How the Internet defeated Seymour Hersh


Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, has re-opened the discussion on who was behind the Chemical Weapons attack in Syria. Hersh argues that Turkey supplied the rebels with these deadly weapons in a ‘false flag operation’ designed to create the legitimisation for military intervention.

At first sight, this looks like exciting investigative reporting by an icon of free journalism. A closer look, however, reveals the work of a twentieth century reporter whose methodology has become heavily outdated and perhaps even unreliable. Hersh’s story is based on a single anonymous source – rumoured to be F. Michael Maloof, a former George W. Bush Defence staffer.

On the other side of the debate we find the likes of Eliot Higgins who runs the Brown Moses Blog. Higgins has no qualifications in Journalism or Foreign Policy and has never set foot in Syria. But he understands the Internet’s defining characteristics and turns it into a strategic advantage to gather information and, as such, is able to successfully challenge the grand master of investigative journalism.

By cleverly utilising the network characteristic of Twitter and by gathering the infinite images emerging from the deadly conflict via YouTube and Facebook, he manages to document the dynamics of the conflict in detail. This methodology has turned his blog into a credible source of information referenced by traditional media outlets like BBC, Reuters and CNN.

Higgins represents two distinct features of the information age: Open Source intelligence gathering and unfamiliar networked solutions. Developments that Hersh has ignored but which are radically changing the field of Intelligence and Journalism.

Both intelligence analysts and journalists heavily relied on a handful of sources to create stories. Verifying for reliability of the source and keeping the identity anonymous was part of best practices in both fields.

The emergence of the digital age has fundamentally changed this. As social media are datafying social life, relationships, behaviour, thoughts, locations, and networks, a vast amount of messy data is suddenly available to be harvested. Most of this data is Open Source and can be accessed by individuals such as ‘Brown Moses’.

In the aftermath of the Ghouta attack on the 21st of August last year, the Leicester-based blogger started analysing the videos on YouTube and information on other social networks. Much of the data was in Arabic, a language Higgins does not understand, and thus had to rely on Google Translate and support from his followers.

It took Higgins several months to reconstruct that the type of rocket (‘Volcano’) used in the attack has indeed been used before and, moreover, that the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian National Defence Force has this specific type of weapons in their arsenal. Furthermore, his work revealed how the missiles were fired from regime-controlled areas.

Seymour Hersh on the other hand chose to ignore this publically available information that was contradicting his argument and instead relied solely on a single source. His methodology certainly proved useful in the Cold War as evident from his work on revealing the My Lai massacre, for instance.

‘The Internet’ has rendered the work of one of the world’s most famous reporters severely outdated and even unreliable. A social media-savvy nobody from a medium-sized English town with a good online network is beating the grand master in his own game.

Hersh’s article is a welcome addition for those seeking to uncover who was behind the attack that killed over a 1,000 civilians and nearly caused US-led military intervention in Syria – if only for putting it back on the agenda. But moreover, it signifies a fundamental change for the Intelligence community and news media that times have changed and innovative, networked, and Open Sourced approaches are vital for reliable information gathering and analysis.

This article was also published by openDemocracy



  1. As has been the case throughout human history, the reputations of new thinkers are made on the wreckage of the old guard who refused to adapt with the times. Whatever Seymour Hersh’s past exploits, his venture into the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks has proven his undoing. Simply put, the times have passed Hersh by.

  2. Can’t really rely on your opinion as your clearly not objective and your views are severely politicized. Is it possible that Assad is everything you say he is AND also that his enemies tried to create a casus belli?

    Here some more old school real world people not focused on making the evidence fit the narrative:

    Here’s one from Michael Makloof… Maybe he saved some documents for layer?

    • Virtually anything is possible: the point of intelligent analysis to establish what is probable (and if possible how probable). But you certainly seem focused on “making the evidence (such as it is) fit the narrative”. Medialens makes heavy weather of the shocking fact that the fatality count in a chaotic situation where no outside media is allowed in should be uncertain. And that proves? Much of the rest is spent arguing that Asad did not personally give the command. Perhaps – so what? The Ray McGovern memo simply recycles some old sources that never had legs when they were fresh. As for Michael Maloof – well here you seem to be offering Hersh’s source as confimration of – Hersh’s source!

  3. Social Media has a lot of positives but it also has a lot to answer for. I am only here because of a few tweets from some particularly irascible individuals and I wont come back. There is a lot the public does not know and this void adds the “icing” on the dissonance already deliberately manufactured by conventional media. But I felt compelled if only for this 5 minutes .
    I read this and my eyes rolled. Another blogger that completely misses the point about Hersh. Hersh doesn’t make up stories in his head, he is an outlet for the intelligence network that has taken his career to earn. Porton Down have not denied Hersh’s report stating the standard fend-off: “No comment on intelligence matters”, significantly the UK Government will not comment either to refute him. Why? 2 reasons. 1: They don’t want this to receive any more attention than it already has. 2: This proves there is a leak. The UK Govt have summoned Porton Down over this and received the same kind of distant response General Matrin Dempsey gave John Kerry during the US Congress inquiry. Hersh has even pointed a damning finger at McDonough. He even has the document in his hand they deny exists!. The Obama administration forits part have once again highlighted the divide between itself and the Pentagon by coming out and officially denying it.
    The Hersh-detractors have read his article but not REALLY read it. He is an outlet for those agencies who know they have be set up yet again but have no recourse to contest. This tiresome media fall-out is only to be expected from a dumbed down public who have been fed from the beginning.

  4. I’ve just read this article 3 times. This title has nothing to do with the content. Itst a celebration of social media tools and suggests it somehow competes with the real world of information disseminated 1st hand via individuals rather than 2nd or 3rd hand via YouTube, anonymous Twitter neither which can provide irrefutable context and is all subjectively interpreted.

    Conclusion: The Internet definitely did NOT defeat Seymour Hersh.

  5. Such a naïve approach to “destroying” Hersh. The author’s views are clearly an amateur’s viewpoint, something clearly over his/her head.

    Try again ! You have a long way to go.

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