Q&A: Mining social media for peace

Kelsey Gallagher Featured

Kelsey Gallagher in conversation with Anthony Fenton

A shorter version of this interview was published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 1 Spring 2020

Evidence from social media is becoming essential to the study of modern conflict. Civilians and combatants are documenting war in real time, providing researchers with contemporary accounts, complete with photos and video.

Anthony Fenton (Twitter: @anthonyfenton, email: fentona@me.com), author and PhD candidate in Political Science at York University in Toronto, Canada, has been studying social-media use by combatants in the Middle East for several years. His primary focus is on Saudi Arabia and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, their involvement in regional conflicts, and the role played by Canadian weapons. His open-source research and collected data are frequently cited by other researchers and human-rights groups. and were featured in a 2017 review by the Canadian government into potential human-rights abuses by Saudi forces using Canadian weapons.

Kelsey Gallagher: Describe what you do.

Anthony Fenton: The broader research project that I’ve been conducting is about Canada’s relationship with the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia. A subset relates to the proliferation of Canadian arms on burgeoning Middle Eastern markets, and the social relations that underpin Canadian arms sales to the region. I encourage media coverage of these issues by disseminating research discoveries that are made along the way.

KG: Why do you feed information to the press?

AF: It dovetails with my research interests. I think it’s clear that it’s in the public interest. At the same time, I’m filling a void in an under-appreciated, under-covered, and little-understood field. One of the purposes of my Twitter feed is to simply put information out there, flag it, and contextualize it to the extent possible, for potentially interested parties. At the very least, there’s some sort of repository for the information.

KG: There is a particular focus on Saudi Arabia in your work. Why?

AF: Saudi Arabia stands out as the largest procurer of weapons in the region. At the same time, it is important to follow the UAE, Kuwait, and all the other Gulf Cooperation Council states. I watch how these states move certain military goods outfitted with many Canadian components—for example, the Iomax Archangel attack plane.

The UAE has supplied a certain number of these aircraft to forces they’re aligned with in Libya, so you end up tracking these weapon systems in other conflicts as they appear. But I focus primarily on the Middle Eastern market. That’s where many of the biggest arms bazaars and exhibitions take place, where you can see Canadian arms producers participating.

KG: Describe your process of data collection. For instance, how do you come across footage of Canadian weapons being used in Yemen? You appear to find videos, photographs, etc., quite frequently. Do you have a system?

AF: Fundamentally, it’s a process of organization. Monitoring, collection, classification, categorization, organization, analysis, and, ultimately, output. Output can be in the form of a simple tweet or I might pass it along to a news outlet. I might use the information in an interview. It’s also important to establish and consistently broaden regional networks of contacts in the field, such as arms experts, activists, as well as connections with media and reporters.

Of course, the Twitter archive is always potentially ephemeral. With some important accounts that I’ve collaborated or relied on over the past five years of the war in Yemen, for example, feeds have been suspended, or the people have been deactivated, or somebody has been kidnapped and their feed goes down. A downed feed not only erases their account of events, but also your own.

So, it’s important to have a backup. Part of my process has been to gradually, as a daily project, build my own database of information that is backed up. This data could be useful to others, even five, 10, 20 years down the road. The data will be there, and searchable, in a way that it isn’t anywhere else.

KG:  You rely heavily on social media for both data collection and dissemination. With the ubiquity of camera phones and social-media networks, conflict is better documented than ever before.

AF: Yes, social media give researchers like me more tools and data than we have ever had, and more opportunities to understand what’s going on. On the other hand, the speed with which information is now shared necessitates a new level of “hyper-attentiveness.” One needs to be as prepared as possible for the appearance of new and potentially actionable data.

I can share and contextualize information in ways that are totally different from those seen 20 or even 10 years ago. But, if there’s nothing in place to take that information, feed it into a social movement or a report or a news story, then what is the point of the exercise? So, there are still problems.

KG: What effects do you think such use of social media has on conflict?

AF: I’m someone who has been consistently uploading this footage for the last five years, with scarcely any of it receiving any mainstream footage. Still, clearly there can be a feedback loop.

Recently, in major operations inside Saudi Arabia, Houthi rebels seized a record number of what appear to be Canadian-made, General Dynamics Land Systems light armoured vehicles (LAVs). All of a sudden, you have the Ottawa Citizen running a front-page story on it and then a follow-up piece.

Next, official Houthi media channels used the Canadian press coverage to boost their operations, saying, “Look! We made fools of both Saudi Arabia and Canada!” The article implied that what had been destroyed were new Canadian LAVs that the Saudis haven’t even paid for yet, if reports that they are in arrears on the 2014 deals are true.

In reality, they were older LAVs. But this was lost on the Houthis. That’s an example of how this new style of media, suffering from both rapidity and lag of information, can have real effects.

KG: Which groups are uploading videos and photos? What are their objectives?

AF: In the case of Yemen, you have several camps. On one side, rebel media. On the other, the pro-Saudi coalition media, which are most visible on social-media platforms. For example, the UAE has been engaged in this war, as have other regional actors to varying degrees, alongside upwards of 15,000 Saudi-allied Sudanese proxy forces, pro-Hadi Yemenis, and so forth.

A lot of the Saudi coalition social-media presence is “selfie” footage: “Look at us rolling through this part of the borderlands in our convoy,” “Look at me sniping.” Many of these videos include Canadian sniper rifles, maybe a short clip of a Saudi soldier firing a PGW sniper rifle at an unknown target, with a caption like “We kill Houthis for fun.” Saudi footage is really about morale boosting, just straight-up propaganda of the security forces.

The Houthi rebels are more likely to have GoPros on their foreheads, filming themselves in actual battles. Different styles, different motivations, often with interesting nuggets to be found.

Either side in the conflict could be trying to document their gains in the civil war while, at the same time, motivating their own forces and demoralizing their opponents—or attempting to. There may be instances when footage is uploaded to mislead, which begs the larger question of verification.

There are also groups not engaged in combat, such as civil-society organizations, including international human-rights monitors, the UN panel of experts, campaigners, weapons-expert organizations, etc. All these different sources have different objectives in posting images and videos to social media.

KG: How do you verify video content?

AF: I need to be confident that, over time, the parties that are uploading the data are more or less credible. I don’t need to prove in every case where and when something happened. If I see a new image of, let’s say, a Canadian-made rifle or armoured vehicle, it’s worth sharing.

In a handful of cases, out of the hundreds—maybe thousands—of images I’ve posted, someone has said, “Oh no, that was from 6-8 months ago,” or “That’s a duplicate,” or “That’s a Streit Cobra, not a Cougar.” When this occurs, I issue corrections or disclaimers.

I do my best—keeping notes and organizing the archive.

Certain open-source investigative researchers and research outlets have been cultivating methods that do make verification better. There are ways to geolocate, secure timestamps, and eventually whittle down the verification. I’m a bit of a neophyte in some of those techniques!

I often engage in a feedback process that extends to other professionals and experienced researchers, who will often verify or correct. For example, there was a Streit employee who was fairly active on Twitter for a while. If you misidentified one of their vehicles, he’d correct you.

KG: Have you ever received pushback from your online activity? Perhaps from companies whose weapons have been identified or someone from a video? From Canada’s Department of National Defence? Academics?

AF: Ignorance or inaction can be construed as a form of pushback. Take the example of  Canadian armoured vehicles found in the summer of 2017 in Al Awamiyah, eastern Saudi Arabia. I had been tracking these vehicles for a couple of years. Then the Saudi Ministry of the Interior deployed them in a siege of Al Awamiyah. Saudi activists online initially misidentified them, but I realized that they were Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkhas.

I sent that data to a journalist, who then sent it to the Canadian government with the question, “What are you doing about this?” The information was compelling enough to start a government investigation and a temporary suspension of export permits for the company.

KG: What was the result of the investigation?

AF: The government basically said: “We would need to see a Saudi Minister of the Interior firing a weapon from one of these vehicles on a civilian in order for us to take any sort of concrete action.” The government claimed it had consulted with the Saudi human-rights commission, as well as allies on the ground. Of course, every one of those actors was going to say that the Canadian weapons were being used in a legitimate operation. The granting of weapon export permits resumed.

Here is an extreme case where an image that I shared actually led to widespread media coverage, and yet the government was able to effectively sweep it under the rug. That’s pushback.

On the other hand, I have been blocked by the occasional person and caught the attention of Saudi trolls. I’ve also received pushback after fact-checking journalists. But, in terms of pushback, silence speaks volumes.

For instance, I’ve tweeted about Canadian-made Streit vehicles countless times. About a hundred of them have been identified as destroyed in Yemen. But no Canadian media outlet will report on it. I’ve queried almost every major Canadian media outlet and received no good answer as to why they won’t. This is the constant form of pushback that I experience.

KG: A core aspect of your work relates to transparency. How is transparency important to good governance and to a secure, peaceful world?

AF: Justin Ling recently published “Canada: Good at bureaucracy, bad at transparency,” in The Walrus. A lot of what he said resonated with me, as someone who has filed hundreds of Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests. Going through received and publicly available ATIPs shows how little relevant information is made available, with a lot of text blacked out or redacted. Potential avenues to actionable information are effectively cut off.

I’ve filed an ATIP for every visit made by a Canadian official to Saudi Arabia, over the last decade or so. And then I’ve put what I’ve received up on a wall, just to see the level of redaction. Sometimes, I’ve gotten copies of the same briefing, with different redactions! You get information by piecing together the different legible bits, sometimes.

But I’ve also examined archival records and seen fully unredacted briefing documents. Sometimes, the redacted details are innocuous and irrelevant, but often there is information that, if it had been immediately made public, would have allowed the pursuit of social justice, and which implicated Canada in potential violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen and other places.

It seems to be the role of the state to keep secrets, under the guise of national security, or corporate secrecy, or third-party confidentiality. It’s really frustrating! But we   need to keep fighting for greater transparency, in a time when we’re seeing less and less of it. In a time of fake news, we need access to the facts. In particular, we need better, more transparent access-to-information laws.

KG: At what point does the recording of war become evidence of an IHL violation or a war crime?

AF: Data sourced through social-media forensics would need to be rigorously investigated and analyzed, and then stored and preserved so that it could be presented in a court of law.

My only experience concerns Daniel Turp, professor of constitutional and international law at the Université de Montréal, who has taken the Canadian government to court to try to get the LAV export permits to Saudi Arabia overturned. I’ve spoken with other lawyers in an attempt to determine the point at which the evidence I’ve collected is sufficient to argue that Canada is complicit in a human-rights violation. Reaching that point is very, very difficult.

The government’s baseline is credible, concrete evidence that weapon A, B, or C, has been used in the commission of human-rights violations. However, 2017 video footage posted by the Saudi security forces of their crackdown on the Shia population in the Eastern Provinces, in which security forces were shown using Canadian armoured vehicles, did not apparently meet this bar. So, it’s really difficult.

Part of why I do what I do is to support movements or media coverage that open cans of worms that the Canadian government would rather not see opened.

KG: Have your efforts had tangible effects?

AF: It’s hard to compare the number of times that I’ve been in contact with a media outlet, been interviewed by them, or have given big chunks of my research to them with the number of times I’ve been ignored, even after initial enthusiasm, or the story or a potential appearance on a radio show got spiked for unknown reasons.

I get information out there that might not otherwise be available. If it compels people to think critically in new ways, or compels organizations or people to act, then it has achieved something.

Disseminating information may have consequences for specific companies. It’s hard to say.

One of the great things is that I’ve been able to connect with other researchers who are doing similar things in other parts of the world. They, in turn, have opened up new, collaborative avenues of research.

For example, the logistics of shipping weapons. The LAVs originate in London Ontario, go to whatever port of exit is currently used, are picked up by Saudi ships and carried to other parts of the world. In some cases, when these ships dock, they are met with resistance by dock workers or local arms-control campaigners, who may be better organized than we are in Canada. The information we can give them can be usefully employed there.

Solidarity can go from the very local to the very international. I’m really happy when concrete results come out of my work.

KG: Building linkages and international solidarity are useful for the global anti-war movement, the peace movement, the disarmament movement. What advice would you give to Canadian civil society on how to employ data-collection approaches, such as social-media forensics, to further their goals?

AF: Canadians might learn something from the United Kingdom. They have a better infrastructure of resistance, of opposition, that at least holds the state to a level of accountability that we seem unable to accomplish here.

Look at the UK Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). They’re much better organized than anything in Canada, partly because they’ve been doing this sort of work a lot longer and because British society shares much deeper and broader ties with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council militaries, and the ruling families there.

CAAT actually went to court and forced a suspension of the export permits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is important, even though the UK government quickly found a way to ignore the judgement.

Part of my research is to discover the depth of Canadian ties to these royal families in the Middle East. If the Canadian media and civil society understood these relationships, there would be more of a digging-in and a permanent campaign against arms transfers for human-rights abusers, like what they have in the UK.

So, what could civil society do with these processes of data collection? An outlet like Project Ploughshares or the Rideau Institute—any organization with the resources an individual researcher lacks—could take some of this information and produce a 20-page report, or commission a report on this particular topic, and then disseminate it. Then people could see the sheer amount of data, and that could start to change minds. Such a report might make the media see things in a different way, generate new discussions.

This kind of effort needs more longer-term thinking, with people committed to digging in for what is really a historic battle. After all, Project Ploughshares has been writing about the export of Canadian arms since the 1970s.

We need to have a new conversation, with new results.

Photo: A still image taken from a video posted on Twitter (and thereafter published by news outlets) appears to show a Terradyne Gurkha APC on the streets of Awamiya in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. (Anthony Fenton/Twitter)

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