Finding Parameters of Truth in Hong Kong’s Information Avalanche
A role for OSINT
Rumours and conspiracy theories associated with the HK protests are rife in part because there is a collective information overload. OSINT can fill the niche role of fact-based inquiry and analysis, and establish “parameters of truth” around confusing events.
Rumours associated with the continuing protests in HK are rife. On the pro-government side, there have long been conspiracy theories about “hostile foreign forces black hands” leading this entire movement from Day 1. Many white HK residents who were photographed in and around these protests were labelled CIA agents. One of the strangest pro-government conspiracy theories, proffered by a member of Lam’s Executive Cabinet, was that teenage girls were offering free sex to frontline protesters.
On the ‘yellow’ pro-protest side, of which I am a member, I at first believed that our side was doing a decent job of self-policing and fact-checking. One of the ways we distinguished ourselves from the government and the pro-government side was that ‘we’ were truthful and honest, ‘they’ were not. But things took a post-fact conspiratorial turn after the 8/31 Prince Edward Incident, wherein many people began believing that someone(s) died in the attack the same night.
Getting past the Mass Transit Rail (MTR) turnstiles before 8/31 was more-or-less a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card for protesters because that’s where police would end a pursuit. Simply getting inside an MTR station had been sufficient a few weeks earlier because it was seen by both sides as ‘neutral ground.’ On the night of 8/31, police crossed that physical and psychological barrier for the first time at the Prince Edward MTR Station. What followed was some of the most horrific incidents of police brutality. They beat a young man until he became unconscious and started foaming at the mouth. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the police slammed the gates shut and closed the MTR station. No injured casualties were brought to the ambulances waiting outside.
MTR refuses to release the CCTV footage of that night. The Fire Services Department changed the number of victims (and their condition) several times in the next few hours. We still don’t know the name of that beaten boy or his current medical condition. There are no clear answers from the official statements.
In the following days, two death notices were sent out at two schools saying that students had committed suicide (a routine practice to notify teachers and parents). This set off a new and ever-expanding conspiracy theory that the police killed someone(s) that night and covered it up with ‘fake’ suicides. Social media and Telegram channels have been awash in gore pictures as almost every suicide is now deemed ‘suspicious.’ There are a substantial number of people who believe dozens, maybe hundreds, have been murdered by police and covered-up as suicide.
Why rumours and conspiracy theories?
The broader context is that the 2019 Hong Kong protests are the most live-streamed protest movement in history. There’s a collective information overload, and even journalists and activists can’t keep track of all the different events and incidents over the past seven months. I see a lot of errors made in good faith: people getting sequences wrong, misdated or timed pictures and video clips, etc. It’s not easy to piece together complex events, and people jump to conclusions that make the most narrative sense to them. There’s also a profound distrust of government statements and accounts.
It’s not difficult to understand how the suicide cover-up theory takes root. We see how police treat people on the streets with cameras rolling — it often only stops when they realise they’re being filmed. I’ve heard third-hand accounts of young men and women sexually assaulted — even raped — while in detention. Many detainees are getting injuries that doctors describe as post-arrest beatings or torture. Even for a natural sceptic like me, it’s difficult to believe there’s only been one confirmed protester death so far when they’re acting like this on the streets. What would they do if they accidentally killed someone?
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) HK
OSINT HK is filling what I identified as a niche role of fact-based inquiry and analysis. It requires a different set of skills and approaches than traditional journalism. We can spend time on incidents even after they’re out of the news cycle. Often, we’re trying to establish what I call “parameters of truth” around confusing events by establishing what likely did or didn’t happen. Sometimes we can rule out or confirm scenarios, but more often we’re saying what we think most likely happened. We’ve written reports on Alex Chow’s fall and the November 18 stampedes in Kowloon. We debunked widespread misunderstandings in each case. Among the other things we’ve investigated:
the tear-gassing of a peaceful march on December 1 and have found that police did not raise a black warning flag before gassing;
the circumstances of the death of a 70-year-old man, Luo Changqing, who died when hit with a brick in November; and
As the protests enter a more ‘quiet’ period, we intend to spend more time looking at thematic issues. For instance, we’ve seen a lot of evidence that police are preventing EMTs and ambulances from reaching people with severe injuries. We want to look up local and international guidelines and look for more examples to establish a clear pattern.
We have 40 volunteers in our Working Group and another 80 in a larger chat group. By working in private encrypted channels on Telegram, people are able to participate anonymously — which is a ‘must’ for a lot of people in 2019. This kind of work appeals to people who like ‘getting to the bottom of things’ by establishing fact patterns and searching for evidence. Some members of our group have taught themselves how to use professional video editing software to sync footage reels together.
Elsewhere, there’s a healthy competitive spirit to produce high-quality work or be the first to discover new footage or accounts. Our limited crowdsourced model has accumulated a massive amount of shared expertise and knowledge in a short period. There’s about a dozen of us that can approximately timestamp and geolocate any new footage out of either the Yau Ma Stampede or Alex Chow’s fall in Tseung Kwan O almost instantly. That kind of collective ‘knowledge on tap’ can feel very empowering.
The flexibility and scalability of the model are also very appealing. For example, a group of about ten people wanted to monitor reports of District Council election irregularities. We set up a separate OSINT HK channel for them to work with, and they borrowed the methods and tools they see us use in the primary Working Group. About 70% of the work we produce isn’t via an editorial decision, but rather because the work has caught the interest of a few members. I’ll usually post anything high quality they produce in terms of findings, videos, or graphics under the OSINT HK name.