Max Bernhard

Myth busters

Inside Osint HK: the secret Hong Kong group tracking protests, the police, and coronavirus

“People are confused, and they don't know where to turn,” says Osint HK's American ex-pat leader.

The incident that blinded Indonesian journalist Veby Indah in her right eye occurred in late September, in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. The whole thing was captured on video, from multiple angles.

A small group of riot police wear black and khaki riot gear, their heads protected by large helmets, their faces obscured behind bulky gas masks. With guns in hand, they stand near the staircase of a concrete footbridge, facing a crowd of protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas.

A handful of journalists in neon-yellow safety vests hover beside them, holding up their cameras and smartphones to capture the scene. Just then, one of the officers fires toward the group before retreating downstairs.

Indah, wearing a helmet and a safety vest identifying her as press, tumbles to the ground, clutching her face. Her right eye is swollen and purple. Fellow members of the press tend to her.

Wounded Indonesian journalist Veby IndahISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

Indah has since sued Hong Kong’s police force. The police, however, have claimed it cannot be proven that it was a projectile fired by one of their officers that injured her. They have also refused to name the officer in question, making it impossible for Indah to file separate individual charges.

But a video of the incident that combines several synchronized clips filmed from different angles, leaves little doubt as to what happened. The footage — from live streams, social media, and Indah’s own camera — shows her recoiling immediately after the officer fired the shot, and at least one rubber bullet appears to be lying on the ground moments later. There seems to be nothing else that could have caused Indah’s injuries.

The synchronized footage, published online in January, was assembled by a mostly anonymous online group of sleuths called Osint HK, which has been keeping tabs on protesters and journalists’ often-violent encounters with police during the more than eight months of Hong Kong’s near-daily anti-government, pro-democracy protests. Osint HK has spent hours each day scouring social networks for videos and other media to document police misconduct across Hong Kong.

The protests are still happening, but they’ve slowed due to fears over the coronavirus, which has been spreading from China across the globe. So Osint HK more recently has begun focusing its efforts on educating the public about the virus.

“People are confused, and they don't know where to turn,” says Trey Menefee, the founder and public face of Osint HK. “We are trying to be a trusted source of information, cutting through the fog to find out what did or didn’t happen.”

I meet up with Menefee on a bench in Tamar Park, in the center of Hong Kong, next to the city’s legislature, which was stormed and ransacked by protesters last July. The 38-year-old is originally from Florida but has lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade; he worked as a lecturer at Education University of Hong Kong until about two years ago. Dressed in a T-shirt and loose jeans, he easily blends in, looking like any of the city’s many expats. The park is almost empty, with security guards strolling by occasionally. Nevertheless, Menefee appears relaxed.

Menefee has been outspoken about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement for a long time. After his contract at the university ended, he couldn’t find a new job in his field or even get an interview. “Professionally, I have already taken a hit as big as it can get,” he says.

He tells me about the history of Osint HK, which began last summer as a Twitter hashtag: #osinthk. (Open-source intelligence, or Osint, is a method popularized by the investigative group Bellingcat.) He was looking for help verifying a propaganda video shared by the Hong Kong garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army. It shows soldiers quashing a staged riot and wreaking havoc in a mock Hong Kong neighborhood. Soldiers in camouflage abseil from helicopters, shoot sniper rifles, and fire missiles.

The video was published in early August, just as anxieties over China’s possible encroachment into Hong Kong were bubbling over. The Beijing government had started building up armed forces in nearby Shenzhen, on the Chinese side of the border, in response to the demonstrations — a move seen as a veiled threat against the protesters.

Like many others, Menefee’s first instinct was that the video couldn’t possibly have been filmed in Hong Kong and was most likely shot in Shenzhen. But by comparing the footage with satellite imagery from Google Maps, the Twitter hivemind was able to verify that most of the scenes were indeed filmed in areas of Hong Kong, including a little-known firing range. The finding further fanned fears that China might use its military to crush the protest movement.

Since last summer, more than 90 people from Hong Kong and abroad have joined Osint HK, which mostly organizes via Telegram. The all-volunteer group is a hodgepodge of people from a variety of backgrounds: there are translators, video editors, professional investigators, as well as people working in information security.

Riot police apprehend a protester outside Chater Gardens, in Hong Kong's Central district, during a January 19 demonstration.SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Menefee himself doesn’t know the real identities of most people in the group, and a lot of them prefer it that way. When he suggested getting the group’s Hong Kong members together for a hot pot dinner ahead of Christmas, his idea was immediately shot down. “Literally nobody else wanted to meet up,” he says. “It was like, ‘This is better as it is, with most of us not having identities.’”

They’re probably right to be cautious. Thousands of protesters and police have been doxxed on dedicated websites. Before the group was formed, Menefee and one other future Osint HK member had their identities exposed online.

Menefee's case took place shortly after the protests began last summer. A 2016 photo of him wearing a surgical mask and carrying bricks in the middle of a demonstration popped up on social media. Menefee tried to explain himself in a few tweets, saying he was just an observer and that he removed bricks from the road because he worried protesters might start throwing them, escalating the already tense situation.

“There is retaliation. You do see it, and it is something you have to worry about.”

But this only made matters worse. Now, the photo of him at the demonstration was being shared next to screenshots of his LinkedIn profile. After that, Menefee stopped using his full name on Twitter (where he tweets as @Comparativist) and ceased going to protests altogether for some months, instead following the events via livestreams and on social media. He only came out of the shadows at the end of last year, after the group decided that Osint HK needed a public face.

The whole doxxing episode left him concerned about possible retribution against him or his family. “There is retaliation. You do see it, and it is something you have to worry about,” Menefee says, adding that he feels that there is little he can do about it.

He isn’t, however, too worried about potential Osint HK infiltrators because of the way the group operates, which he compares to a scientific peer-reviewed publication. “I usually won't post something until there is a consensus that everyone is on board with, that we can phrase it like this, that we can say this happened, or can say this didn't happen, and that normally works surprisingly well,” he says. “Everyone is kind of fact-checking everybody.”

Since last August, Osint HK has investigated a number of incidents, including the police assault of a local journalist, a photographer for the local news publication Mad Dog Daily, during a December protest in the Mong Kok neighborhood.

Officers beat the photographer with batons and pepper-sprayed him in the face before arresting him. Later, police justified their actions by saying the journalist had shouted verbal abuse at police and became physical. Osint HK, by again synchronizing video from a number of angles, showed that neither of those claims were true.

While Osint HK’s findings often directly contradict the official narrative, the group also helps refute misinformation on the other side, including the widespread belief among protesters that police officers are killing demonstrators and disguising their deaths as suicides.

“If I told anyone in Hong Kong one year ago that Hong Kong police officers are secretly killing people and dumping their dead bodies in the ocean or from buildings, nobody would have believed me,” says Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre who researches mis- and disinformation.

“Now, many people actually think that could be true,” he continues. “I think this shift happened not because of a misinformation campaign but because the police were extremely brutal. At least, they displayed brutality on camera, and they are not transparent about what they know and what they don't know.”

Rumors, like those of the police killings, spread especially fast because they are nearly impossible to verify, the professor says. Take, for instance, the stories swirling around the death of 22-year-old university student Alex Chow. Chow fell from the third floor of a car park building on a November night last year, as protesters and police were clashing nearby, and died four days later.

People light their mobile phones during a prayer rally in Hong Kong's Tamar Park in memory of university student Alex Chow, 22.PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images

On social media, people immediately began speculating that police chased Chow into the car park, and there were suggestions that an officer may have pushed him off the building. Another accusation was that police intentionally delayed ambulances that were trying to get to the scene. Osint HK was able to rule out all of these claims, thanks in large part to a volunteer who goes by the name Kodenol.

Kodenol, whom Menefee calls the group’s “geolocation Jesus,” became involved with Osint HK because of the Chow case. “Kodenol saw me posting about the night of Alex Chow’s [fall], about the ambulances,” recalls Menefee. “He said, ‘I think you got the ambulance locations wrong.’ He had already mapped them out himself.”

While the circumstances surrounding Chow’s death still are not entirely clear, Osint HK found another “plausible scenario” wherein the student could have been shot by police with a non-lethal weapon, possibly contributing to his fall. The group also determined that “police would have been in front of him outside the garage."

Hong Kong police haven’t denied that they were in the area, but have said they were too far away for their non-lethal munitions to reach Chow.

Kodenol, who lives in Hong Kong but is originally from the U.K., says he became a little obsessed with the work after joining the group. “The truth is the most important thing,” he says via Telegram. “I don’t care which side it lands.”

“In the beginning, the ‘blues’” — the police and other members of the establishment — “were hardcore with the fake news, but then came the ‘yellows,’” says Kodenol, referring to members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. “You’ve got key opinion leaders [on the pro-democracy side] spitting out tweets that are full of hyperbole, fake news, and incitement,” he adds. “It’s dangerous.”

The emergence of the coronavirus has presented new challenges for Osint HK. Panicked people in Hong Kong have been hoarding face masks and hand sanitizer. Lines of dozens or even hundreds of citizens in front of pharmacies have become a common sight. Other supplies, such as toilet paper, rice, and instant noodles, have also disappeared from store shelves. Taking advantage of the anxiety, some sellers have been price-gouging.

Osint HK’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak has been four-pronged. First, the group has been debunking rumors and false claims on Twitter, including a persistent conspiracy theory that the virus was created by the Chinese government as a biological weapon.

Second, they’ve begun tracking product shortages and price developments across the globe via a crowd-sourced map that went live in February. The map, now in beta, allows people to input shortages of essentials, like masks and toilet paper, at their local stores, and flag inflated pricing. At the moment, Osint HK is working on a Telegram bot to make it easier to submit reports.

Third, the group has started archiving Chinese media reports on the epidemic that have been censored or become unavailable in the mainland. Lastly, Osint HK has started tracking the spread of the deadly virus, using data from official and other openly available sources, and put its findings into a regularly updated map. It has also been keeping tabs on how lethal the virus is.

Osint HK's online map documenting the spread of coronavirus.Osint HK

Menefee says he knows of at least one case in which the data the group compiled on the virus clearly helped someone by giving them a better sense of the severity of the situation and the actual number of cases. “When Wuhan [China] went into lockdown, I had a friend in Shenzhen who actually got his family out of China in time” based on information disseminated by Osint HK, he says. “It was very good to hear that we are not just posting into the void, that people are actually doing something with this info.”

Speaking to Input via Telegram in late February, Menefee, who has been treating Osint HK as a full-time job for several months, sounds more worried about the prospect of continuing his work in the future. A recently set-up Patreon page brings in donations of around $150 per month, but the group has yet to find a way to make its efforts financially sustainable.

“I didn’t want to invest time in something I thought would be ephemeral. But so many people told me it was worth the investment.”

“I always saw a tension in that the value of this work could drop to zero any minute,” he says. “I didn't want to invest time in something I thought would be ephemeral. But so many people told me it was worth the investment, that something would come out of it.”

Despite the challenges, Menefee and the other volunteers remain busy. At the end of February, violence broke out in New Delhi when nationalist Hindu mobs descended on Muslim neighborhoods, attacking and killing residents and setting fire to mosques. As the news played out on TV and videos popped up on social media, the group’s Telegram chat came alive. “Should we see if we can do something regarding the Delhi riots?” one member asked.

Shortly thereafter, Menefee, via the Osint HK account, sent out two tweets. The group would be happy to teach those in India "how we do incident reconstruction, fact checking, and multimedia verification," he wrote.

"Things like this can and should be forensically documented," Menefee added in the second tweet, alluding to all the work his group has done during the Hong Kong protests, which aren’t being covered so much in the Western media these days. "Sometimes it takes longer than the news cycle."