Oryx: The anatomy of propaganda and dangers of OSINT

Beginning with the war in Syria, we have seen a rise in so called OSINT accounts. Bellingcat led the way with these, taking still images and extrapolating entire stories from them (which always benefit the overall line of their NED founders) with scant evidence, if any at all.

This war, however, has greatly accelerated that process. Now, the amount of OSINT accounts has spiraled to an absurd degree. Their standard of evidence is, as bellingcat before them, often poor to nonexistent.

One of them (and a rather mysterious outfit I have been investigating for later) is Oryx.

Oryx claims to be operated by Stijin Mitzer (who as near as I can tell, is a pseudonym) and  Joost Oliemans. The blog has a consistent and strong pro-Turkish bias to the point where only positive, fawning articles are posted about Turkey, who’s losses and failures are never mentioned, while also making reference to a battle in the second boer war in their name, which is quite the dogwhistle.

An investigation of WHO they are will come later. For now, I will focus on what they do, which is propaganda.

Let’s take a look at some of their “intelligence”, shall we?

Note that I will only be doing a few of these. I have neither the time nor the inclination to hunt through everything they’ve done.

#7 on the list of Russian T-64 losses is this:

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This does appear to be a T-64 tank. It does appear to be badly damaged. That much is obvious.

To examine the rest of the claims, however, we have to start to stretch.

The first argument is that it is a Russian T-64 in the first place. Russia itself has no T-64s in service, so it would have to be DPR/LPR, who do operate at least some of them. Ukraine, however, operates several thousand.

There are NO visible markings on the tank which would indicate it’s of DPR/LPR origin. The famous Vs and Zs are nowhere to be seen. It appears to be sitting in a Ukranian depot, but that is also where any damaged Ukranian T-64 would be kept. Therefore, we cannot say with any certainty who this tank belonged to.

Similarly, the claims that it was captured also cannot be proven. We see only a damaged tank with no markings.

So, we have no evidence whatsoever that this tank is DPR/LPR or that it was captured. Given the number of these tanks Ukraine still operates, the chances of it being Ukranian are in fact much higher.

So what we have here, in reality, is an image of a damaged T-64 tank. We do not know where it was taken, when it was taken, who took it or what happened to the tank. We know only that it is damaged and sitting in a Ukranian depot. I am aware that there is a date listed, however without evidence I am hesitant to believe something that could be done by anyone with MS paint and 30 seconds.

Oryx, however, despite this utter lack of evidence, lists it as a captured Russian tank. They provide no evidence for this claim.

#35 on the list of T-72B losses is this:

This, again, appears to be a T-72B. Oryx lists it as a captured Russian tank.

However, this model is also used by the UAF. We see no markings which would identify it as a Russian tank (again, no V or Z, and no unit markings) in an incredibly blurry image.

This tank is listed as captured. We see three men, none of whom appear to be in military uniforms, crawling around the tank. Captured? Maybe. By who? I don’t know.

Again, we have a date, again, this is something which can be easily inserted by anyone with a minute or two, and without further context is basically meaningless.

So what we have here is a tank sitting in a field. We have no clear idea who it belonged to, why it’s there, where the image was taken or what happened to the tank.

Oryx is simply speculating, once again.

#7 on the list of T-80Us is this:

This is a destroyed T-80U.

Once again, we see the same things. This is a tank used by both sides, yet it has no markings visible. There is no way to tell to whom this tank once belonged.

Oryx lists it as a destroyed Russian tank.

#17 on the list of BMP-1s is this:

Getting serious deja vu here. Listed as a captuired Russian BMP, but the exact same objections apply.

This is a BMP-1, yes. However, there are no visible unit or national markings.

The Russian army does not operate the BMP-1 anymore. DPR/LPR does, but Ukraine operates far more of them. It is worth pointing out that the DPR/LPR would have enormous incentive to mark these vehicles, given as they are in widespread service with the UAF, but not at all with the RF. That means that misidentification, especially under stress and at a distance, would be a very serious concern, yet it is not marked.

This is an image of an old IFV sitting in a field near some buildings. That is it, and that is all. Any further assertions drawn from it are just that.

I could keep doing this all day, but frankly, it doesn’t change. We see example after example of this. These aren’t even the worst examples, some images and videos are so blurry, distant or generally shitty that you can tell basically nothing from them at all. This is not to say that the blog is entirely bullshit, some of it is pretty clear and obviously true. But a large portion of it lacks any verifiable information.

Yet, Oryx dutifully posts it all, seemingly with no real examination, no evidence and no questions asked. Of course, anything that is questionable or unclear seems to be immediately put down as Russian, even if it’s a vehicle the Russian army hasn’t operated in 30 years.

Things like this are quite dangerous. Not only do these hot shot OSINT guys never want to admit when they have no idea what they’re looking at (which is often, even for the most dedicated experts) but they either overlook or refuse to acknowledge that context is as important as the image itself. Everyone lies or omits important information, and no one does it more than armies, who long ago realized that information is a weapon, and it can be manipulated to your benefit.

In practical terms, this lack of rigor and refusal to verify anything means is that anyone with a cameraphone and an agenda can turn Mr. Mitzer into a propagandist, willing or not. You just have to tell him a story he wants to hear, and it will be transmitted to his quarter million followers ASAP.

The only question is, really, is Oryx being manipulated, or doing the manipulation? Are they being fed a line of bullshit from Ukranian sources they simply don’t care enough to verify? Or, are they using the few crumbs of information they have to craft a narrative which aligns with NATO/US policy?

I have yet to find that out. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Unlike Oryx, however, when I don’t know something, I will tell you.

I want to give a thanks to Armchair Warlord on twitter who inspired me to do this, and who did a much better job at it than I did.

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