Researchers create system to quickly identify Ukraine atrocities using social media

Experts from universities in the UK and the USA have repurposed their research activities to quickly create a system which provides a running account of atrocities taking place in Ukraine, constructed from social media accounts located in the country.

MOBILISE, an existing project about Ukrainians at home and abroad funded by ESRC and ORA, has responded to the humanitarian emergency by combining their expertise with that of three other institutions in the USA. Their quick thinking means they can now document and trace the displacement of people, human rights abuses, humanitarian needs and civil resistance to invasion – all in real time. 

The new Data for Ukraine project analyses Twitter data using machine-learning algorithms – it is able to flag important events a few hours ahead of media outlets by demonstrating spikes of credible tweets about certain subjects the team is tracking, as well as mapping where these events take place. It focuses on four areas – humanitarian needs, displaced people, civilian resistance and human rights violations. 

Dr Olga Onuch, a Ukrainian Senior Politics Lecturer from The University of Manchester, identified which accounts to monitor and created a list of more than 600 keywords for the system to check. It captures living language – for instance, a protest may be referred to in Ukrainian or Russian with the Soviet-era colloquialism of a ‘meeting’. 

She hopes the work can help in two ways: in the moment, by helping aid agencies direct resources to people fleeing fighting, and in the long term, by permanently documenting abuses and atrocities for eventual justice. 

In one instance, its tracking of civilian resistance and human rights abuses was able to immediately identify the beginning of a major event – Russian forces firing on peaceful protesters in the southern city of Kherson on March 21 – as it registered as a spike on one of the main graphs on the project’s website.

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