After starting a modest blog, I inadvertently became an authority on the Arab Spring.
In March 2012 I started a blog, titled the Brown Moses Blog after an online pseudonym I had used for years. It was a hobby, and I assumed very few people would read it, so why spend time thinking of a clever title? Now in July 2013 my blog is a leading authority on arms used in the conflict in Syria, a key resource for anyone following the UK phone hacking scandal, widely quoted in the media, with articles about my work appearing on Reuters, CNN, the BBC, and other international news organisations. All of this because I made use of resources available to anyone with an internet connection, yet poorly exploited by the mainstream media.
I had always been the sort of person who liked to debate and discuss current events online. During the events of the Arab Spring I had obsessively followed the situation in Libya, reading every English language article I could find, and using Twitter to gather more information on the ground. Frequently journalists in Libya would Tweet information that wouldn’t make it into their reports, and those little pieces of information helped paint a picture of what was going on inside Libya.
One excellent example of this were journalists who were driving past Tawergha, a small town outside the rebel stronghold of Misrata. They observed burning buildings, and buildings being used as target practice, something they mentioned on Twitter, but would rarely make it onto later news reports, as the focus of those reports was the on-going fighting in the government stronghold of Sirte. Formally a pro-Gaddafi stronghold, Tawergha would later be reported as having been effectively ethnically cleansed by vengeful Misratans, with those Tweets being the first clues to what was happening in the town.
With the internet being cut off across Libya, there was only limited information getting out of the country online, but many Twitter accounts making various claims, usually with a pro-Gaddafi or pro-rebel bias. Making sense of which of these were actually making reliable claims usually came down to following accounts and seeing if reports in the press matched their claims.
There were occasionally videos coming out of Libya, and frequently their authenticity was the subject of much debate, so whenever possible I would attempt to identify the location a video was filmed. This would involve watching a video, and mapping out what I could see in the video, for example the road layout and position of buildings. I’d then use Google Maps satellite imagery to find a matching location, then play through the video again to check it matched that location perfectly. In one case I had two videos from either side, both claiming to show the same town, Brega, under the control of their side. By examining these videos I could tell one video was filmed in the east of Brega, while the other was filmed to the west, proving that neither side was in 100% control of the town.
In October 2012, the day before Gaddafi was killed in Sirte, my daughter was born, and for the next 6 months I had my hands full. As things calmed down at home, I was looking for a pastime to replace the more time intensive ones I had abandon in the last 6 months. I thought back to all the bits of information I was seeing on social media during the Libyan conflict, and the various debates over the authenticity of various information and decided to start a blog where I could record that information, as much for myself than anyone else. In a way, what I had observed in Libya, and the way social media was used, gave me a good starting point for my blog, and how to deal with information coming through social media.
My first blog posts focused on the contents of thousands of emails belonging to Ray Adams of NDS UK Ltd, a News Corp owned company that had been allegedly involved in various dodgy activities. The emails had been leaked to the Australian Financial Review, who published them in their original format, unsorted raw text files, and asked for help digging through them. A number of people at the Something Awful forums had started digging through the emails, and I began publishing the more interesting pieces of information they found on my blog. Pretty soon I began receiving emails from a number of journalists, writers, and other interested parties who expressed interest in what I was doing with the emails, and as I continued to write about subjects related to the UK phone hacking scandal I built up more of a following. This led to me acquiring a regular contributor for the blog who has written fantastic articles on the UK phone hacking scandal while Syria has increasingly absorbed my time.
Unlike Libya, Syria has produced vast amounts of information on social media. It’s estimated over half a million videos have been produced and posted online during the conflict; hundreds, if not thousands, of Facebook and Twitter accounts exist, many of which belong to armed opposition groups and local civilian media collectives. Social media has become the key way for people inside Syria to communicate with the outside world, but for the most part it had been widely ignored by the mainstream media. Occasionally a video might go viral, and get picked up by the mainstream media, but generally all this information was ignored, in part because of the fear of writing about videos that would later turn out to have been faked.
My first posts on Syria were fairly unorganised, looking at the most interesting videos I had seen on Twitter. My first really organised posts were looking at the weapons being used by the opposition. I had been looking for articles on that subjct, but it seemed it was something that had been overlooked by the mainstream media, so I went back and looked at videos I had been posting on my blog, and decided to write about it myself. I had no experience with arms, and as I was writing the piece to satisfy my own curiosity I spent a lot of time researching the weapons in the videos so it could be as accurate as possible. Many of the weapons were Soviet era arms, and there’s a surprising amount of information available on them online.
It wasn’t until one very specific event that I realised there was a more systematic way to check social media coming from Syria. In May 2012 the village of Houla was attacked, reportedly by forces belonging to the Syrian government, with dozens killed and injured. Videos from the town were quickly posted online, showing rows of dead children and other horrific images. On the night I ran a live blog, showing what was being posted on social media as the night went on. One thing I noted were four Youtube channels being used to post videos from Houla, and I realised I could start collecting Youtube channels into a list, sorted by region, and check for new videos each day. What started as a list of around 15 channels has now turned into a list of over 550 channels, which I check for new videos on a regular basis, and has proven to be a key resource for my work.
This systematic approach has allowed me to pick up on many interesting pieces of information as the conflict has progressed. I’ve focused a lot of my attention on the arms used in the conflict because they are pretty straightforward to identify and write about. After writing about the weapons used by the opposition I started to see videos of the first bomb used in the conflict, then the first use of cluster bombs. My work collecting videos of cluster bomb videos from Syria would eventually lead to a project with Human Rights Watch where we’ve now collected over 500 videos of cluster bomb use from across Syria.
Probably the biggest story this approach has uncovered is the smuggling of arms to the Syrian opposition. At the start of 2013 I started to notice new weapons appearing in the hands of the opposition. After watching videos from Syria on a daily basis for the past 9 months I was pretty familiar with what weapons I expected to see in these videos, so I immediately noticed these new weapons. It’s really not so strange to occasionally see an atypical weapon turn up, as there’s a healthy arms black-market in the region, so I made a note of them and didn’t take it much further.
That was until I saw a video from State TV showing the weapons I had spotted in huge numbers. The report claimed they had been captured from the Syrian opposition, and showed a far greater amount of ammunition and weapons than I had seen in any video before. What really got me interested was that State TV showed four types of weapons, and these were exactly the same four types of weapons I had been seeing turned up in opposition videos.
So I went back to the earlier videos, and examined the other videos posted on the same Youtube channels. I documented the weapons seen, where they were filmed, the date, and the groups using them. Pretty soon a clear pattern began to emerge. All four weapons were appearing together in the hands of the Free Syrian Army, and as part of new major offensives in the south of the country, near the city of Daraa, on the border with Jordan.
What was also significant is all four weapons were linked to one country. Two weapons, the M60 recoilless gun, and M79 Osa rocket launcher, were used in former-Yugoslavia. Then there was the Soviet RPG-22, which was used by the Croatian military, and the RBG-6, a Croatian made 40mm grenade launcher.
I made several blog posts about my findings, and around the same time I had been invited to write a post for the New York Times’ At War blog on whatever subject I thought would be interesting to their readers. I summarised the work I had been doing on the Croatian arms, and sent it through to them, waiting for their reply. Quite some time later they came back to me and told me they’d like to take my work and use their contacts to investigate it further.
Using the information I had gathered they were able to approach officials in a number of governments and get them to go on record about a smuggling operation run by the Saudis, with the knowledge of the US government, where they purchased arms from the Croatian government, flew them to Jordan, and smuggled them across the Syrian border to the Free Syrian Army. This was the first time a major arms route to the opposition had been recorded and exposed, and a lot of people started to take notice of what I was doing on my blog.
Soon after the article was published I was contacted by the Guardian, who asked if I’d like to do an interview. I had spent months posting on the comments of the Guardian’s Middle East live blog, so they were already familiar with my work, and when the interview was finally published it pretty much opened the floodgates. The week after the Guardian interview I had TV crews coming to film at my house four days in a row, which had my neighbour’s curtains twitching vigorously. I can only assume they thought I won the lottery, and must now be highly suspicious of what I’ve been up to after I didn’t move out of the area.
Thanks to that exposure I was able to run a fund-raiser for my blog, where I was able to raise enough money to work on my blog full-time until the end of the year. I’m supplementing that with various consultancy work, and hopefully I’ll be involved with a major project related to Syria in the coming months.
All of this I achieved with nothing more than a keen interest in Syria and the UK phone hacking scandal, and an internet connection. Before I started working on my blog full-time I had spent the past 10 years working in business administration and finance, with no experience in the military, journalism, or anything related to the work I’m doing now. I’m now helping other people with their own projects, including a Brown Moses Blog style look at the conflict in Nigeria, which shares many similarities with the Syria conflict. To me, it seems that there’s so much information on a huge variety of subjects available on the internet, be it videos posted online by armed groups in a conflict zone, or government databases, that can be used by individuals interested in a topic to expand the understanding of the subject. I’m often asked if the sort of work I do is going to replace traditional reporting, but I always say that it’s not about replacing anything, but making the most of a new resource that the traditional media struggles to use effectively, and using it to enhance traditional reporting. It’s not trained journalists working for newspapers and media organisations that are best placed to exploit these new resources, but ordinary people who can dedicate themselves to one particular topic.