Both delayed and prompted by investigations into the Islamic State archaeology book club (the languid process of which I ran through in week one(ish)), the Islamic State’s antiquities stash (which I am updating as I write this) and the looting of Palmyra (which I cannot update yet), I want to show why expansive open-source research may make you will your skull to collapse, but is worth persevering through. I want to show how you can expose state crime and propaganda by googling and watching YouTube.
In contrast to last week, it’s difficult to explain the process because it’s so convoluted and random that I don’t quite understand it myself. At the same time, it would be disingenuous to present it as much more than searching the web for keywords.
Reports trickle – or flood – out over days or weeks or months or years… Invariably contradictory testimony piles up from paramilitaries, entrepreneurial and organised criminals, eyewitnesses and hearsay-relaying community members, investigative journalists, law enforcement agencies… Disparate photos and videos appear…
The first problem is the amount of potential evidence – not too little, as is so often the case, but too much. If you search for news that specifically mentions “Palmyra”, “Syria”, “antiquities” and “looting” since the start of the war, you will get hundreds of results. As I’ve been archiving the news as it’s come out, I had hundreds more to work through.
But by trawling through those hundreds, simply by laying each line in chronological order of events (and especially by laying each line in chronological order of statement), you will be able to reconstruct the real-time writing and rewriting of official narratives and tease out the contradictions that suggest, first, that much cultural property had not been evacuated before the emergency and, second, that cultural property was then evacuated while civilians were left behind.
Furthermore, by cross-checking remarkably blunt testimony from Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers, carelessly-shared video from Assad regime soldiers, carefully-phrased reports from archaeologists, official records of combat from the regime and video documentation of the archaeological site from the resistance, and satellite imagery of Palmyra on Google Earth, you will be able to identify looting that took place when the site was under rebel and regime control.
Much of the evidence has been translated into English by parties to the conflict – and parties to the crimes – as they struggle to incriminate each other. Some of the evidence can be found by googling the Google-translated Arabic form of “Palmyra” on site:http://www.dgam.gov.sy/ and searching for it within YouTube.
Even tracing the earliest publication of a photo is not difficult in principle. Right-click on the image and select an image search (and wait the second or two it takes to complete or it will cancel), or click-and-drag the image into Google Images, then scroll through until you’ve found the earliest-dated publication.
You do have to check what appears to be online, as a thumbnail “related story” link to a recent source may be registered by search engines when it is advertised underneath an old source. The actual earliest publication may no longer be online, but you may still be able to establish an “early enough” date that disproves some or all of the competing claims.
If you see a too-good-to-be-true (or indeed too-bad-to-be-true) image circulating on Twitter? Now you can reverse search it in seconds.
Unfortunately, the “EXIF” data within an image file may not be as useful as they seem. Even if an image is not copied as a screenshot or added to a collage (which obviously does not capture the file history of anything in frame), the file’s data can be uncontrollably and unknowingly altered or lost in the natural course of handling – saving, transfer, etc.
However, it doesn’t take a moment to copy-and-paste an image’s URL or upload an image file to a free, online EXIF data viewer. And, if the data survive, they can tell you which day the photograph was taken.
As for the Islamic State? That will have to wait for another day…