Reporting the story was a challenge. We were a long way from the sub’s Arctic Ocean base, and the Russian military did its best to squelch any information coming out of the area. But we did have the Internet, which helped us find a local newspaper not far from the Kursk’s base that was covering the story, and its reporters enabled us to get in touch with some of the crew’s family members. That was a huge help. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist.
Now, almost 19 years to the day, we’re tracking another tragic military accident in Russia’s far north. Five nuclear scientists died in an Aug. 8 experiment apparently involving a nuclear-powered cruise missile at a test site in the White Sea. Once again, officials responded with contradictions and half-truths — leaving an unnerved citizenry entirely in the dark. (Spooked residents of cities near the test site quickly emptied local stores of iodine, which is used to protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radiation.)
The traditional Russian penchant for secrecy lives on. This time, though, it’s colliding with another powerful force: social media. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is a member of a team that has been using open-source data to figure out what had happened at the test site. Within a few hours of the accident, for example, someone posted the names of the five dead Russian scientists to the social media app Telegram. Lewis and his colleagues immediately began to examine the men’s social media profiles — and quickly determined that they had worked for a special organization focused on the development of small nuclear reactors.
The experts had already picked up on the presence, near the test site, of a ship designed to transport nuclear fuel — another hint that a reactor was involved. Working with commercially provided satellite imagery, they spotted structures identical to others they had first noticed at another test site on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. The combination of nuclear scientists, a nuclear reactor and missile technology made for a strong circumstantial case that the accident likely involved the nuclear-powered cruise missile announced by President Vladimir Putin at an address to lawmakers in March 2018. (Another early clue: online photos of men in hazmat suits transporting the dead and injured from the test site back to the mainland.)
Lewis draws an instructive comparison with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The Soviets initially kept silent about the incident even after Western Europeans had detected increased radiation levels in the atmosphere. Thanks to Moscow’s stonewalling, it took weeks for the outside world to understand the magnitude of what had happened. The CIA waffled for days, Lewis notes, before shifting one of its precious spy satellites into position to take pictures of the damaged power plant.
“We just don’t live in that era anymore,” says Lewis. “This time the story hit the social media sphere immediately.” As they faced growing exposure from open sources, even Russian officials felt compelled to release tidbits of information. Meanwhile, Lewis and his fellow academics were able to order up imagery of the missile test site as soon as they managed to figure out its rough location. “I’m not the government,” he says. “But I called up my friends at Planet Labs and said, ‘There was this explosion. Could you take a picture of this?’”
The academic experts who dissected the White Sea accident are part of a remarkable new movement that has yet to receive its due. Some refer to it as “open-source intelligence” or “public intelligence.” Its practitioners include groups like Bellingcat, which has used geolocation and other open-source information to uncover possible Syrian war crimes and the identities of Russian intelligence operatives, and Datayo, which aims to track and analyze nuclear weapons data.
We’ve lately seen ample evidence that social media and the Internet too often play a major role in spreading lies and disinformation. But it’s encouraging to see that online technologies can still help to unmask and explain the secrets that the world deserves to understand.