From Syria to Russia, online investigations at Bellingcat have trailblazed a new kind of journalism. Danyl Mclauchlan speaks to Eliot Higgins, the site founder and author of We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, ahead of his sold-out appearance at the Word Christchurch Festival.
Eliot Higgins was working as an office worker for a lingerie retailer when he first made the front page of the New York Times.
That was in February of 2013. Higgins was 34 years old. He was born in Shropshire, in the UK. A shy, introverted kid, he dropped out of high school and worked for a company resettling asylum seekers before it lost its government contract. By 2013 he was spending his days packaging underpants for delivery and his evenings and weekends online, researching and blogging and, along the way, inventing a new model for investigative journalism. Eight years later, Higgins is one of the most influential and innovative reporters in the world.
That first New York Times story was about Saudi Arabia covertly arming a rebel faction in the Syrian civil war. Higgins had been following the Syrian conflict by tracking video footage posted by the participants in the fighting who routinely recorded or live streamed their operations. (There is, Higgins explained to me when I asked him about the extent of this footage, far more video content of the Syrian war available online than the actual time duration of the conflict).
In early 2013 Higgins – who was monitoring 450 different YouTube channels coming out of the war – noticed new weapons appearing in the streams uploaded by one of the rebel factions. He had, he explained, “accidentally become an expert in Syrian munitions”. Normally these groups used weapons stolen or captured from the Syrian army, but now they were using rocket launchers the army didn’t have. Higgins identified them as Yugoslavian weapons. By examining multiple feeds of different groups he tracked the first appearance of these weapons to the south-west of Syria, near the Jordanian border. And the groups using them were known to be moderate, suggesting the weapons were supplied to counter the growing influence of Al-Qaida affiliates. Higgins’ contacts at the New York Times queried the theory with US officials, who confirmed it. Saudi Arabia was covertly purchasing weapons from Croatia, flying them to Jordan and smuggling them across the border to the Free Syrian Army.
Higgins describes his work as “open source investigation”. At its heart is a key insight: that the current surveillance capitalism model of the internet is also a vast, vast informational resource, and because it has to be publicly available for the tech companies to monetise it, almost anyone can harvest that dataset.
The Syrian weapons story was only the beginning. The conflict in Syria became too dangerous for most western media outlets to cover from the ground – which meant less coverage of one of the most terrible conflicts in the world. But Higgins was able to write about it by working with a growing number of collaborators, using increasingly sophisticated techniques to cross-reference and validate the abundant online content. They demonstrated that the Syrian government was using chemical weapons and cluster munitions, and linked the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In July of 2014 Higgins launched Bellingcat, a crowd-funded website based on Higgins’ model of open source intelligence. The name comes from an old fable: a group of mice all agree they’ll be safe from a cat if someone puts a bell on it. “But who will bell the cat?” Three days after it went live, MH17, a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Who shot down MH17? The Bellingcat approach to journalism is that the answer was already out there, online. They just had to find it.
It is hard to shoot down a passenger jet at that altitude. You need either a fighter plane or a surface to air missile. A brief video clip appeared on Youtube showing a Soviet-era Buk missile launcher – a vehicle equipped with a radar system capable of targeting high altitude aircraft – driving along a road in a wooded, residential region of Snizhne, a region of Ukraine held by pro-Russian insurgents.
Higgins downloaded the clip (which vanished from YouTube a few minutes later) and used Google Earth to geolocate the footage. He tweeted about it, and his followers found other photos and social media footage of the Buk’s journey around eastern Ukraine on the day the plane was shot down. They widened their search, watching days of Russian dashboard cams, conducting Instagram searches based on date and time, looking for photos that might feature the Buk as it travelled through Russia; scrutinising the Instagram accounts of Russian special forces operatives, tracing a Russian convoy containing the Buk back to its base in Kursk, searching through accounts of Kursk-based soldiers on VK – the Russian version of Facebook. What they produced was a report demonstrating that a Russian mobile missile launcher had travelled across Russia and into Ukraine shortly before the plane was shot down, and that it returned to Russia the next day – with one of its missiles missing. It was a mixture of investigative journalism and intelligence work. And it was all open source, verifiable. Anyone could check any of the claims for themselves.
Many of Bellingcat’s biggest stories involved Russia. They identified two men suspected of carrying out the Skirpal poisoning in Salisbury as members of the Russian secret service, and not, as Russia’s foreign ministry claimed, a pair of sports nutritionists who happened to travel to the UK and spend a few hours in Salisbury on the day of the poisoning. They linked the poisoning of dissident Russian politician Alexei Nalveny with Russia’s Federal Security Service. They documented Russian operations in the Ukraine and Syria.
When I interviewed Higgins via Zoom he admitted that Russia was a perfect foil for Bellingcat. They’re an authoritarian regime. They’re malevolent, involved in assassinations and disinformation. “But the country is incredibly corrupt and the government is incompetent. It means the volume of official data that’s been stolen and is available to you via torrents or other means is just unbelievable, and their lies are incredibly easy to disprove.”
He’s sceptical of the idea that Putin’s Russia are disinformation masterminds playing ten dimensional postmodern chess against liberal democracy. “They have all these troll farms, but their leaders have a very limited understanding of the internet, or the modern media. They put out disinformation about Bellingcat and allege we’re involved in various conspiracies. But that just has the effect of amplifying us and what we do. And the allegations are copied off conspiracy theory sites and reworded to try and disguise the origin. They’re so much less sophisticated than people think.”
It’s part of Higgins’ job to look at horrific material. He sees Bellingcat’s mission as more than just investigative journalism. It occupies a rather complicated nexus between journalism, human rights activism, computer science, archivism, academic research and criminal investigation. They document war crimes for both historical and legal purposes, and he’s gotten good at compartmentalising the terrible things he sees. But in his book We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, Higgins reveals the one thing he wishes he hadn’t seen: the livestreamed footage of the Christchurch massacre.
“It happened during the night, over here. I woke up and checked my phone, like I always do. And people were talking about this thing, and there was a link to the footage on Slack. And there was a warning, but I clicked on it not really knowing what I was about to see. And it was … I think partly it was the way it was presented, like a first person shooter game. But it was also the pure nihilism of it.”
One of Bellingcat’s most influential posts was an analysis of the Christchurch killer’s manifesto, written by Higgins’ colleague Robert Evans, a war journalist who specialises in far-right extremism. “He showed that the manifesto was a trap,” Higgins explains. “It was presented as a political document and the purpose was to get journalists to cover it that way and report on the contents. But it’s filled with all these ironic memes and in-jokes from his far right online community. It was crafted to trick reporters into repeating them, to turn media coverage of the tragedy into a joke. It was an attempt at a last-laugh. We got that piece up very quickly, and lots of journalists shared it, so we helped prevent that. Which is something, I suppose.”
A lot of Higgins’ book is about “the counterfactual community”, the vast, seemingly endless torrent of misinformation and conspiracy theory the internet firehoses out into the world every minute of every day. One of his organisation’s goals is to act as a “firewall of facts” against the disinformation. Partly by debunking it but mostly by giving people the tools and inclination to find things out on their own, to verify things for themselves. To use the internet for good instead of evil.
When I ask him if he’s a techno-optimist he gives a short, bitter laugh. “I think I see the internet and what’s wrong with it very clearly. You have to see it clearly to see what the opportunities and the solutions are. A lot of people who are spreading disinformation or buying into conspiracy theories have had a bad experience with authority. It might be the healthcare system, or the criminal justice system. Whatever. And they feel resentful and powerless, and then they find these online communities that validate their experiences and say, ‘Yes, you’re being lied to.’ And they feel like they’re fighting back. They feel empowered. You can’t turn all that around with, like” – he rolls his eyes – “an official fact-checking website. What you can do is teach people to be more critical and to validate things for themselves.”
Patricia Lockwood called her novel about being extremely online No One Is Talking About This, the joke being that everyone online always talks about the same things at the same time, a phenomenon media theorists refer to as “discourse concentration”. Higgins’ preference is for Bellingcat to cover topics that are genuinely neglected by mainstream media outlets. “We maximise the value of what we can do if no one else is doing it.” So he welcomes organisations like the New York Times and the BBC setting up their own open source intelligence bureaus, because that just opens up new territory for Bellingcat.
And he encourages aspiring citizen journalists to investigate stories in their own neighbourhoods. Most media organisations have stopped doing local news coverage because the business model for it has collapsed – so that’s now a neglected space. Bellingcat maintains a free Online Investigative Toolkit, which teaches skills like geolocating images, flight tracking, how to monitor illegal campaign funding via cryptocurrency (also “Investigate TikTok like a pro!”). Look into the rise of new political groups or organisations in your area, Higgins suggests. Who is behind them? Document local health hazards or environmental degradation. All you need is some free time and a laptop.
The day before our conservation Higgins had been publicly critiqued by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, who claimed Higgins was a pawn of western intelligence agencies. He’s routinely criticised by the alt-right and he’s despised by the far left, who see him as part of a global conspiracy against Syria’s Assad government to justify more western intervention in the Middle East. I ask Higgins if he ever felt like James Jesus Angleton, a cold war era CIA agent who lamented that his work in intelligence and disinformation left him stranded in “a wilderness of mirrors”. Did Higgins ever feel that his world had fallen out from under him, and he no longer knew what was real?
He thinks about this for less than a second, then replies, “Not really. I know this stuff is just not true. The whole point of everything I’m doing is that you can still find out what the truth really is.”
Eliot Higgins appears with Nicky Hager at the Word Christchurch Festival, which begins on August 25.