Twice a week, a group of Cambridge students from across the disciplines meet up online or in a room to find digital evidence of human rights violations for Amnesty International. Cambridge’s Digital Verification Corps, hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights, is one of seven university student groups trained up by Amnesty to help discover and verify documentation of violations, sifting through and analysing data from the broad pool of public information flowing through social media channels. In other words, the DVC does open source investigation (OSI).
As DVC faculty and student leads, we realised that knowing how to address the volume and verification problems of (big) digital data was a useful skillset for many more members of our community than we could accommodate in the DVC. Open source investigation is relevant for research in several disciplines and on many projects. It is also valuable for investigative careers like journalism and, more broadly, for being a citizen in today’s information ecosystems. And so, we decided to develop a Cambridge course on Open Source Investigation for Academics.
This course, developed in partnership with Cambridge Digital Humanities, the Centre of Governance and Human Rights and the Social Science Research Methods Programme, foregrounds a critical and reflexive approach to open source investigation. Students learn practical skills to evaluate social media content, online databases and satellite images, whilst integrating considerations of ethics and power. The eight-week course, delivered by DVC leads and a variety of expert guests via pre-recorded lectures and hands-on Zoom seminars, covers the following topics: introduction, vicarious trauma, discovery, verification tools and tactics, geolocation, digital footprints, archiving/data curation and ethics.
How is OSI for academics different from OSI for practitioners?* First, it provokes the question of epistemologies, or ways of knowing. Practitioners working for truth-claims institutions, like human rights organisations or newsrooms, will know that their employers and audiences will expect them to establish evidence using certain methodologies. One such methodology is the increasingly standardised practices and norms of digital verification (see, for example, the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations). In this approach, data is triangulated against trusted datasets to answer the questions: who, what, where, when and why? The idea is to reach as watertight a conclusion as possible. However, this involves assigning a degree of objectivity which can overlook ambiguities and obscure nuances in the data. In OSI for Academics, we introduce this epistemology but also put it into dialogue with a diversity of epistemological approaches within and beyond our various disciplines. We consider the implications, in terms of power and voice, of the dominant orthodox of OSI epistemology. We denaturalize this epistemology and thus create space to reflect on its tradition, where it comes from, who benefits from it, and who is left out. A second advantage of learning about OSI in an academic context is that we can engage it in thought-provoking dialogue with the academic research norms practices on which we already rely. For example, in the course, we ask: How does open source investigation helps us think about the ethics of visibility around our own research subjects?
Accordingly, our OSI for Academics course follows three principles. First, we relish the knowledge controversythat these new methods bring to research, namely the newness that throws into question all of our taken-for-granted assumptions about how we create knowledge. Knowledge controversies can be unsettling and unstable, and our inclinations are often to standardize and thus close them. In these unstable moments, however, the norms that shape our epistemologies become clearer, as does the intersection of power with knowledge, opening them to critique. Therefore, we encourage our students to sit in knowledge controversies and get comfortable with the discomfort.
A second principle is acknowledging rather than resolving dilemmas. In the same vein, we know that the production of knowledge, particularly of fraught and sensitive knowledge, creates dilemmas. We face dilemmas all the time as researchers. Rather than rushing to solve them, we acknowledge them and frame dilemmas as an entryway into exploring power relations.
Finally, our third principle is paying attention to affect. Over the years at the DVC, we have spoken often of affect – as in how the work of OSI makes us feel. This can be a source of tension, for example the thrill you can feel when getting closer to the geolocation of a piece of evidence can be followed by feeling guilty for slipping into the gamification of a real-life situation. Following the principles of autoethnography, then, what can we learn from what we feel as we do OSI?
If you are interested in the practice of OSI, as well as the theories with which it engages, we hope you check out our course. OSI for Academics ran for the first time in Michaelmas 2021 and is open to a small cohort in Lent. To sign up, and for more information, visit the SSRMP registration page here.
* For a course more targeted at practitioners, see our colleagues at Amnesty International’s excellent course on Open Source Investigations for Human Rights, available on the Advocacy Assembly platform here.