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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news, despite having unprecedented access to data, researchers of extremists haven’t made any major breakthroughs in understanding radicalization. RAND Corporation explores why. Other news this week explores the pros and cons of the application at the forefront of the war in Ukraine, and Clearance Jobs hypothesizes what it will take for the intelligence community (IC) to commit to OSINT.

This is the OSINT news of the week: 

The hurdles of OSINT research on extremism

Studying extremism and infiltrating their spaces has never been easier for researchers. The need to go to extreme lengths undercover, such as in the true story behind “BlacKkKlaansman,” is mitigated by the ease of joining Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Despite this sudden ease of access to and availability of large swaths of data, researchers have not made sizeable advances in discovering what causes someone to turn violent. Researchers at RAND identify research fallacies that could be at play in delaying breakthroughs. 

Three main hurdles exist to developing further research conclusions, according to RAND: the inability to authenticate whether real people are behind user accounts, the ever-changing nature of platforms and users and the inconsistent definition of what actually constitutes extremism. When users are constantly moving between platforms, sometimes under different names, it’s difficult to track long-term trends, this is on top of messy to parse through coded language by potential bot accounts. These factors together create hurdles to finding strong conclusions.

“From laptops or cell phones, researchers can monitor extremists as they network, recruit, radicalize, communicate, and mobilize.”

— Heather J. Williams and Luke J. Matthews, RAND

The war as seen on Telegram

As the world watches for updates on the war in Ukraine, many are watching one unlikely source, in particular — the social messaging platform, Telegram. The platform is popular in both the Soviet and Ukraine and allows real-time updates from the frontlines of the conflict. But the lack of moderation and emphasis on privacy touted by the founder has also allowed it to be a flashpoint for misinformation and manipulated imagery.

As Putin’s regime tightens censorship, the app can be a lone source breaking through. But it is also prized by pro-war military bloggers in Russia after being de-platformed on other social media channels. The same outlet that allows dissidents to maneuver around censorship laws also creates a space for conspiracy theories to flourish.

“Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Telegram has gained an outsize influence on one of the world’s most watched conflicts. ”

— Masha Borak, The Verge

Formalizing OSINT in the IC

Open-source intelligence continues to grow in popularity, but the IC has yet to be institutionalized within the IC. Some industry leaders believe it may be time to change the stakes. A recent panel hosted by the Intelligence and Security Alliance (INSA) discussed the move to “professionalize OSINT officers” at the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and other agencies. To do so would involve creating a standardized tradecraft, and potentially a separate agency for OSINT. 

OSINT can sometimes be criticized within the IC for its capacity for harboring misinformation. But the ability of analysts to verify and debunk information is a crucial component, just as it would be in any other intelligence source. 

“As the U.S. braces for another polarizing election cycle that America’s adversaries are no doubt ready to capitalize on, the DNI’s push to professionalize OSINT and industry’s call to institutionalize it may create the demand vector to turn OSINT from a periphery function of the IC – to a core one. ”

— Lindy Kyzer, Clearance Jobs

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We continue to keep a close watch on Russia's war in Ukraine, especially on Twitter. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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