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May 12, 2022, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As grisly images spread from Ukraine, open-source researchers ask what’s too gory to share

“With the rise of Telegram, graphic imagery has proliferated in the world of open-source intelligence. Does it serve a purpose?”

This piece was originally published by Rest of World, a nonprofit newsroom covering global technology, and is being republished with permission.

The Telegram user @spook_boys runs one of the most macabre channels dedicated to the war in Ukraine — a steady stream of photos and videos of the corpses of Russian soldiers in various stages of decay. The feed on his channel of more than 1,500 subscribers is interspersed with memes mocking the dead and polls asking his subscribers what types of images they prefer.

Spook, as he asked to be identified to Rest of World, to protect his anonymity, has been active for over eight years in the amateur open-source identification (OSINT) community, which uses publicly available information, such as satellite imagery, to analyze conflict zones and increasingly influences the accessibility of public information.

Prior to the civilian massacres in Bucha and Mariupol, Spook avoided corpse imagery. But, starting in early April, Spook took to playing the role of aggregator for graphic imagery that has been spreading within the broader OSINT community. Spook’s footprint has grown since the beginning of the conflict. He told Rest of World that his Twitter account went from zero to 12,000 followers in a little over a month.

He’s one of seven community members who spoke with Rest of World who say that there’s value in sharing graphic content with their audience and are engaged in disseminating this type of imagery, albeit to different extents. “If the concentration camps — when they were liberated, if we didn’t take any photographs of the bodies, would people believe it?” said James Rushton, a U.K.-based security analyst involved in OSINT work.

OSINT and moderation experts told Rest of World that content with corpses can serve an essential function in everything from human rights documentation to identification. Rushton pointed to the first days of the invasion, when Russia said they were using precision-guided weapons targeting only military infrastructure. He would post images and videos, showing dead civilians lying next to unguided Smerch rocket dispensers, to disprove the narrative, often racking up millions of views. He said the investigative outlet Bellingcat was able to run geolocation using the imagery.

Still, more extreme graphic content like Spook’s has become particularly prominent during the war in Ukraine, thanks to the conflict’s mainstream prominence on social media and the unregulated nature of Telegram. The proliferation of corpse imagery exposes the opaque guidelines of social media platforms, while raising ethical questions about its utility.

Necro Mancer, a Ukrainian OSINT account, has been active in information gathering since 2014 but rarely posted images of corpses until the invasion in February. Since then, they began posting any images that Twitter allows. “The stakes have risen, and propaganda should be more aggressive,” they told Rest of World.

According to Spook, he is the only English-language OSINT account focused on finding images of Russian corpses. He has influence in the broader OSINT community, including participating in some of the biggest channels on the messaging platform Discord, such as Bellingcat. He is also tied to some of the major accounts that have gone viral on Twitter during the Ukraine war, including OSINTdefender, with whom he helps to host Twitter Spaces.

Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that much of the corpse content originates from people on the front lines of the conflict — mostly from Ukrainians, due to the stricter control the Russian army has over its soldiers’ social media usage.

The owner of an account called “REDакціЯ approved” said he collects images of corpses but doesn’t post them on social media, to avoid getting his account blocked. Instead, he sends them directly to Russians on the social media platform VKontakte, to “tell them how fucked-up their situation is.” Last week, after being introduced to Spook on Twitter Spaces, he began sharing images with Spook as well.

While graphic wartime content has existed for decades on the internet — particularly during the war in Syria — Brooking said the dynamic is different with the war in Ukraine, which has broken into mainstream discourse in a way that previous conflicts have not, in part due to the ready availability of information on both social and traditional media. Additionally, Telegram has facilitated the spread of graphic content, with Brooking calling it an “essentially unmoderated platform — easily accessible — which has an endless stream of this war footage.” Woofers, an amateur OSINT researcher, said he has seen corpse imagery since the beginning of the war.

Justin Peden, another amateur OSINT researcher who runs the popular Twitter account IntelCrab, says that corpse imagery has open-source value for identification purposes, but he’s concerned about its proliferation within the OSINT community. He recently tweeted out a criticism of the imagery as “gore porn” and was met with a wave of comments linking back to Spook’s Telegram account and various graphic photos. He deleted the post.

Professional open-source organizations have ethical standards and ensure that they verify information before posting it. Even so, the question over what content crosses the line is not simple. Open-source advocates have fought for years to ensure that social media platforms approach moderation in a transparent and intentional manner. Dia Kayyali, associate director for advocacy at the human rights organization Mnemonic, says that platforms “need to be very clear about what they’re removing and why they’re removing it.”

Social platforms like Twitter and Facebook began to introduce new standards for deletion, especially in conflict areas, as well as provide new tools, such as age-gating and the option to blur certain types of imagery with a content warning. Still, corpse imagery pushes the boundaries about what is allowed.

Even though Spook’s Twitter account is more sanitized than his Telegram presence, he said that his account has been locked around nine times for “violating our rules against posting media depicting gratuitous gore.” Spook said that he and other OSINT accounts have begun to limit spreading corpse images on Twitter as well, with the platform seemingly taking more aggressive measures against his account.

A Twitter spokesperson responded to Rest of World saying that “we take seriously the role we play,” with links back to its blog post on its approach to the war in Ukraine and its privacy policy.

Spook shared an email he received from Twitter locking his account for violating its rules. (From Twitter)

Kayyali described Telegram as a “black hole,” rarely interfacing with society and with a terms of service comprising just three bullet points: prohibiting the promotion of violence, the posting of illegal pornographic content, and using the platform for spamming or scams. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Steven Seegel, a historian of Eastern Europe for the University of Texas at Austin, has been closely tracking OSINT accounts on Twitter during the war, to get information. Even so, he warned of the moral hazards of their work. “I wouldn’t imagine that a lot of amateurs who are doing OSINT work are sitting around reading … the history of human rights,” Seegel said. “The ultimate goal of this is to create history and policy, not just to share information.”

Meanwhile, the debate on the value of these images continues within the open-source community. Woofers said he did not have a problem with Spook’s presence, at least on Twitter, although he was wary of the way Spook operated on Telegram. “As someone who’s trivialized death in the past, I think it’s a dangerous route to go down and gamifies war,” he said, acknowledging that “it’s the reality of war that people are going to die and people will share it.” Still, he believes that people’s faces should be blurred, which he does whenever he shares graphic images.

Others made clear that unless the content serves a clear purpose, people should refrain from sharing it. “When you’re posting these bodies in late-stage decay with no sort of geolocation potentiat…that’s just openly enjoying war,” Peden said. “These men are left to die and be humiliated in the process.”

Leo Schwartz is a Mexico City-based reporter at Rest of World.

Photo of blurred images on Telegram from Telegram/Rest of World is being reused with permission from Rest of World.

POSTED     May 12, 2022, 11 a.m.
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