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“If I can sit at a laptop and expose Russian spies left, right and centre, anyone can”

Bellingcat’s founder Elliot Higgins reveals how the internet has reinvented investigation, how it helped his team discover who shot down flight MH17 and why now, more than ever, we need an intelligence agency for the people.

Bellingcat, the intelligence organisation, has broken some of the biggest stories of the decade. Their investigators proved that Bashar al-Assad fired chemical weapons at his own people, they discovered who downed flight MH17 and, most recently, they put Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the phone with one of the men sent to assassinate him.

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They’re not spies, and they’re not trained, so how do these laptop-wielding ‘amateurs’ hold power to account? Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins talks to BBC Science Focus editor Daniel Bennett about why people need an intelligence agency, how internet investigations work and how we can fight misinformation.

What is Bellingcat?

We’re a small, non-profit NGO [non-governmental organisation]. We have about 20 staff members and we carry out online open-source investigation. We use material that’s available online – from social media posts to satellite imagery from Google Earth – to investigate different incidents, like war crimes in Syria, Russian poisoning, and wildlife trafficking.

The name is from Belling The Cat, a fable about a group of mice who are scared of a large cat. They come up with the idea of putting a bell around its neck, but they don’t know how to do it. So, we’re teaching people how to bell the cat.

How did you start out?

Before this, I was working in an admin job. I had no specialisation, no affinity for what I did, but I was spending a lot of time on the internet arguing with people about what was happening in the world.

And, at the time, in 2010, that was the Arab Spring. People would share videos and debate about whether they were real or not. But no one actually tried to figure out if they were genuine.

Then I found a video. It was in a place called Tiji in Libya. The rebels posted a video claiming they had captured this. In it there was a tank rolling down a road with two wide lanes of traffic, a mosque next to the road and various other buildings.

So I thought, “maybe I can find this road and mosque”. I went to Google Maps and I found the town easily. Then I looked at the satellite map, it clearly had a major road running through the middle. I zoomed in. Two lanes. I followed it and there was a mosque on the road with a dome and a minaret. It matched what was in the video. I started to look at the smaller details: the curve of the road, the appearance of the walls, the utility poles. I could be sure that this was the location they said it was.

I could go back and win the argument about whether this video was legitimate. That’s where it started, but I found it fascinating you could do this. I was frustrated that the reporting was so focused on what was happening from the perspective of the journalists on the ground, while there was so much information being shared online from a range of different sources that was being ignored because people felt they couldn’t verify their authenticity.

But if you actually examined and analysed the videos, you could get a much more granular view of the conflict. I kept doing this and in early 2012 I started a blog, a place where I could put my thoughts. There were so many people watching these videos and basically creating conspiracies around them. I wanted to write about what I could see, not what my opinions were.

How did you go from a blog with a growing following to the creation of Bellingcat, an intelligence agency?

The company I was working for was making people redundant and I was on the chopping block. I had a company approach me based on my blog, to find out if their workers were in danger of being attacked by Al-Qaeda, that kind of thing.

The salary was good, but I would have had to have shut down my blog if accepted. I had a mortgage, so I told people on Twitter I was stopping my blog. But then people suggested I try to get some crowdfunding. I scraped together £12,000 and that allowed me to work on it full time.

What have you been able to uncover since?

Our first big investigation would have been into flight MH17 [the Malaysian Airlines flight that was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 when it disappeared over conflict-torn Ukraine]. This was when our investigation team, which was a group of volunteers, really formed. Most have now become staff.

We tracked the missile launcher that was believed to have shot the plane down. We then found the location the missile was fired from in Ukraine. Next, we identified the launcher in a convoy in Russia a few weeks earlier that was headed to the Ukrainian border. Then we started identifying individuals who were on phone calls published by the criminal investigation, the investigation team and the Ukrainian security services. We showed that Russia was involved in what took down the flight.

Other big stories have included proving the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We also identified the people involved in the Skripal assassination attempt. That investigation led us to Russia’s nerve agent programme, which eventually led us to the team who tried to assassinate Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia.

We’ve also looked into the wildlife trade in Dubai, and the emergence of the extreme far right in Europe, the US and more.

Eliot Higgins © Getty Images
Eliot Higgins © Getty Images

Who are the people behind Bellingcat?

We’re kind of wacky amateurs who have hobbies that get out of hand. Take the Russian investigations: all these discoveries are basically the work of one person who just focuses on this kind of evidence and working in that particular way. Although we have 20 people on our staff, there might be one or two people working on each investigation.

We’re also part of a broader community of experts, journalists and people working in NGOs. There are military, arms and chemical weapons experts too. Then there are members of the public who we connect to through social media. Because it’s all using open-source information, anyone can join in and look at our investigation. Anyone can be a part of it. It’s a clear and transparent process.

Do you worry you’re annoying some quite powerful people?

I have to be more cautious now. When I’m travelling I don’t eat food in hotels. I won’t have room service because I just don’t know where it’s from. Once I was staying at a hotel that I’d visited for quite a few years. There was a knock at the door, late at night. I opened the door and there was a man in a suit with a name badge. He’d said he’d brought me free cookies for staying 10 times at the hotel.

I took them, thinking “great, free cookies”. But then I realised I had no idea who that person was. You can get a name badge anywhere. I started getting suspicious. In the end, I put the cookies and sweets in the bin. Then, when I left, another staff member came over and said “we hope you enjoyed the cookies”, just after I’d checked out. I’d thrown those cookies away for nothing.

What’s on the horizon for Bellingcat?

We’ve been working with a number of organisations over the years on tech projects. One in particular is a piece we’ve been working on with a group called the Syrian Archive, who renamed themselves Mnemonic Labs, who were collecting videos from the conflict in Syria. They’ve collected over a million videos along with other content. It’s a vast amount of information.

We want to turn this into a more organised set of data. We know a limited amount about these videos. They don’t necessarily have metadata like geolocation. What we’d like to do is build a volunteer section, we’re hoping that people can help us geolocate these videos.

We’re working towards grouping together videos by similarity. So if a building is filmed from one direction and then appears in another video, they’re connected. Then you can have a network of videos that are physically related to one another. That way, once we find the building’s physical location, we can pin all the videos it appears in to one spot. One day, you might be able to draw a circle on a map and watch videos of conflict from those location.

This could be a vital discovery tool in future for researchers looking into accountability and humans rights violations in relation to the Syrian conflict.

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What would you tell someone who was in your position a decade ago and curious about online investigation?

Find something that interests you and give it a go. I had no idea what I was actually doing when I started. I figured this stuff out for myself. But now there are loads of resources online and you don’t always have to do a huge investigation and it doesn’t have to be something a million people read.

Do it for yourself. Write something because you’re interested in it and you’ll learn more and build your skills. You don’t have to figure out who killed who, or geolocate 1,000 videos. Just try take on video and see if you can figure out where it was filmed.

Write it up. Make a blog. People don’t have to read it, but give yourself a chance to have that process, to think about the process itself and how you explain your work to other people.

Always be careful not to make leaps of logic. Only write about what you can see and not what you think you’re seeing. Then you’ll be a lot more accurate and produce information others can use. You can be part of a community that way.

Right now we’re seeing the rise of disinformation fuel a tidal wave of new conspiracy theories. Is Bellingcat an antidote to that?

In a sense, yes. There’s a fundamental distrust in traditional sources of authority. Lots of people distrust the media, the government, medical professionals and so on. If you feel that way, you’ll go online, and you’ll look for an alternative. You’ll find people who’ll tell you that the Earth’s flat, that QAnon is real or that coronavirus is being caused by Bill Gates.

They’ll tell you that your suspicions are right and that everyone outside their community is being deceived. They start building this almost heroic sense of themselves: that they’re the ones who know the truth and that everyone outside it is a poor, misguided fool. These bubbles start to become detached from reality and it’s hard to reach them.

So I think what we have to do as a society is look at how we can actually engage people who are looking for alternative sources of authority and show them how to develop their own authority through evidence-based investigation.

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This is why we spend a lot of time training people who are school or university age to do investigations. Show them that they’re not powerless. If I can sit at a laptop and expose Russian spies left, right and centre, anyone can. There’s nothing special about what I’ve done. It belongs to all of us.

We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People is out now (£20, Bloomsbury)