To disclose fake news and investigate the world’s most shocking cases (like the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi) one needs nothing but a laptop connected to the internet. A Leeuwarder who was a member of Bellingcat and now works as a Visual Investigations Journalist at The New York Times, Christiaan Triebert came to Groningen to share his techniques and receive the Alumnus of the Year award at his old alma mater in Groningen.
‘I was not a golden student most days,’ Triebert starts his presentation. With a radiant smile and relaxed body language, he admits that he is honoured to be chosen for the award, but also feels somewhat awkward to see some of his professors among the audience of a large lecture hall. As an international relations and philosophy student, Triebert lived in Groningen for 5 years; it was also in Groningen where he published his first articles about refugees escaping the Syrian War and the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine.
‘Some of my friends in Groningen were Ukrainians and they talked a lot about the protests. And I thought – I want to go there and see it with my own eyes!’ He contacted a student newspaper and offered an idea of him reporting on demonstrations from the Ukrainian capital; that was a win-win solution: the newspaper wanted to publish the article and Triebert enjoyed interviewing people on-the-spot.
Love, hate and conflict research
Triebert’s interest in people and non-touristy parts of cities led him to many post-Soviet, Asian, Arabic and African countries where he made friends, enjoyed interacting with locals and learned about real life, without mainstream prejudices. Finding facts in the world where falsifications are made to provoke hate is what helped him to join the Visual Investigations team at The New York Times half a year ago. Apart from investigating the circumstances of the Jamal Khashoggi Case, he analysed an airstrike that hit a detention center for migrants near the Libyan capital using only publicly available information: social media photos, selfies, surveillance camera footage and satellite images. ‘There is so much information available online: people film and share things constantly,’ explained Triebert.
Open source investigation
Triebert learned how to research open source evidence when he joined the investigative group Bellingcat, well-known for its path-breaking fact-checking techniques. Those include cross-referencing social media content, video- and photo-sharing websites, street view’s archives in Google Maps as well as Russian and Chinese equivalents of popular online services. For instance, Triebert demonstrated how they managed to identify place (‘geolocation’) and time (‘chronolocation’) of a photograph thanks to the stickers on a flagpole, which was captured in Google Street View’s history. ‘We are trying to answer classic journalism questions (Who? Where? When?) with new set of toolkits,’ says Triebert who won the European Press Prize Innovation Award for his reconstruction of Turkey’s attempted military coup in 2016.
Throughout his lecture, Triebert stressed several times that 95% of open source investigation is teamwork. In order to analyse such a massive amount of information, it takes contributors from different parts of the world searching for grains of truth. As a Dutch citizen, Triebert feels safe and acknowledges that some investigators cannot reveal their names for safety reasons in their countries. Before finishing his presentation, Tribert took a selfie with more than a hundred of listeners – ‘I still cannot believe my eyes as it is here where I had my first university lecture 9 years ago!’
Had the pleasure to give a lecture in the Academy Building — coincidentally the very same lecture hall (Offerhaus) where I had my first academic class ever in 2010, 9 years ago. Fantastic to see some of my favorite teachers in the room. pic.twitter.com/qZ3p25iCqL
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) September 4, 2019
Photo by the Aduarderkring and the Young Alumni Network.