Make sure to read the 5 September edition of the Sunday Briefing if you missed it – it will explain the concept and the ‘why’ behind the briefing.
OSINTEditor Sunday Briefing: Archiving and Analysing Disinformation Receipts
This week details archiving on the Wayback Machine, finding clues in Metadata from Bellingcat, and analysing a chain of disinformation ranging from F-22 pilots to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. And lastly, a map of New York, 1976.
Internet archive – Wayback Machine
The Internet Archive is both a wonderful tool and an incredible resource; the rare website that is both delightfully fun and immensely beneficial to humanity. The Internet Archive hosts library books, public domain books, music, random diaries, endless website archives, abandonware, radio, and videos… If it has been on the internet, it can reasonably be archived on the Internet Archive (except social media, kind of).
The Internet Archive is also essential for OSINT researchers – or any researcher – to utilise. Archiving practices are not readily discussed, likely because it is such a mundane practice. In OSINT, archiving all websites as part of an investigation should be standard practice. Signing up for an Internet Archive account is a breeze, and it allows you to view all archived files and websites under one tab. Keeping different pages organized in a preferred notes app is also beneficial.
However, the Wayback Machine Google Chrome Plug-in from the Internet Archive provides quicker access to several features, including WHOIS look ups, one-click archiving, and checking for a ‘recent’ or a ‘first’ version of the webpage.
Archiving websites that are at risk of disappearing is also critical for researching later (see Apple Daily, Hong Kong as an example). There are several options for archiving a page, one of which is “save outlinks”. While selecting more options takes more time, saving outlinks is essential to preserving multiple pages, e.g., preserving a blog and all the pages that it links to.
There are also other ways to explore archives including through Google Cache. OSINTCurious provides details on searching cache while staying safe.
Where in the World is Q? Clues from Image Metadata
by Bellingcat (Abigail W. Xavier, Robert Amour, and the Q Origins Project)
In May of this year a team of Bellingcat researchers analysed metadata on images from Q, the person behind the manipulative internet conspiracy cult QAnon. (Those who are unfamiliar with QAnon can read a primer inside of this article). The object behind the article is to identify clues of where Q lives, or where Q has been to. The article is also a fantastic example of the importance of being an obsessive archiver for research purposes. A few paragraphs inside of the article detail the method behind how the team pulled the pictures from the internet and extracted metadata using the ExifTool. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the methodology to this article might be better than the findings.
To spoil the findings, they are ‘inconclusive’, although not exonerating of Jim Watkins (owner of 8Chan/8Kun) and Ron Watkins (son of Jim Watkins, also an administrator of 8Chan). The key to this article is how Bellingcat examined metadata and made determinations about where Q could be, or have travelled to. This included complicated graphs of putting together image creation date and post timestamps. Such a graph would not have been possible without extensive archiving and exporting of those archives to manageable file formats. There is plenty to learn from Where in the World is Q?
F-22s, Vaccines Mandates, and a Disinformation Circus
As a follow up to last week’s dissecting of People’s Republic of China (PRC) state propaganda on central media ‘fixing the minds of Hong Kongers’, Timothy McLaughlin, The Atlantic’s correspondent in Hong Kong, detailed how Beijing has weaponised media in Hong Kong.
This week’s disinformation section is about COVID-19 vaccine mandate disinformation campaigns, and a deep QAnon-styled rabbit hole that may merit returning to in the future.
On 1 September (false) information went viral that 27 U.S. Air Force pilots resigned over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the United States Armed Forces. The story was quickly debunked by PolitiFact, who noted that the offending website was Real Raw News, a ‘parody’ website. Except, it is not quite a parody website, aside from their disclaimer stating it is parody (although it seems the website’s author provides that as a wink and a nod that he has the ‘truth’, while also being able to say, ‘it’s just a joke!’ when he causes harm). Most of the content reads like QAnon fan-fiction, ranging from grotesque descriptions of Hillary Clinton and Bill Gate’s fictional military tribunal to Delta Force raiding a ‘Ukrainian Biden compound’ under the command of ‘President’ (as this site reports as if Trump is still President) Trump.
For most people this is deranged fake news. Yet, read the comments on the site and on the Facebook page, and it is clearly not taken as fake news by many more. Taiwan’s government fact-checking firm even did a substantial write-up debunking the site’s wide-spread story that Hillary Clinton was executed. (Real Raw News has made its way into obscure Chinese reading circles. The site has also been amplified in Japanese).
More disturbing is that some of the fake news from the site read rapidly spreads due to catchy headlines that even more ‘reasonable’ MAGA adherents spread. Notably, on 25 August the first anti COVID-19 vaccine mandate story appeared regarding a purely fictional dispute between the Pentagon and the U.S. Marine Corps. According to Crowdtangle (a tool which checks Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram for public interactions with a URL, but usually undercounts), this article had just over 1,000 interactions on Facebook, including in English, French, and Spanish. The next fictional article went viral, with 1,379 interactions on Facebook and copied onto other disinformation blogs, stating that 27 U.S. Air Force pilots had resigned over the COVID-19 vaccine mandates, prompting the PolitiFact article. Moreover, it was shared amongst anti-vaccine groups in Canada, Germany, Mexico, Latin America, and the United States. Notable, although possibly not trustworthy, the disinformation blog has a view counter that over 20,000 people visited this blog.
This brings up a viral Instagram Story where a bodybuilder named Justin Y. O’Donnell amplified a version of the Real Raw News article in his own words through an Instagram Story. O’Donnell may not have anything to do with the Real Raw News story, and simply had products and ads to profit from while amplifying a popular piece of disinformation. As CNN’s Daniel Dale highlighted, the Real Raw News story was copied onto another website (Daily News Break), and shared by Fox Nation host Lara Logan and former Trump Campaign Aide George Papadopoulos in tweets that remain up.
Notably, however, there are incongruencies between O’Donnell’s disinformation and the Real Raw News disinformation. Real Raw News specifies 27 pilots in the headline, while O’Donnell states there are 28 pilots (12 F-22 pilots, and 16 B-52 crewmen). Yet, there is also the similarity that Defense Secretary General Lloyd Austin sent a text at 4.a.m that the crew had to be vaccinated by 10a.m. (There is a lot of irony this was the chosen story of disinformation, especially regarding the use of SMS to illicit COVID-19 vaccine scams).
The Daily News Break version of the story had just over 800 interactions on Facebook, but was much more popular on Twitter due to the amplification by Rogan and Papadopoulos. Daily News Break carries the same equally outlandish articles, but includes a flavour of clickbait through all caps and exclamation point in their headlines. Their site, however, appears to be older, while Real Raw News has only just appeared in the past year, with their Facebook page created on 28 January 2021. Worryingly, a search can see the site has been amplified enough to warrant several debunking-articles from major news outlets.
There is one last addition to this disinformation circle. While the extents of the coordination are hard to determine in a short time span, many QAnon or MAGA accounts have been pushing anti COVID-19 vaccine mandate stories. As noted by Daniel Dale, a popular MAGA account “@Suzy1776_” had pushed the video by O’Donnell; although ‘Suzy’ has since deleted the video and apologised for spreading fake news (the irony is rich). However, there is plenty of other disinformation being pushed from ‘Suzy1776_’, notably this map of states that will be refusing to comply with a federal vaccine mandate for the military and federal workers, as well as a request from the Biden Administration to OSHA which would mandate COVID-19 vaccination at companies with more than 100 employees.
This specific map, made with mapchart.net based on the lefthand UI button, appeared on several sites shortly after President Biden made the mandate announcement. This includes popular disinformation sites Think Civics and Zerohedge. Noticeably, the maps are different, with New Hampshire, Ohio, Kansas, and Louisiana added onto Zerohedge’s map. The narrative is also slightly different, with TC claiming these are states suing the federal government and Zerohedge stating these are the states ‘pushing back’. Both are, however, false claims as aside from a number of Republican states only promising to sue, there has not been a definitive lawsuit from state’s attorney generals; nor has there been time to. Moreover, there is very little ground to push back on the mandate legally, as OSHA has yet to implement the plan. The map, and narrative, are pre-emptive disinformation to establish a narrative among right-wing circles. Lastly, the ‘vaccine rebellion’ map coincides closely to the 2020 Presidential electoral college map, with the fictitious additions of Arizona and Georgia as Trump states.
There is, however, one last note to make before the conclusion of this extended disinformation foray. In the O’Donnell video he mentions that without the F-22 fighter jets, “you might as well kiss Taiwan goodbye.” This is an important part for two reasons. First, disinformation comes in narratives and pairs; just as the disinformation above is a chain pushing back against vaccine mandates. This is purely (and I stress) speculation, but it would not be surprising to see a narrative spin off the still circulating Real Raw News story that ‘China Joe’ is using the mandates to widdle the military down to allow for Beijing to invade Taiwan. Second, the F-22s are not – and have limitations to prevent them from being – consequential to the defence of Taiwan.
As detailed by Tyler Rogoway, aviation defense analyst for The Drive online magazine, in the above Twitter thread, the F-22 is not suitable for a long-range defence of Taiwan’s airspace. Specifically, as the Taiwan Strait is 130 kilometres off mainland China, the F-22 as a main line of defence would be untimely. While this is not the place to discuss the variables of a Taiwan defence strategy The Diplomat has a good overview of what it would take, part of which is Taiwan’s military giving enough time for allied forces to arrive and help. The defence of Taiwan is an extremely complicated answers, so if this does become a part of disinformation and misinformation streams, seek out experts (of which, few are on Twitter).
In summary, the initial coverage of what seemed to be one bodybuilder’s Instagram disinformation about U.S. Air Force pilots resigning was a lot more than it initially appeared to be. The thread of disinformation goes deep into pushing a very particular narrative. While PolitiFact’s Noah Kim and CNN’s Daniel Dale did a good job at uncovering the falsehoods, reporting that these are just ‘parody’ websites does an inadequate job detailing the length and depth of disinformation networks. Disinformation is driven by narratives, discourse, and webs, often within different groups that expand upon or narrow the narrative of one another. There are accompaniments to disinformation as well, and articles that spread at such a rate often do not work alone. Hence, isolating one disinformation facet as just that facet is not enough to identify and mitigate disinformation.
Transportation Map of New York State, 1976
Today is 20 years, plus one day, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I do not have many words to offer. You know how to best remember and mourn the day in your own manner.
Today’s map is a transportation map of New York State from 1976, created by the U.S. Geological Survey. The map is packed with information, yet still largely discernible until you get to New York City, where you would need another map to decipher the boroughs. The map provides a neat look at what the state looked like around the time of the original completion of the World Trade Center Towers. Comparing the map to one today will offer insight into how perspectives on one geographic lot can change with the addition and removal of infrastructure. (Looking at the image through the Library of Congress Portal will allow for better zoom focus options).