How the Internet defeated Seymour Hersh

New technologies and open source approaches are rendering established and distinguished journalists prone to being undermined by bedroom analysts.

Anno Bunnik
1 May 2014

Image taken from Brown Moses blog.

Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, has re-opened the discussion on who was behind the Chemical Weapons attack in Syria. Hersh argues that Turkey supplied the rebels with these deadly weapons in a ‘false flag operation’ designed to create the legitimisation for military intervention.

At first sight, this looks like exciting investigative reporting by an icon of free journalism. A closer look, however, reveals the work of a twentieth century reporter whose methodology has become heavily outdated and perhaps even unreliable. Hersh’s story is based on a single anonymous source – rumoured to be F. Michael Maloof, a former George W. Bush Defence staffer.

On the other side of the debate we find the likes of Eliot Higgins who runs the Brown Moses Blog. Higgins has no qualifications in Journalism or Foreign Policy and has never set foot in Syria. But he understands the internet’s defining characteristics and turns it into a strategic advantage to gather information and, as such, is able to successfully challenge the grand master of investigative journalism.

By cleverly utilising the network characteristic of Twitter and by gathering the infinite images emerging from the deadly conflict via YouTube and Facebook, he manages to document the dynamics of the conflict in detail. This methodology has turned his blog into a credible source of information referenced by traditional media outlets like BBC, Reuters and CNN.

Higgins represents two distinct features of the information age: ‘open source’ intelligence gathering and unfamiliar networked solutions, developments that Hersh has ignored but which are radically changing the fields of intelligence and journalism.

Both intelligence analysts and journalists heavily relied on a handful of sources to create stories. Verifying for reliability of the source and keeping the identity anonymous was part of best practices in both fields.

The emergence of the digital age has fundamentally changed this. As social media are datafying social life, relationships, behaviour, thoughts, locations, and networks, a vast amount of messy data is suddenly available to be harvested. Most of this data is open source and can be accessed by individuals such as ‘Brown Moses’.

In the aftermath of the Ghouta attack on the 21st of August last year, the Leicester-based blogger started analysing the videos on YouTube and information on other social networks. Much of the data was in Arabic, a language Higgins does not understand, and thus had to rely on Google Translate and support from his followers.

It took Higgins several months to reconstruct that the type of rocket (‘Volcano’) used in the attack has indeed been used before and, moreover, that the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian National Defence Force has this specific type of weapon in their arsenal. Furthermore, his work revealed how the missiles were fired from regime-controlled areas.

Seymour Hersh on the other hand chose to ignore this publically available information that was contradicting his argument and instead relied solely on a single source. His methodology certainly proved useful in the Cold War as evident from his work on revealing the My Lai massacre, for instance.

‘The Internet’ has rendered the work of one of the world’s most famous reporters severely outdated and even unreliable. A social media-savvy nobody from a medium-sized English town with a good online network is beating the grand master in his own game.

Hersh’s article is a welcome addition for those seeking to uncover who was behind the attack that killed over a 1,000 civilians and nearly caused a US-led military intervention in Syria – if only for putting it back on the agenda. But moreover, it signifies a fundamental change for the intelligence community and news media that times have changed and innovative, networked, and open sourced approaches are vital for reliable information gathering and analysis.


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