Can a Secure Crisis Journalism tool combat the fake news cyclone? Introducing Project FiveARM, a comprehensive secure source/field data verification collaboration.

April 2017

By Nick Chesterfield, Project FiveARM Coordinator

How can we use technology to cover crises better? Nick Chesterfield introduces Project FIVEARM, a collaboration between journalists, human rights investigators, advocates, and technologists that will allow people to securely collect credible eyewitness accounts. This project won a 2016 Walkley Grant for Innovation.

Crisis reporting is chaotic.

Imagine you have seen state violence, as a survivor, witness, investigator or journalist.

To prevent a repeat, you need the world to care — or at least acknowledge that something bad happened.

But imagine that you’re in a media black spot. Foreign journalists are banned. Local journalists and advocates can’t gather information, because they risk violent suppression or even murder.

Imagine you are in a place so inaccessible, that even if journalists could travel there, it would take weeks and huge resources to get there, let alone be able to gather credible evidence.

This is daily reality in Indonesian-occupied Papua. Propaganda is rife, state proxy armed groups operate with impunity. State violence is a daily reality.

And — like in many such places around the world — the stories of those suffering are often discredited because source material can’t be verified, because they can’t cut through viral propaganda, or even because of translation errors. The chaos sows confusion and kills veracity.


Since 2007, the WestPapuaMedia  team worked incredibly hard to collect, verify and strengthen witness journalist reports from the ground, using a robust information collection process.  We prioritised the raw voices on the ground over official spin of the powerful. We utilised an indigenous perspective, instead of a colonialist Western media lens.  We respected the veracity of experience of witness journalism, and refused to impose realpolitik spin.  Just the unbridled facts, without the propaganda.  Our in-depth investigations, local partnerships and global dissemination helped to significantly change the media landscape in Papua, from being a global media blackspot, to making Indonesia’s Foreign Media Ban entirely redundant.

Sadly our investigations were undermined by editorialising corporate and state journalists, outdated narrative by ingénue Western journalists, and well-meaning but unprofessional foreign solidarity activists using propaganda, unchecked rumour spreading and unsourced, clickbait decontextualized images of state violence.  Credible journalists and human rights investigators in West Papua were shouting carefully investigated and verified reports against a cyclone of manipulated fake news. This sorry state was being used as justification for wilful ignorance by perpetrator-entangled corporate media and governments.

The WestPapuaMedia project was put on hold in late 2016, so that we could tackle these root problems of crisis reporting. Our plan: to investigate and develop useful and secure mobile technology that would enable people to share credible verified reportage globally and in real time.

Two side projects were born. One is the EyeSAFEMojo Safe Witness Journalism Project, which provides research, training and support of frontline witness media creators and rights defenders in repressive environments, for safe, secure communications, digital security, data gathering, witness journalism and safety training.

The other is Project FiveARM, which stands for Field Investigation Vertically Exhaustive Assessment and Reporting Methodology for Human Security Incidents.

So what is FiveARM?

FiveARM assumes human rights workers, interviewers, journalists and investigators are only going to have one chance to access an incident scene, and must be able to interview witnesses, victims, stakeholders or even perpetrators, without the possibility for follow-up questioning or clarification.

At its core is a simple premise.  Secure, exhaustive information collection in the field can enable credible source data from human security incidents, to be shared as globally actionable reportage and witness journalism.

We aim to build a secured tool for people to collect such information. It will use a methodology we’re developing that helps interviewers get standardised responses to essential questions —  like “Who did what to whom, when, where, how, and why?” — whilst allowing space for responses “outside the boxes” like anecdotes.

The idea is to eliminate subjectivity, – a critical issue that often creates multiple abuse reports, false events and locations, and misidentification of both victims and perpetrators —   Controlled vocabulary enables abuse data to be structured for search, analysis and machine reading, in order to future-proof massive data sets for real time trend analysis.  The first part of the project is to create a structure for the data to be collected. The future will then introduce powerful tools to utilise that data.

FiveARM’s unprecedented robust methodology creates a one-stop fact-collection, verification, newsroom sharing and pattern analysis tool for crisis journalism, human rights and human security reporting, on secure encrypted smartphones or tablets, building on the existing, proven Human Rights Bulletin System software user environment, created by

We have recently firmed up our partnership with Benetech, and look forward to the significant progress that will be made through this partnership, especially with the technical challenges in introducing new technologies into a proven system.

I was thrilled to be invited by the Walkley Foundation to an intensive pitch development workshop to have a chance to share this project with some of Australia’s leading journalists. On behalf of the project team, I am incredibly grateful for the support received from Walkleys, and their wonderful hardworking staff, culminating with winning a A$15,000 share in the 2016 Walkley Grants for Innovation in Journalism.

This grant enables the project to move ahead with its initial year’s goals:

  • Perfect & live-test our questioning methodology in a form that is both locally intuitive and exhaustive, and then convert, finalise and verify basic XML code for the customisation
  • Create training materials & how-to guides
  • Train & equip 10 journalists inside and outside Papua with secure smartphones to test the application, together with a full suite of tested open-source secure witness journalism tools via our press Safe Witness Journalism parent project.

We will soon launch a major crowdfunding presence to enable the fast and sustainable development of this much-needed tool, to pay for the smooth escalation of the next phases, equipment purchase and training to roll this out to the frontline where it is needed.

FiveArm’s people include Broadcast and Investigative Journalists, Filmmakers, Editors, Human Rights investigators, Lawyers, Environmental advocates and scientists, Blockchain, Coding and Digital Security Specialists, Survey Design specialists, academics, an anthropologist or two, Refugee workers, Peacekeepers, and even former intelligence agents who have rebelled against the Dark Side.  Women, Men, and a few other non-binaries.

These members currently come from a wide variety of social backgrounds including, People of Colour, marginalised frontline communities, and indigenous people from across Pacific (Including West Papua, PNG, and Aboriginal Australia), Indonesia, Australia, NZ, Europe, US/Canada.  We will be reaching out to further constituencies as the project progresses, including demobilised, de-radicalised and rehabilitated abusers.

Obviously the majority of our people cannot be named publicly for their field security, and ability to keep reporting from these repressive environments, however those that can be identified so far, include:

  • Daniel Pye, an investigative journalist and researcher based in Asia. He has spent the past six years reporting from the Middle East and Southeast Asia on issues ranging from illegal deforestation to land rights and conflict. As part of the Project FiveARM team, Dan hopes to contribute towards FiveARM’s financial sustainability, technical development and grassroots implementation.
  • Citt Williams, an international documentary filmmaker and environmental scientist who has been working closely with indigenous storytellers for 15 years.  Citt will be contributing to survey design and question iterations, looking specifically at the way information communications are structured in the project, and addressing intercultural media ecology issues of how people respond to interview processes and information sharing, amongst other contributions.
  • Hugo O’Connor, a co-founder and Head of Innovation of Bit Trade Australia, Australia’s leading fixed price bitcoin exchange. Prior to that, Hugo started and ran a not-for-profit juice company whose aim was to support public interest journalism.  He currently works as a software developer at Bit Trade Labs, a blockchain product incubator.   Hugo says, “What appeals to me about the Five Arms project is how it is using technology to amplify the voices of those who for too long have been voiceless. I’m hoping to help build out a source reputation system to assist journalists to find the most important stories.”
  • My name is Nick Chesterfield.  I am the Project initiator, and a human rights journalist, digital journalism safety trainer, and co-founding Editor of the clandestine witness journalism project WestPapuaMedia. I have provided support and training to indigenous journalists, environmental and human rights defenders across Indonesia, Timor, Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia over the last 20 years, specifically focusing on the provision of credible information collection, citizen media safety, and civil resistance journalism.

All members of the team are already putting forward many useful and innovative ideas, in addition to the core methodology project. We are developing blockchain technology for secure verification of sources and their reputation. We’re examining and testing innovative techniques to catch out disinformation. We’re looking at new visualisation techniques both in collection and reporting.  And we’re excited about the potential for real time algorithmic analysis of the data that our tool will generate.

We’re very keen to hear from more coders and journalism innovators to get involved, as well as translators, video producers, graphic designers, and of course professional crowdfunding and grant fundraisers.

FiveARM will progress methodically, and scientifically. Done right, there is no limit to how this tool can be used.

Without FiveARM, impunity will continue to reign. With FiveARM, we’ll have a tool that might just mean no more dark places.

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