Twitter disclosed that it mistakenly removed a number of accounts sharing details about Russian military activity Wednesday, as the nation’s aggressive posture toward neighboring Ukraine threatens to tip into a full-scale invasion.
Bellingcat researcher Aric Toler called attention to the mistaken account suspensions early Wednesday after Twitter user @667_mancer was taken offline. An open source intelligence or “OSINT” account that recently debunked the Russian government’s claims of an attack by Ukraine was also suspended around the same time, as was a French language account sharing images and other data out of the region.
While some Twitter users claimed that the handful of OSINT account suspensions in rapid succession was a result of mass reporting, the company weighed in Wednesday to admit fault.
“We’ve been proactively monitoring for emerging narratives that are violative of our policies, and, in this instance, we took enforcement action on a number of accounts in error,” the company explained in a statement provided to TechCrunch, “We’re expeditiously reviewing these actions and have already proactively reinstated access to a number of affected accounts.”
The company added that reports suggesting that the accounts had been suspended due to “a coordinated bot campaign” or “mass reporting” were not accurate. In a tweet, Twitter Head of Site Integrity Yoel Roth explained that Twitter’s human moderation team made the mistake in its efforts to proactively detect and remove misleadingly altered photos and videos — a common and potentially dangerous form of misinformation known as “manipulated media.”
OSINT analysts and other misinformation researchers often share altered photos and videos in the course of debunking them and the prevalence of Russian propaganda misrepresenting the situation in Ukraine has presented many such opportunities, from an exploded car with mysteriously swapped plates to Putin’s misleadingly-timed security council meetings.
OSINT emerged in the last decade as a critical tool for documenting conflict and debunking misinformation in real-time. While that kind of data collection previously would have required high-level resources, the proliferation of social media and readily available satellite imagery makes it possible for online OSINT groups to track what governments are doing around the world in real-time.
Bellingcat, the best-known organization doing OSINT work, has investigated everything from the assassination attempt against Russian anti-corruption figure Alexei Navalny to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.