The truth of satellite data in information wars

 The truth of satellite data in information wars

As we research and post information about the role of satellite data in the war in Ukraine, we at Groundstation.Space become part of the discussion about the reliability and non-bias of our information.

We are very aware of the fact that this war is as much an information war as it is a physical invasion of a sovereign nation. We want to ensure our information is impartial, unbiased, reflecting the actual situation, and not part of ‘propaganda’ of either side, even though of course we fully support Ukraine’s fair defence.

Two days ago we reported about the call for satellite imagery companies to provide data and AI processing power to Ukraine authorities, by space data entrepreneur Max Polyakov and Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov.

Support Ukraine’s Defence from Space

Yesterday we investigated which satellite data providers are supporting Ukraine’s cause, by supplying imagery to the military and to the global media.

Satellite Imagery Companies in Support of Ukraine

Today we will follow up on these two stories by sharing how we at the DotSpace Foundation, as an independent Netherlands-based space data ambassador and news organisation, decide what we think is the most unbiased and ‘true’ information about the situation in Ukraine.

Russian forces in South Ukraine (Satellogic)
Russian army vehicles (they say) on the move in South Ukraine, February 2022 (image: Satellogic)

Is satellite data unbiased?

The first question we need to ask in this context is whether satellite data is indeed as unbiased and impartial as it initially seems. The answer to this is both yes and no. Of course, looking at it from a purely technical point of view, Earth Observation satellites fly over any spot on the globe in fixed orbits, covering every location with the exact same temporal and spatial resolution. Having said that, satellite operators are increasingly able to point these satellites to specific spots along their orbits, by altering the satellite’s attitude.

Some modern satellites even allow fixations on the same spot, by slowly rotating the system, keeping the camera fixed on one location during its flyby. This is the way that for example UK-based Earth-i produces video images from space.

The keyword in this story is ‘operator’. Where the satellite is an unintelligent and unbiased piece of technology, the human factor that operates the satellite is not. Satellite observations are controlled by humans, supported by algorithms developed by humans. The data from the satellite is processed by humans or algorithms. After processing, the data is filtered, enhanced and selected for publication by humans.

In an article we published about investigative journalism last August, we mentioned this too: “What the satellite sees may be unbiased, but what the image processor sees may be subject to unintentional – or intentional – bias.”

Misinterpreting satellite data

The Sentinel-Hub page on the use of Copernicus data for Journalism mentions another important risk of using satellite images: Journalists unwillingly and unknowingly make mistakes when interpreting satellite imagery. The authors of the web page make a case for consulting remote sensing experts when unsure about how to use the data correctly.

Remote sensing expert and influencer Pierre Markuse wrote a good blogpost about “Why newsrooms need people with expertise in remote sensing”, with loads of great tips on how to correctly obtain, process and interpret satellite imagery. He opens his article with a stark warning:

“More and more satellite images find their way into media publications, which means more information for the audience, including more false information”

Pierre Markuse, Remote Sensing Expert

Using satellite data to verify social media reports

One of the biggest ‘weapons’ in today’s information and propaganda wars are social media. Aside from official news sources, this is often the channel for people to find information about what is going on. Often these reports are very personal, unfiltered, and can be very graphic and shocking. However, these personal stories are also unverified and open to interpretation, especially when you do not know the person posting these things, as they go viral on social channels.

An image of Arisha IDP camp from the article Heavy Rains in Hasakah: An Open-Source Analysis of Catastrophic Damage by Wim Zwijnenburg for Bellingcat.

In an attempt to filter out false information and show the real story behind the reports, journalists and investigative journalism platforms set up ways to verify and publish this verified information. Yesterday we mentioned the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) as one of these platforms, publishing their Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map.

CIR Director of Investigations Benjamin Strick said: “At CIR we began mapping out verified incidents surrounding the build-up of Russian troops, and later the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, so that as many people as possible could have access to reliable, accurate information about what is going on and to boost the integrity of the information environment.”

Many of these verification procedures rely on satellite images of war zones. This can be as simple as using Google Earth, which is freely and easily accessible to anyone.

How to verify images and videos?

Investigative journalism collective Bellingcat has several very useful guides on how to verify information for publication. In the context of this article we recommend reading:

And you may also enjoy these background guides on Russian’s long history of information manipulation:

Avoid sharing bad information about Ukraine

Earlier this week, senior editor at MIT Technology Review Abby Ohlheiser warns journalists and citizen reporters against (unintentional) sharing of bad information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She warns that “Even well-meaning attempts to participate in the news can play into bad actors’ campaigns.”

Her article describes that “The result is that falsehoods are mistaken for truth and amplified, even by well-intentioned people. This can help bad actors to terrorize innocent civilians or advance disturbing ideologies, causing real harm”

Stop-Investigate-Find alternative sources-Trace claims (image: Mike Caulfield, source)

You should of course read the full article for all tips, but I will quote the most important suggestion, in the form of a simple mnemonic, by “Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, [who] developed a method for evaluating online information that he calls SIFT: “Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.” When it comes to news about Ukraine, he says, the emphasis should be on “Stop”—that is, pause before you react to or share what you’re seeing.”

How to avoid sharing bad information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

How to use satellite data for investigative journalism?

As an ambassador for the use of satellite data in key sectors of society, we actively promote space data as an important data source for journalists. As we mentioned earlier in this article, this will require some basic skills in how to obtain, process and interpret this data. A few months ago we wrote this ‘beginner’s guide for the use of space data for journalists’:

Satellite data resources for investigative journalism

Groundstation.Space #StandWithUkraine

Remco Timmermans

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