Bellingcat: Where technology meets investigative journalism

Bellingcat: Where technology meets investigative journalism
The New Arab Meets: Eliot Higgins, the British founder of the investigative journalism network Bellingcat, to talk more about what motivated him to start the website.
7 min read
30 November, 2018
Eliot Higgins from the citizen journalist's organisation Bellingcat [Getty]

In a world which is becoming increasingly more complex to navigate with the rapid changes that technology has brought, all readers (including journalists) are faced with the increased presence of fake – news and the difficulty of identifying it.

"You are entitled to your own opinion, not to your own facts," stated US Senator Patrick Moynihan in the course of a debate in Congress. Today telling the difference between the two is increasingly more challenging.

Bellingcat, the investigative journalism network – that began as a one-man show under the pseudonym of Brown Moses – has become a reference point since its inception in 2014 for accuracy and investigative journalism, breaking numerous cases from the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to investigation in the chemical attacks in Syria, only to mention a few.

The network's name refers to a fable of how a group of mice decide to place a bell around the neck of a cat to protect themselves.

Speaking to him via email and phone, The New Arab asked Eliot Higgins, the British founder of Bellingcat, what motivated him to start the investigative website and while developing technology plays an increasingly important role in disinformation platforms and fake news, how it can also be used to counter it.

The New ArabBellingcat has been described as a reminder of what is possible by combining different journalistic skills with new technologies, how do you see this evolving?

Eliot Higgins: It's about taking the promise of the digitally networked society and making something of it beyond everyone getting mad at each other on social media. We are focusing on two areas now: the use of online open source investigation in justice and accountability efforts, and building an online open source investigation community focused on local issues (in The Netherlands).

To build this a wide range of individuals and organisations is needed, not just focused on journalism, but potentially benefiting journalism by creating new ways to find and investigate stories coming from communities that are closely engaged in certain topics.

How you did you conduct the investigative OSINT work in 2013 on the Syrian chemical attacks in Ghouta? At that time you were still operating as 'Brown Moses', did you have support for the research and fact-checking?

There were a number of small online communities sharing information and ideas about the attack at the time: arms control communities, open source communities and others. I had gained experience specifically on the munitions being used because I had been tracking it before.

When the first videos surfaced online I had plenty of material to share with these groups, which produced more ideas and theories. So it was a collaborative process, even back then.

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Since 2012, as Brown Moses, he had been investigating chemical attacks is Syria using new technology which included the use of google earth, street view and maps which provided imagery previously not available in addition to the analysis of on-line videos. This led to his attribution of responsibility of the attacks to Bashar al-Assad's government.

How did you manage to break investigative stories in Ukraine and, more recently in Yemen?

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With Ukraine our work started with the crash of Malaysia flight (MH17) which was brought down by an SA-11 Buk missile on July 17, 2014 while flying over Ukraine, killing 298 people.

During that investigation we found other avenues to explore, such as the presence of Russian soldiers and military equipment in Ukraine, cross border artillery attacks from Russia, and even the activities of GRU (the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) agents in Ukraine, which made it clear that the claims of Russian involvement in Ukraine were true.

On August 9, 2018, a bomb struck a busy market area in the centre of Dahyan, Saada Governorate, Yemen, killing 54 civilians, 44 of which were children. Following this strike the Saudi-led coalition spokesperson, Turki al-Malki, stated that they had hit a "legitimate military target", as a response to a ballistic missile fired into Saudi Arabia the previous day.

However, as indicated in the Bellingcat article, this statement was disproved through video footage from inside the bus prior to the strike. It showed children crammed on the bus with few adults and no military personnel. Bellingcat proceeded to verify that the size of the bus in the video was consistent with photos of its wreckage taken after the airstrike. Followed by additional cross-referencing with satellite images from Dahayan which showed no obvious military presence of the Houthi rebels there. 

More recently we've been working with groups focused on the conflict in Yemen, and that involves training local groups, creating networks of organisations, and in the long term improving the quality of reporting on Yemen.

How can you verify the authenticity of the origins of the videos you analyse?

A key part of verification is finding the origin of the image. With reverse image search on Google and other services it's possible to do that with single images, but currently it is still not possible with videos.

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What this means is that it's easier to get away with using a misattributed video than a misattributed photograph. If reverse image search for videos were possible it would allow the same level of accuracy of what we now have for pictures.

Have you issued wrong analysis in the course of your work that made you fine-tune the way you conduct your research?

I'm sure if you ask the Russian government they'd say it was all wrong, but I've always been careful to state exactly what I know, and what are the limits of what can be known from the material we are examining. 

My biggest concern is the risk of cyber attacks to our website and emails. The CyberBerkut, believed to be backed by the Russian government, hacked one of the contributor accounts on our website, and Fancy Bear, which is believed to be the GRU, has sent me and other Bellingcat team members dozens of phishing emails in an attempt to access our personal Gmail accounts. Fortunately, they failed. This is a greater concern than my physical safety.

Who makes up your team and what are the key characteristics they must have?

Generally it's the right level of obsessiveness to stick to a subject: who have the drive to spend hours digging through material just because it's something that interests them.

Self-motivation is very important in this work. Our contributors who make up our investigation team are made up of experienced investigators; we've been doing this work since 2014.

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Members have a broad range of experience. We also engage often with experts, learning from them and including their contributions to our work. In the case of Russia, we've known journalists from The Insider, a crowdfunded citizen journalism news website for a while and we found it beneficiary to work with them on various projects as they have on the ground presence in Russia.

We support their investigations with our open source research which makes it a mutually beneficial and complementary relationship with a deep level of trust.

Bellingcat also receives tips and information from citizen journalists and volunteers which are then fact-checked by the investigative journalism network staff. An audience well-versed in exploiting social media and OSINT connecting the dots that more traditional journalism might miss. 

The site was funded through crowdfunding initially and has since its inception turned into a business now receiving money from donors such as The Open Society Foundation – a Soros institution-and by the workshops it holds.

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