TikTok isn’t just for dance memes — it’s now being used by amateur investigators to track the Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders.
Among those researchers is the Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, a tight-knit collection of investigators based between Russia and Ukraine.
CIT practices open-source intelligence, a method of gathering and analyzing information that, as its name suggests, draws on publicly available data like social media posts and satellite imagery.
CIT’s research has been cited widely in recent months, including in a January 15 analysis of Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine by two experts from the nonprofit CNA, a think tank that advises the US military.
Here is an explanation of one way they might gather information.
Every train in Russia is logged in a central database.
A train’s departure is checked against social media images — certain Russian-language TikTok hashtags abound with videos of trains carrying multiple launch rocket systems, troop carriers, and tanks — which researchers match visually to stations along the trains’ routes.
The type of hardware on a train, can in some cases be matched to specific military formations. CIT and other researchers have spotted in social media videos equipment allegedly used by units of Russia’s storied 76th Guards Air Assault paratrooper division, for example, due to the specific vehicles being used, their distinctive paint jobs, or unit markings.
This kind of information can be cross-referenced against the known home base of a military unit.
Researchers also supplement their findings with satellite data or, in some cases, social media comments.
If a TikTok goes viral the videos attract comments from soldiers’ relatives.
These comments can contain useful nuggets of information, like suggestions that a loved one’s military deployment will be longer than the routine exercises publicly announced by Russia’s military.
Open-source intelligence is more pervasive than ever now; everyone has a cellphone and satellite images are cheaper to obtain.
When the U.S. military makes decisions based on publicly available information — the kind used by CIT — that data is cross-referenced with other forms of intelligence, like human sources or intercepted communications, Abrams said.
However, you don’t make decisions and assessments on one report or one source of intelligence. As a general rule, you want to cross-cue with another form of intelligence.
To avoid disinformation, CIT’s researchers aim to collect social media posts from genuine eyewitnesses.
Satellite imagery also helps verify the data CIT collects.
But one method used by CIT of validating their findings has recently become trickier, after an intervention by Russia’s authorities.
Eight-digit numbers on the side of a train car can aid CIT in isolating a specific train and obtaining a history of its movements. That data is now harder to come by.
They also can block accounts, and limit some specific types of requests, like you could request to see all trains that are currently at a station. It’s not available anymore.
The most significant recent change, was the removal of data about journeys by trains carrying military cargo.
This wasn’t the first time a new roadblock has been thrown up for open-source researchers. In 2019, Russian lawmakers approved a bill blocking troops there from using smartphones while on duty and from posting personal details online.