Brecht Castel
I got a phone call from my now boss, the editor-in-chief of Knack, to ask if I wanted to become a fact checker. I had to Google what a fact checker exactly did. At the time, I was not really familiar with it but I quickly find out that's really my cup of tea, debunking viral videos, looking for the truth, seeing what's what I can find online to prove something right or wrong. Yeah, that's really what I love to do. OSINT is my main tool for it. Like it's being Sherlock Holmes online and I just love it.

Matt Ashburn
Welcome to NeedleStack, the podcast for professional Online research. I'm your host, Matt Ashburn.

Jeff Phillips
I'm Jeff Phillips, tech industry veteran and curious to a fault. Today, we're continuing our series on fact-checking and debunking. We're going to turn our attention to the growing importance of independent researchers and journalists that are putting their findings out on Twitter and other social media platforms. We've talked about this in past episodes that the war in Ukraine has really put a spotlight on the open source information available on social media and other public sources as well as the individuals that analyze that info.

We're joined by one of those individuals in this episode. Brecht Castel is an independent journalist and fact checker. You can find his work in the Belgian magazine, Knack among other publications. He's very active on Twitter at @brechtcastel with tons of tips on OSINT and visual forensic, how he debunks viral videos in fact-checking. Definitely go check that out. Welcome to the show Brecht.

Brecht Castel
Thank you very much. Nice introduction.

Jeff Phillips
Good. Hopefully, we covered it all. It's quite the background you have there, sir. Let's jump into that. Where did your experience in fact-checking begin? Did you already have an interest in OSINT or is this something that's been fostered as you've gotten into fact-checking?

Brecht Castel
Well, yeah I started as a normal freelance journalist and the first of April 2020. In the midst of the COVID crisis, I got a phone call from my now boss, the editor-in-chief of Knack to ask if I wanted to become a fact checker. I had to Google what a fact checker exactly did.

At the time, I was not really familiar with it, but I quickly find out it's really my cup of tea, debunking viral videos looking for the truth, seeing what I can find online to prove something right or wrong. Yeah, that's really what I love to do. OSINT is my main tool for it. Like it's being Sherlock Holmes online and I just love it.

Matt Ashburn
Yeah. That's great. Something we talked about earlier was that researchers need to be both persistent and creative in your work. How do you latch onto something that you really want to investigate what drives you for that?

Brecht Castel
No. Actually, I always start from one picture or video. If it's intriguing to me, it's mostly intriguing to other people, that's why it's mostly going viral because a lot of people think like this is strange, it's interesting. Where does it come from? What do we see actually? This is also the question I'm asking. If it's going viral, it doesn't mean that maybe some people have looked into it, but didn't find what it actually is. I try to get a bit further and see what we actually see.

For example, recently there was a video going viral of a mosquito with a number on it. People linked it to Bill Gates and microchips into ants and very weird conspiracy theories. But still, I was wondering, what actually do we see? Is it a real number? Is it a real mosquito? Where does it come from? What is it? These basic journalistic questions like what's true, what's not? Where is something? What do we see? Very basic questions. They just drive me. I just want to continue digging harder and deeper to find what we actually see.

Matt Ashburn
Now, you have me curious about this mosquito and what that was, I guess.

Brecht Castel
Well, that's a good point. Actually, it wasn't even a mosquito. It was [inaudible 00:04:33] another type of ant. The number we see is just like natural spots on the ends. We think it's a number. It's our human brain would just see numbers, see patterns, it's wired like this. It's not really a number. Yeah, that was the explanation I got from talking to experts and from doing OSINT investigation.

Matt Ashburn
That's awesome. It's how our brains are wired to see faces and people see faces in rock formations and leaves and trees and everything else, even though they're not really there.

Brecht Castel
Exactly.

Matt Ashburn
The conflict in Ukraine is obviously a big topic now. How has the role of OSINT changed in fact-checking? How has all of this changed during the conflict in Ukraine? Or do you think that OSINT and fact-checking is just getting more attention now?

Brecht Castel
It's definitely getting more attention. If I read the newspaper now, for me, mostly it's old news because I've seen it on Twitter the day before and I've seen videos being debunked or verified and then the day after it's in the newspaper.

I think that's a major change because in the war in Syria, there was already some fact-checking going on. I think [inaudible 00:05:49] gets started. It was the spark of OSINT and war journalism. But still journalists were skeptic about it. It was like a marginal thing. Now, I think most of our journalists is really driven by OSINT.

Also, we see a lot of journalists working at home, not on the front line and collaborating with journalists in Ukraine to really verify things. I had a very interesting case about a burned body was a shared widely on Russian platforms. It was compared with pictures of ISIS.

They were saying, "Look, those Ukrainian soldiers, they burned his body and they put it in a cage just like ISIS did in Syria." I started investigating this picture. We found the location. We tried to prove if it was tortured alive or it was set on fire afterwards. We couldn't prove that, but we still find out a lot of things about this one picture.

After publication of this fact check, I got in contact with a photographer was on the ground, was in Ukraine and he took a photograph of this body a few weeks later. When I called him, he knew less about it than I did after an OSINT investigation. For me, it was so weird, he knew there was this body. He wanted to photograph it for a couple of days or weeks. The Ukrainian army was saying, "No, you cannot go there, we don't want you to take a picture of it."

Behind my laptop in Belgium, I drew a lot of social media posts and a lot of talking to experts, I knew more about this burned body than this photographer in Ukraine. That's crazy. It doesn't mean that we don't need journalists on the ground, they are hugely important and they do a much more dangerous work that I do. Of course, we need them definitely. But I think in combination with OSINT investigation, it can be very strong.

Matt Ashburn
Yeah. It's almost an abdication of responsibility if you don't provide that context that you're talking about there and if you provide only a photograph and then a quick blurb about it. Rumors and false stories can run amuck and be very damaging.

Brecht Castel
Yeah. You should also be very transparent about what you can find and cannot find. OSINT is very powerful, but it also has limitations. These experts said to me, "I cannot say if this body was burned alive or not if I not can do an autopsy on the body." Only from the pictures, it's not possible to say it 100% for sure.

Then you also have to say this to your audience to say, "Okay, we did our best to be analyzed a lot. We worked hard. We talked to experts. But the conclusion is, inconclusive." I think we gain... How to say. If people don't trust the media, it's also because we don't do this. We have do this more often, we have to be more transparent about what we know for sure, which we're doubting about.

Jeff Phillips
That's amazing input. If we stick on the Ukraine a little bit, we're all following that news, are there certain sources or tools at the moment that are helping you either from the journalism side or from the fact-checking side against maybe specific to the war on Ukraine? How are you getting your information in?

Brecht Castel
Open source intelligence starts with open sources. Finding these sources is a first important step. For this in the war in Ukraine, there is a great website, very easy to remember, osintukraine.com. It just created some bots, we're just scraping a lot of contents. For example, they're following 90 telegram channels, Russian telegram channels, 90 Ukrainian telegram channels, and they put it in one feed.

They also do automatic translation from these videos. You can just follow the war in real time and see a lot of sources. Of course, this is only the starting point. There can be a lot of fakes in there. You have to be very careful. The Ukrainian sites want to tell their story. The Russian sites want to tell their story. There is a lot of propaganda there.

But if you're just new to the conflict and you just want to start somewhere, it's a good way to get away from what news media are saying and just try to see what is being shared on social media in Ukraine and in Russia. With automatic translation, nowadays, it's even possible to follow Russian videos, Ukrainian videos and so on.

Jeff Phillips
Both sides. That's super interesting.

Matt Ashburn
What are some of the strategies that you use in trying to combat false information or to debunk things? What are some of the principles, I guess, that are consistent across your work?

Brecht Castel
One principle is always find the oldest version. If you find the oldest version online, then you get closer to the real context and if you find the real context, the meaning of the picture can change or you can get closer to the true. That's very important. Contextualizing what we actually see, that's a very important one. Of course, also see if there has been some manipulation.

Also, if you find the oldest version, you will see it immediately if this is like this. Combining sources, never take one sources for granted, try to combine Russian and Ukrainian sources, combining a lot of points of view that really helps. For example, the burnt body we found different videos from different angles. We could say, "Okay, the body was there for a long period of time. We see different shades." It really helps to see what we really see.

Jeff Phillips
Speaking of that, so I'm curious, since you started off on the journalism side and then moved into fact checking, have you surprised yourself with what you've been able to apply OSINT to and what you've been able to figure out through open source sources?

Brecht Castel
Yeah, definitely. Surprise on a daily basis, I would say. The force of OSINT is amazing. One aha moment that it's a bit strange story is I was just fact-checking a picture of an old tree and it was said that it was 6,000 years old in South Africa. I was like, "I want to find where this tree is and how old it can actually be." By combining Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, a lot of social media platforms, and Google Earth, of course, I could really find the exact location of this tree. This was like stunning for me.

If you're a bit persistent. If you work hard enough, you can really find one tree in the whole world. That's crazy if you think about it. That's a force of open source intelligence. If you combine a lot of platforms, a lot of sources, you can really get close to the truth and using it to find a tree is a bit silly. I agree on that. But you can also use it to find this burnt body in Ukraine or to investigate war crimes. I'm doing this for a couple of years.

But OSINT investigators from Amnesty International are doing this for over a decade. This is not new. But for me, this is eye-opening. When I was a normal journalist just talking to people, basically, that's what you do. You talk to experts, you talk to people. I didn't know that there's such a wide world of open source intelligence and combining the two is also great.

Talking to experts and doing your OSINT investigation, go with your OSINT investigation to experts and see like this is what I found out. Does it make sense or why can it not be like this? That's really wonderful.

Jeff Phillips
A quick follow-up because this has come up in some other episodes and talking with different individuals, what are your thoughts from a journalism perspective about working with some of the amateurs that are out there? There are a lot of amateurs loose these days. What are your thoughts in using those sources?

Brecht Castel
First and foremost, if a tweet has a hashtag OSINT, it doesn't mean it's true. Let's all agree on that. Some people just see OSNIT and they think, "Yeah. That's true." No, it's not like a magic word to say the truth. Most of the times it's just people who found the video on Telegram and put it on Twitter. That's not OSINT.

But I love working with amateurs. I've worked with them a lot of times and they helped me immensely. I keep coming back to this fact check of this burnt body. But for example, I keep coming back to this factor for this burn body. I was looking for the location to start digging, but I didn't find a location. I went to some amateur OSINT people I know. I put it out there.

After a few days, they found a location and that was actually the starting point of my investigation. If you cannot find it yourself, use the community and you're stronger together. Definitely. The good thing about OSINT is you don't have to know the person behind the screen. You don't have to... I work with anonymous people, which I don't trust per se.

But if they tell you something, you can verify. You can check these open source they used to get there, I could get on Google Maps, Google Street I see, yeah, it's definitely this location. How this person found it, I'm not sure and he definitely worked a lot of long hours to get it. But we can see it's true. I can trust it. That's great. They help me a lot. I love amateur OSINT investigators.

Jeff Phillips
A lot of people out there who are going to like hearing that.

Matt Ashburn
Absolutely.

Brecht Castel
Sometimes, they don't see the journalistic value of what they do. That's where I come in and like, "Okay. Now, you find this location. It's not finished. We have to dig further and talk to experts and so on." Usually, they are very happy that they can contribute to something bigger. If they want, I take them on Twitter or I give them some reconnaissance in this way or sometimes they just want to stay anonymous and I don't mention them at all. But I'm just open that I didn't find it myself, of course.

Matt Ashburn
Yeah. That's great. Brecht, as we start to close out, what are some of the tips or techniques that you want to leave with the audience today?

Brecht Castel
Well, mostly people are asking for specific new tools. Well, I'm going to disappoint you. I will not give you one of the latest tools. If you want to stay up to date, I would recommend to the Newsletter Week in OSINT. I think it's a great weekly update of the newest kit on the blog. For me, OSINT is all about creativity and persistence.

Creativity, I mean, combining a lot of sources, combining a lot of techniques, looking for new ways to find something. For example, now I'm fact-checking a video of Chinese troops entering Ukraine. That's the claim they make and we see Chinese vehicles. If I can prove that this video was recorded somewhere else in Russia close to Vladivostok, that's good proof.

If it's not possible, I can also look for another way to prove it. For example, if I find a number of plates of these vehicles and I find other videos and I can geolocate these videos. That's, for example, a creative way of thinking, how can I fact-check this? Another thing is persistence. Sometimes people are like, how can you find this? It's impossible. Well, yeah, it took me a few days. It's hard work sometimes.

If I cannot sleep, I get up. I search a few hours and sometimes then I find the location of a video or picture. Persistence and creativity are key. You just learn it by doing it. I just start and you get better it day by day. I think I'll be a better OSINT investigator year in one year from now than I'm today, that's for sure.

Matt Ashburn
That's great. Brecht, thank you so much for joining us today. I really do appreciate the conversation with you. If you're listening at home, you can always find Brecht Castel on Twitter @brechtcastel, first name, last name. If you liked what you heard, you can subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcast. You can also watch our episodes on YouTube and get more information at our website that's authentic8.com/needlestack, authentic with #8.com/needlestack. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter as well. Needlestack Pod is our handle on Twitter.

We'll be back next week with more information on debunking and fact checking and all things OSINT. We'll see you then.

The intersection of open-source information, disinformation, social media and journalism has spawned a new breed of investigator. 

Meet Brecht Castel, fact-checking journalist and OSINT aficionado. In this episode, Brecht shares his advice on how to be good at both. Learn how his background as a journalist helps him dig deeper, beyond “hashtag OSINT” and get the bigger story. And how his passion for OSINT has led down many interesting paths — from locating one tree in the whole of Africa to explaining why a mosquito with a number on its back is not part of Bill Gates’ plan for world domination (or even a mosquito, for that matter).

Key takeaways

  • Independent OSINT researchers are a great resource for investigative journalists, but never rely on one source alone
  • Principles to follow in OSINT investigations and why persistency and creativity are investigators most valuable tools
  • Resources to follow on OSINT in the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Where to find Brecht

Useful links

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