On 18 September 2018, the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar issued its 440-page report into serious human rights violations committed by military forces in three states of Myanmar. Over its 15-month examination of the situation in Myanmar, the Fact-Finding Mission operated in a hugely challenging environment. Its members were denied access to Myanmar, and requests for formal meetings with governmental representatives and further information were met with silence.
It is unsurprising, then, that open source research played a significant role in the Fact-Finding Mission’s investigative activities. While this evidence complemented traditional fact-finding activities (875 witness interviews were conducted), the influence of two types of open source evidence is noteworthy.
The first type is social media evidence, particularly evidence from Facebook, given the prevalence of the social network in Myanmar. In assessing hate speech, the Mission
paid specific attention to a number of Facebook accounts that appear to be particularly influential considering the number of followers (all over 10,000, but some over 1 million), the high levels of engagement of the followers with the posts (commenting and sharing), and the frequency of new posts (often daily, if not hourly). (para. 1310)
In addition, government and military officials often took to Facebook to make public statements. The Mission noted that, for the majority of people in Myanmar, Facebook is their main source of news and information, and is viewed as a reliable source of information by many users.
The second form of open source evidence that was significant to the Mission was satellite imagery, sourced via UNOSAT, the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. The Mission drew cautious conclusions on the stories told by satellite images. For example, at paragraph 1236, the Mission noted that an image ‘shows new roads, large structures and a perimeter fence under construction, indicating the likely establishment of a new security force base.’
It is likely that open source evidence will be of even greater significance to future human rights fact-finding, given the wealth of information it provides to corroborate witness accounts. It can also act as lead information for investigators, where the events depicted online or through other open sources can be verified through more traditional investigative methods.
Whether open source methods will ever fully replace traditional fact-finding methodologies remains to be seen. However, the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Kashmir issued in June 2018 relied extensively on open source information, which could be indicative of future trends. The Myanmar Fact-Finding Mission’s Report indicates two challenges with the use of open source evidence.
The first is a need for capacity building; to this end, the Mission obtained specialist advice in digital verification (paragraph 22), but the particular challenges in filtering and verifying the huge volumes of evidence accessible via open source investigations will remain an issue for human rights fact-finders. The second is the challenge of so-called ‘take downs’, where either the original poster or the platforms on which evidence is posted remove that content. At paragraph 705 of the Report, the Mission notes a statement posted on the spokesperson of the President of Myanmar’s personal Facebook account, which was later deleted. While Facebook has committed to preserving content for future investigations, other platforms such as YouTube have emphasised that the wishes of the original poster who later deletes their content must be respected.
OSR4Rights will be examining these and other challenges over the next two years.
Image credit: Satellite image of Inn Din, southern Maungdaw Township, 16 February 2018, available online from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/MyanmarFFM/Pages/ReportoftheMyanmarFFM.aspx