Film recommendation:

Civilian detectives are opening up new avenues to enforce justice

Dutch documentary makers looked into what can be done against the lack of transparency of some regimes and armies around the world. They send a powerful message: the attentive watch of civilian detectives now makes it near-to-impossible to commit atrocities without being seen.

“The state keeps an eye on us, but in the digital world we can also keep an eye on governments and armies in places that independent observers have no access to,” they introduce their documentary film on digital civilian detectives, “and what has been seen can never be denied.”

Civilian detectives are solving the puzzle

Civilians from around the world are increasingly self-organizing. Jointly, they collect digital information – about geographical locations, atrocities committed, persons involved, damage done, armor used, targets hit, number of casualties – that will ultimately contribute to uncovering the truth. These “digital detectives” are the new eyes and ears of democracy.

This brand-new type of open source intelligence is fundamentally altering the relationship between government and civilians. The film shows digital detective Christiaan Triebert, researcher at citizen investigative journalism network Bellingcat, while he looks into the details of an aid convoy that was apparently bombed en route to Aleppo, Syria.

“I start by asking the most basic of questions: was it an aid convoy? Where was it hit? I start to look for the exact location online,” he explains, while he demonstrates the steps he moves through. “It’s like trying to solve a puzzle.”

Allowing civilians their own voice

Airwars founder and former BBC journalist Chris Woods puts it as follows: “I think what we got now with new technologies, with new capabilities, is the ability to allow civilians their own voice in the covering of wars, unmediated by our own governments and militaries.”

“And through new technologies, everyone has a cell phone in Syria and Iraq today. Huge amounts of the material that we work with is posted by ordinary men and women right at the center of the fighting, getting their stories out. And we’re taking and archiving and mediating that material, so that they have a voice.”

A digital witness

There will always be places in the world where collecting objective information is difficult, or even impossible. Just like the violence that is being used in the Syrian civil war today might not easily be averted. However, even there, civilian networks of journalists exist.

“It’s no longer possible to commit enormous crimes and get away with them,” Christiaan Triebert says, “There’s a witness, a digital witness. There are people around the world that are saying ‘this needs to be heard, this needs to be seen, this needs to be documented’. This gives me hope.”

Poignant question

But there’s more to it. The film leaves us with an uncomfortable truth: what is seen cannot be unseen. What does this mean in terms of our responsibility? And what are we going to do as a result of our newfound knowledge?