanish-language account Mundo en Conflicto, and the Brazilian OSINT account Noticias e Guerras were all impacted outside of the Anglosphere.
More account bans are included in a Twitter thread gathered by Nick Waters, an analyst with the pioneering OSINT organization Bellingcat. Alexander uploaded a screenshot of the account being locked for breaching Twitter rules in a tweet, albeit the specific rule infraction was not identified.
Researchers speculated that the account suspension was part of a widespread reporting campaign aimed at shutting down OSINT accounts ahead of a Russian invasion.
Twitter representative Elizabeth Busby stated in a statement that action on these accounts was performed in mistake and was not part of a coordinated campaign.
“We’ve been proactively watching for developing narratives that violate our standards, and we took enforcement action on a number of accounts in error in this case,” Busby said. “We’re analyzing these steps as quickly as possible, and we’ve already proactively restored access to a number of affected accounts.” The assertions that the inaccuracies were the product of a concerted bot effort or bulk reporting are false.”
When asked what content standards the banned accounts were suspected of breaking, Busby linked The Verge to Twitter’s synthetic and manipulated media policy, which addresses the spread of false material on the network. Accounts are prohibited from sharing information that has been “significantly and deceptively altered, manipulated, or fabricated,” “shared in a deceptive manner or with false context,” or is “likely to result in widespread confusion on public issues, impact public safety, or cause serious harm,” according to the policy. It’s unclear how the accounts that were suspended were judged to have broken the rules.
The suspensions were unexpected, according to Aric Toler, Bellingcat’s head of research and training, given the large number of English-language accounts affected.
“Normally, this occurs to lesser accounts or accounts in other languages,” Toler explained, “since Twitter mods don’t have as much language expertise there.” “However, you’re seeing a lot more individuals tweeting in English as well, including some quite major accounts with tens of thousands of followers.” It’s a little odd.”
Toler also pointed out that many of the blocked accounts were aggregator accounts, which retweet original content from other accounts rather than directly uploading photographs and videos. According to Toler, this indicated that aggregator accounts were likely stopped due to human involvement rather than automatic content monitoring.
Supporters of Ukraine are afraid that removing OSINT-sharing Twitter accounts from the region could help Russian military objectives in the region. Russia has been accused of using social media to push false narratives during its 2014 takeover of Crimea, and has previously waged misinformation efforts in Ukraine. Russia has also stepped up its digital battle against Ukraine, launching continuing DDoS strikes against Ukrainian banks and government websites.
Nonetheless, Toler claims that Twitter has been prompt in restoring suspended accounts, and that the removal of OSINT aggregators is unlikely to have a long-term influence on the distribution of regional media.
“If something is lost on Twitter, it will be lost everywhere,” Toler added, citing Telegram, Facebook, and a slew of other networks. “Aggregators are getting it out to all the individuals who are following it, like us [journalists].” As a result, the greatest influence is on a second tier of information, rather than the primary sources.”