OSINT is alive and well

OSINT is alive and well

What do the US elections, Ebola outbreaks in Africa and Brexit have in common?


Firstly, let us take a look at how do we consume the media. According to ZenithOptimedia, people spent worldwide 473 minutes per day, which is around 8 hours, with traditional and digital media in 2018. Moreover, our daily time spent with media is projected to increase to 495 minutes in 2021, which is more than 8 hours per day1. Concerning the social media, the number of worldwide social media users was over 3.6 billion in 2020 and is estimated to rise to almost 4.41 billion in 2025.2

On the other hand, when it comes to traditional media, the European newspaper consumption shows a declining trend. For instance, the popularity of the printed press among the citizens of the European Union (EU) decreased with the drop from 37 % in 2012 to 29 % in 20163

As far as a radio is concerned, about 47 % of citizens living in the EU listened to the radio almost every day in 20164. When it comes to a television, the average European watched the television for 223 minutes, which is almost 4 hours, per day in 20185.

With the rapid emergence and development of digital media, the consumption of traditional media is reported to be on a decline. Does this mean that we can disregard the relevance of the traditional media?

Until you answer the question for yourself, take a look at the three situations where traditional media play a role.

The US Elections

In the USA, a television is the second most popular media form in the sense of an average time spent per day. According to a study undertaken in April 2020, American adults spend 229 minutes, which represents almost four hours, watching the TV daily6. As to the most favorite channels, the most watched cable news network in the USA with 3.97 million primetime viewers in June 2020 was Fox News7.

When we look at the estimated spending on advertisements in the 2020 US Presidential elections by both campaigns, the traditional media such as the broadcast television, local and national cable television, the satellite television and the radio accounted for approximately more than 623 millions of dollars, whereas the campaigns paid approximately more than 367 millions of dollars for their digital media presence8.

Concerning the social media, over 70 % of the US citizens possessed a social media profile, meaning over 246 millions of social network users lived in the USA, in 20199.

One of the key aspects of social media is the absence of gatekeepers – everyone can create user generated content (UGC) and share it with the world. Due to a high volume of new stories emerging on social media, mainstream journalists need to adapt their methods to keep up with other sources of information and news. Nowadays, as many people use social media as sources of information, journalists use them too to both acquire the information and to disseminate it10. According to the report by the Indiana University school of journalism, journalists commonly use social media to check for breaking news. Nearly 80 % of the US journalists from the sample stated that they systematically utilize social networking sites to stay informed about the recent developments. Out of these, 73.1 % said that they use social media to find ideas for new stories and to stay updated on the competitions’ stories11.

The reliance of mainstream journalists on social media as a source of information can easily become a problem in case there is an ongoing information operation, for instance when an adversary hijacked and overflooded the trending topics on Twitter with fake stories, which would probably be noticed by journalists. The danger lies in the possibility that if the fake story got picked up by mainstream media journalists, they would provide legitimacy to a false story – and turn the fake news into real news10.

Even though if the recipients would not believe the fake stories in the beginning, they can still have an impact – thanks to heuristics. Heuristics make our life easier – our brain uses them to simplify problem solving by utilizing the quickly accessible data. Furthermore, when we are presented with information that fits our belief structure, our bias is confirmed and we are willing to accept the new information. In case the information is out of our network, we could reject the story at first, but if the volume of the information is big enough, it may create an availability heuristic in one’s mind10.

Therefore, the mind has created a shortcut based on the most recent information it possesses. This is especially important in case the new information contains propaganda, which can, due to the process mentioned above, become normalized or believable over time. As the traditional media sometimes depend on the social media as a source of news, the propaganda could get confirmed when the fake news story gets picked up and reported by mainstream media10.

As Rachel Maddow read in 2018 from a former director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s and Trey Brown’s book Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, this represents a way of influencing the public opinion: “Looking at how they created lies that helped Trump and hurt Clinton and promoted these falsehoods through social media and state-sponsored channels to the point that the traditional US media were unwittingly spreading Russian propaganda”12.

Ebola outbreaks in African countries

The perception of information and communication technologies as common in some parts of the world does not mean that the new technologies are the cheapest, nor the most effective type of technology suitable for educational purposes. According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report, at least 75 % of households in developing countries have access to the radio, sometimes called as an old technology13.

Radio is perceived as the most reliable and affordable type of medium for the purpose of exchanging information and knowledge in communities in Africa where the access to electricity, television and the Internet is not possible14.

But what is the connection between the usage of radio and Ebola outbreaks?

Ebola virus was discovered in the area of Ebola River, which is now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976. Since its emergence, there are periodical outbreaks of the disease that infects people in several African countries15.

As Yusuf Kabba, the national president of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors explained for the Media Foundation for West Africa: “Radio played a pivotal role because people initially thought that once you get the disease – that was the end. Without radio, it would have been difficult to combat Ebola. Radio helped to spread the news across different social strata”16.

As indicated by the United Nations in their World Urbanization Prospects, Africa is mostly rural, while only 40 % of its population lives in urban areas. Moreover, two-thirds of the population in Africa possessed urbanization levels below 50 %17. Therefore, radio serves as a vital, fastest and most effective communication medium to reach people living in villages or remote areas. During the Ebola information campaign, community radio plays an essential role in overcoming the gaps in media coverage, the reach and the language16.

“During the Ebola outbreak, there were a lot of people especially in the rural areas, who had no knowledge of the virus. They didn’t know what was going on; in fact they didn’t even believe that it was a virus. They didn’t believe that a common handshake could infect a whole household if one person is infected in the whole house,” said Edith Massa Greene, a native of Monrovia, to the Media Foundation for West Africa16.

The current corpus of research on the relationship between the media coverage and political attitudes includes various qualitative and quantitative studies suggesting significant effects of media on various domains including the impact on the image of UK political parties18.

Researchers from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism studied 2,378 articles that explicitly discussed the EU referendum that took place on the 23rd of June, 2016. The authors concluded that when it comes to the press, there was a dominant pro Brexit bias – 41 % of the articles in the examined sample were pro Leave oriented. Only 27 % of them could have been labeled as pro Remain. When the volume and the visibility was taken into account, the difference was even wider – the proportion of pro Leave articles was 48 % compared to 22 % of Remain articles. The researchers concluded that the media coverage was heavily skewed towards the Leave camp19.

As far as social media are concerned, the Leave campaign also invested in diverse and targeted messages delivered to different audience. Both Leave and Remain campaigns made use of the successful Obama campaign model developed and applied in 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections. Obama’s campaigns were unique in terms of the usage of big data, microtargeting, fundraising and the usage of social media in general. Both camps utilized big data mining and the merging of different data gathered on social media, through canvassing, from consumer databases, etc. Moreover, they also used the Internet and social media for intelligence gathering, in order to construct personalized user profiles of possible voters20, 21.

At the end, the Leave campaign managed to dominate on Twitter throughout the whole campaigning period. Moreover, they were able to build the momentum not only on Twitter, but also on other social networking sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. According to a large-scale social media analysis, Brexit supporters were able to use the social media more effectively, communicated more powerful and emotional message and outnumbered the Remain supporters on Twitter 7 to 1. When it comes to Instagram, the posts by the supporters of the Leave campaign received 20 percentage points more comments and 26 percentage points more likes than the Remain supporters22, 23.

“Furthermore, the top 3 most frequently used hashtags in the data come from the Leave camp and were well integrated into all networked conversations online: #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able to create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting many more voters to back Brexit,” writes Vyacheslav Polonski, network scientist at the University of Oxford23.

Social media definitely transformed political marketing and the campaigns that we can witness today. Due to the availability of the huge volume of open source data, campaigns can be personalized and crafted according to the recipients and their success can be tracked more accurately. Social media can be effectively used for spreading narratives and stories, creating grassroot movements and influence the perception of issues and topics.

In the case of Brexit, the Leave narrative was more prevalent in both social and traditional media19,23.

As Polonski states: “What the EU referendum has taught us is that this accelerating technology is open to all and can be used to shape the public agenda and drive social change — for better or for worse”23.

The digitalization, traditional and social media and the role of OSINT

Finally, back to the question posed in the beginning of the article – what do these three events have in common and can we rule out the traditional media as non-relevant due to the emergence of digital and social media?

The overreliance of journalists on social media represents a problem not only in the US. Social media can be easily flooded with fake stories, for instance through hijacking the trend feature of Twitter platform. This would probably be noticed by journalists, who have difficulties confirming the huge amount of UGC, and this way the fake news can directly walk in the living rooms of voters. Which, according to estimates, represent 120.6 million TV households in the US in the season 2019/202024.

Regarding the Ebola outbreaks, the radio represents a valuable tool for citizens who do not have the possibility to use the Internet or social media. Moreover, radio is very affordable and reliable and is able to bridge the language differences thanks to the local radio.

As the EU Referendum in the UK clearly showed, social media and the newspapers matter. The campaign period was dominated by Brexit supporters on social media23 and most of the newspaper articles had the pro Leave sentiment19.

The power of traditional media such as TV, radio or newspaper do not lie only in the amount of audience the media have, but also in the value and trust people assign to these media. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, the traditional media and search engines were the most trusted information sources in 2019 with 65 % trust. Media that were only available online scored 55 %, the owned media 49 % and the social media were the least trusted media with 43 % of trust25.

It is undeniable that we live in a digital age, the digital content and social media are evolving and the consumption of traditional media shows a declining trend. Although, we should not forget that the traditional media work as gatekeepers, provide a legitimacy to news and in some regions, they are still the most important and vital source of news that the people have access to.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) represents knowledge and intelligence extracted from data that are collected from publicly available sources, which include traditional media as well as social media. The data protection regulations and the desired anonymity of some users, including the users on the darknet, possess a challenge for OSINT investigations. The needs for or the usage of media vary from country to country and the emergence of new media leads OSINT to evolve and have diverse techniques.


In SAIL LABS, we are well aware of the upcoming challenges. With all the global trends in mind, we developed various features that extend our product portfolio and reflect the global challenges.

One of these features is the Cluster feature of our Media Mining Client, which allows the users to determine the first source of any news, which has a vital usage in combating Fake News. Moreover, we recently introduced the Bot Factor, the algorithm that is able to determine the probability of a social media user being an automated bot. Furthermore, our system is also suitable for investigating whether a visual content was manipulated through examining its’ metadata.

Another direction of OSINT leads towards the intersection of Open Source Intelligence, the Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and social engineering, which is essential in countering terrorist activities. Therefore, our Social Media Extension offers the possibility to extract information from WhatsApp groups, after the user was able to enter the group.

As long as people trust traditional media, need a television, newspaper or radio and there is the human passion of creating and sharing information online, OSINT will be alive and well for a longer time that we might expect.

About the author

Dominika Betakova works as the Marketing & Communications Specialist at SAIL LABS Technology. She holds a double Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies and Journalism and Political Science and Master’s degree in Political Science with specialization in Political Marketing and Electoral Studies. She gained international experience ranging from political consulting agency in California, where she assisted in conjunction with a congressional campaign, to participation in electoral campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe and belongs to one of the co-founders of the project promoting critical thinking and media literacy in Czech Republic.