If you’ve been following the work of Eliot Higgins, you’ll not need to read the accounts of his exposés of Syrian, Libyan and Russian atrocities in this seminal book We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People. If you aren’t familiar with it, then every page of the book will offer revelations — for it is deeply impressive.
Higgins’ methodology from the beginning was to scrutinise photographs and videos uploaded to the internet. These were often trophy shots and footage of killings and bombings. Eventually the range of uploads expanded to include witnesses, activists and benighted citizens. This scrutiny initially took the form of matching topographic features in these images against those of candidate locations available through Google Maps’ satellite view, then with Google Earth. A minaret here, a road junction there, profiles of surrounding hills — all these were caught on film as silent accomplices to a murder scene or a potential war crime — and served as data for verifying the facts.
The author admits to having done more than his fair stint in playing on-line video games when younger, so had unwittingly honed a set of visual pattern-matching skills that would buttress his subsequent investigative endeavours. As the burden of proof weighed more heavily on his shoulders more sophisticated tools were brought to bear, such as SunCalc which holds solar angle and declination data enabling the expert eye to extrapolate dates and times from shadows cast in photographs. Geolocation and chronolocation have thus proved to be vital tools in any open-source investigator’s toolbox — as have reverse image searches.
Those who have followed Higgins’ early work on the Brown Moses blog (from 2011) and then on the Bellingcat website (from 2014) will be familiar with the stand-out cases that this book covers. They are impressive enough to summarise here:
|February 2011||Tahrir Square, Cairo, Yemen, various cities in Syria and in Libya||The ‘Arab Spring’ and government attempts to suppress it often with extreme with force||?||Verified or disproved the claims and counter-claims flowing out of the MENA region, largely on Twitter, posting findings on the Brown Moses blog.|
|August 2011||UK||The phone hacking scandal and the illegal accessing of 13-year-old victim Milly Dowler’s phone||-||Posted analysis of findings concerning links between phone hackers and a News Corporation subsidiary.|
|May 2012||Syria, Houla||Execution of civilians including many children||49 children, 34 women and 25 men||Analysis of real-time tweets and Facebook entries yielded evidence of culpability by pro-government shabiha militias.|
|July 2012||Syria, Hama||Use of cluster bombs on civilians||?||Identification of A-IX-2 explosives used to fill Russian-made RBK-250-275 cluster munitions that had been dropped from government helicopters.|
|2012 — 2017||Syria, Aleppo, Homs||Barrel bombs dropped on civilians||11,000||Unearthed social media videos of government troops pushing barrels out of helicopter gunships, thereby contradicting Syrian government accusations that this was the work of the opposition militias (that had no helicopters). Other videos showed Syrian L-39 warplanes dropping the same Soviet munitions.|
|2013||Syria||Arming of anti-government Syrian forces||?||M79 Osa rocket launcher identified and traced back to weapons bought from Croatia by Saudi Arabia and supplied to anti-government forces.|
|August 2013||Syria, Ghouta, Damascus||Sarin gas used on civilians||281 — 1,729||Soviet 140mm M-14 artillery rocket casings were identified as proof that Syrian government forces were responsible.|
|July 2014 — February 2016||Ukraine||The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17||298||Monitoring of counter-factual social media posts emanating from the Russian Internet Research Agency troll factory in St Petersburg within an hour of the plane’s downing. Geolocation of the place from where a Buk missile had been fired. Archiving of social media posts by the Russian troops involved. Forensic match of cockpit panel damage suffered by the downed plane being commensurate with damage caused by a Buk warhead. Buk missile system shown to have travelled from Russia. The individual soldiers identified in the Buk’s transport and use were based in the Russian city of Kursk. The chain of command was traced all the way back to Putin.|
|March 2018||UK, Salisbury||The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal||1||Gathering and analysing open-source materials (Russian driving licences, car registrations, passport records and graduation records, etc.) to ascertain the identity of the culprits, their support officers and the chain of command within the Russian military.|
|April 2018||Syria, Douma||Chemical attack on civilians — one of 336 such attacks by the Syrian regime||41 — 49||Debunked the assertion by the Syrian authorities that the munitions had been placed manually by the Syrian White Helmet citizen rescue group. Russian counter-factual social media activity was unearthed.|
|March 2019||Christchurch, New Zealand||Mosque shootings||51||Archived social media posts by the gunman on 4/8chan and decoded a manifesto purporting to detail a conspiracy by ‘global elites’.|
|January 2020||Iran, Tehran||The shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines PS752||176||Proof of Iranian military culpability was published, forcing admission by the Iranian authorities.|
These snippets can only hint at the highly detailed investigative work carried out by Higgins and his growing number of colleagues. The mass of detail underlying them has been accumulating on the blog and website for all to see, and this book gives an excellent introduction to some of the techniques that have been developed to establish the field of open-source investigative journalism. Anything in the public domain serves to truthfully tell the facts within these tragic tales.
What these two websites have told, but perhaps indirectly, is the philosophy behind this movement. In this, the book excels. Like it or not, we now live in a ‘counterfactual’ world where some would like alternative facts to carry as much weight as the truth. For Higgins, “the most serious news question of the digital age” is verification. His seventh tweet — about the war-torn Libyan town of Brega and which faction actually had troops there — (of some 250,000 tweets to date) was tellingly the first to demonstrate the method of matching a video to Google Maps’ satellite view to verify a video’s geolocation. This was to become an essential weapon with which to join battle in the information war.
Stalin coined the term dezinformatsia, giving it a French spin to suggest that Soviet disinformation tactics were merely keeping up with what the west had been doing all along. These days, this now means “Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay”. (Thomas Rid’s excellent Active Measures — The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare is perhaps the best history of the dark arts of disinformation warfare.) The Bellingcat riposte to this is independent verification. It is the “scientific method applied to journalism”. As Higgins pithily writes:
While the Bellingcat motto is ‘Identify, Verify, Amplify’, that of the Counterfactual Community could be ‘Believe, Insist, Ignore’. Their practice is to begin with a conclusion, skip verification and shout down contradictory facts. Whereas we search the internet for evidence, they search for confirmation. (Eliot Higgins, We are Bellingcat, p.116)
When the alleged poisoners of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the hapless Messrs Petrov and Boshirov, were paraded on television to assert that they visited Salisbury as sightseers, Bellingcat’s meticulous work uncovered their real identities as Russian military doctor Alexander Mishkin and GRU colonel Anatoliy Chepiga respectively. While Western authorities struggled to solve the case, citizen investigators stepped in, as Higgins says:
… united by a conviction that facts still matter, that evidence exists online, verification is mandatory and accountability is still possible. More than any case yet, our Skripal investigations showed the world what Bellingcat was, how much we can achieve as a collective and that the sway of the internet is not limited to warping public debate. Ordinary citizens can pursue justice and truth there, too. (Eliot Higgins, We are Bellingcat, p.156)
There are, it seems, two lessons from this important book. The first is that the evidence unearthed by this sort of endeavour is often of a higher standard than that assembled by national security agencies, the US included. It justifies the book’s subtitle of “An Intelligence Agency for the People”. It explains why one of Higgins’ roles is as a member of the technology advisory board of the International Criminal Court. As Higgins himself writes, Bellingcat now “dealt in legal evidence”. The second lesson, just as important, is that open-source, citizen-based investigation is “a discipline with teachable skills”. Again, in his own words:
A well-crafted training programme teaching verification skills to those entering adult society ought to be among the basic skills of the twenty-first century. (Eliot Higgins, We are Bellingcat, p.217)
I salute that idea — Finland starts its fight against fake news in primary schools (with an exemplary information literacy drive) — and I salute the inspired and dogged work of Eliot Higgins and his collective.
[You can get your own copy of this book in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]