Seizing control of the Archive: The rhizomatic art of open source journalism

Over a century ago, the philosopher and writer, G.K Chesterton, remarked that newspapers ‘are the hobbies of a few rich men’. In the contemporary world of Murdoch et al, this observation about the plutocratic ownership and editorial oversight of the media still holds up in some sense today.

The obvious difference is that we now have much greater diversity of media outlets, supercharged by the internet and a 24-hour news cycle. The former, in particular, has given way to new forms of ‘citizen journalism’ and the most influential of these is known as ‘open-source journalism’.

Open-source journalism allows anyone sufficiently astute and determined enough, (also with copious amounts of time on their hands, semi-agoraphobic tendencies and a reliable internet connection), to shape stories and lead investigations into events happening almost anywhere in the world.

It all works upon the underlying and simple premise that widening the scope of the public’s involvement in setting the press agenda will lead to greater levels of trust in the media.

Google Maps, Streetview and Earth, YouTube, and social media platforms, have broken down geographical barriers to reporting. For example, it was the ability to access and intricately analyse satellite imagery that enabled a Chinese student living in Canada, to expose the locations of internment camps being used to detain Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

There are too many other trusty tools at an open-source investigator’s disposal to list, but whilst these resources are at most people’s disposal, even under some of the most repressive regimes, there is clearly an art to effective open-source journalism.

To get to the bottom of a story, an evidence base must be painstakingly built up from peripheral and sometimes obscure sources. This requires a rhizomatic and reconditely creative approach.

In a chapter of his latest book, Shadow State, The Guardian’s foreign correspondent, and perennial thorn in the Kremlin’s side, Luke Harding, credits the professionalisation of open source journalism to the rise of Bellingcat, which germinated from a blog run by former financial administrator, Eliot Higgins.

Through its seminal investigation into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Bellingcat’s team didn’t just expose the involvement of the Russian military, but the scope of what can be achieved through the ingenious use of open source material.

As this form of ‘democratised’ journalism becomes more sophisticated, it should not be seen as some sort of existential threat to the ever-attenuating ranks of professionally trained journalists. At its best, open source journalism can effectively interlock and work alongside traditional shoe-leather reportage.

We have recently seen this through the New York Times’ take-up of the research into the UK Government’s corrupt, handling of contract provision and procurement processes during the pandemic which has been led by The Byline Times, Open Democracy and The Good Law Project to name a few.

However, it useful to explore the value of open source journalism in a wider context. The cricket-loving French post-structuralist, Jacques Derrida, explored the idea of ‘Archive Fever’. In the abstract, the Archive can be described as the ever-expanding record of collective human experience and knowledge, offering a source of huge power for those who are in the privileged position to write and edit it.

However, the tug of war over access to, and influence over, the Archive is beginning to become less one-sided. Where totalitarian regimes have built up barriers to the Archive to shape history in their own image and hide corruption, ordinary people are increasingly seizing control of the largest archive of them all- the internet.

This is being done through the world’s now long-established habit of feverishly uploading user-generated content to social media platforms. In turn, this is what fuels open source journalism.

One key example lies in the courageous efforts of Syrians to film the aftermath of chemical weapons attacks during the Civil War in 2013. It was with this collage of shaky amateur footage taken from various vantage points, that journalists and forensic architects could reconstruct the fabric of these atrocities, refute disinformation coming out of Russian news networks and hold the Assad regime accountable for its unforgivable attacks on its own people.

With the exponential expansion of the internet and social media platforms, the Archive of collective human memory is burgeoning. But, perhaps some of the romantic lustre surrounding open-source journalism stems from the fact that it is in the detritus of the archive that answers to the most intractable problems and ostensible dead ends, can be found.

This is where a rhizomatic and reconditely creative approach comes back in. Take Bellingcat’s famous investigation into the Skripal poisonings. When it looked like it was hitting a brick wall, the team found a breakthrough and managed to identify 350 active Russian agents, including the two perpetrators of poisonings, by analysing a car registration database and linking their addresses to the GRU Conservatory. It’s probably not the first place you would look.

With the growing prominence of open-source journalism, comes increased demand for journalists to show their working. It is often the case that the headline story, or the event itself, becomes shadowed by the compelling metanarrative of the investigation itself. This immediately calls to mind the dualistic format of the classic detective novel: where a crime occurs, most typically a murder. and then the protagonist works backwards from the incident to piece all the fragmentary clues together.

The bottom line to all this is that corrupt Governments and despotic regimes are increasingly being put on notice by ordinary people hunched over their laptops.

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