Eliot Higgins went from working alone in an empty office to creating a digital investigative group that has revolutionized information gathering – Bellingcat – because he wanted to win an argument on the internet. This group is the focus of one of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival documentaries: Bellingcat - Truth in a Post-Truth World. The movie follows Eliot and his colleagues as they work to expose government lies and reveal the truth in the midst of both propaganda wars and armed conflict. Eliot Higgins spoke to Philippa Stewart about Bellingcat’s start, and where it will go next.
How did Bellingcat start?
It was almost accidental. In 2011, I’d been working for a company that housed refugees. That company lost its government contract and had to close, so I ended up in an office by myself waiting for everything to wind down. I had quite a lot of free time and I spent much of it on the Guardian Middle East live blog, which covered the Arab Spring. I’d log on and kind of argue with people in the comments about what was happening, but there was always this question of what was true and what wasn’t. So, to win an argument on the internet, I figured out I could use satellite imagery to locate where the things being posted were filmed. I also realized you could get a good idea of where the front lines were in Libya and who was fighting where, just by closely following information shared online.
Can you give an example of something you saw in the early days?
When the rebels pushed south of Misrata, Libya [during the Arab Uprising] they went through a town called Tawargha which was loyal to Gaddafi. The journalists making their way to Sirte [with the anti-Gaddafi forces] could see Tawargha in the distance and one would tweet one day, “the rebels are firing artillery there.” Another person another day would tweet “the buildings are on fire.” I could see these things as separate pieces of online information, and you could get a real sense that something was going on there. Then a few weeks later when Gaddafi was killed and people actually got there, they showed that the residents had been effectively ethnically cleansed. What had happened had been detectable through the posts, but it wasn’t pieced together.
When did it get to be serious for you?
My daughter was born in 2011 and for about five months I didn’t have time to do anything. Around February 2012 I fancied starting a new hobby that I could easily pick up and put down so I could care for my daughter. I decided to start blogging. When the conflict with Syria really started to escalate I started looking at stuff coming from there, and then it became my entire life.
We launched Bellingcat in July 2014 and MH17 was shot down two days later.
Bellingcat concluded that MH17 – the Dutch passenger jet shot down over Ukraine - was downed using a missile launcher provided by the Russians. How did that work shape Bellingcat?
MH17 was a catalyst for the entire field of online open source investigation. It grabbed a lot of people’s attention.
In October 2017, I was interviewed by the Joint Investigation Taskforce (JIT) investigating MH17 as a witness. We went through each of our website posts and explained to them what we did and how we found the evidence. I think that got Bellingcat more connected with organizations such as the ICC [International Criminal Court] and people working on justice and accountability as well as with nongovernmental organizations.
For me, 2014-2016 was a really interesting transitional period that changed the way open source investigations were viewed – especially because we were using it to challenge what the Russian Federation was saying and frequently making them look bad.
Can you explain what an “open source investigation” is?
In a way it’s very simple. If you want to figure out where to go shopping in a new town, you go to google and put in the name of the shop and the town and you find it on the map. You’ve just done an open source investigation. All it means is using publicly available information and material to investigate stuff.
Now that’s for a very different reason than what we do, but in a way open source investigation is very simple. It’s finding information that’s publicly available and then trying to make sense of it. We do that by cross referencing it against other publicly available information.
You could combine information from satellites with almost real-time information being shared by the public about their own lives. The public here can range from someone’s mum to a Russian solider – which is where it becomes very useful.
Did you have any ethical qualms about the work you’re doing?
Around the MH17 investigation, there was a big criminal investigation and a lot of conspiracy theories. We knew we had to be really careful, especially when we started identifying individuals who were linked to the airplane being shot down in some way.
When I first started writing the Brown Moses blog, I wanted to write in a way I assumed was consistent with the ethical standards of journalism. I was always aiming to be truthful, be transparent, and make sure people were treated fairly, even if they were maybe the perpetrators.
You will see the best example of that in the documentary. It’s our report on the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade [the Russian battalion that brought to Ukraine the missile that shot down MH17]. We wrote a report that was over a hundred pages long and shared that with the JIT so they could preserve the evidence. Then, in the version we made public, we censored all the names and photographs so you couldn’t identify individuals. When we started identifying officers involved in MH17, we did so because their identities were the core of the story.
Why should people trust Bellingcat?
They don’t have to. What we do is try to show all the evidence that we’re using and try to present it in a way that’s very clear and understandable.
One thing we’re doing at the moment is a new project on Yemen. We’ve been working with lawyers from the Global Legal Action Network on a project about investigating and archiving content found online. It also means any information we’re finding will be used in court. We are doing this investigation to a set, publicly documented standard.
We try to be as transparent as we can in the way we investigate. It is very rare when we use evidence that’s not public.
Can you talk a bit about the risks you and your team are facing?
It’s very hard to judge. We know we’re definitely on Russia’s radar. We’ve had multiple phishing attacks on our email. We’ve had our website attacked by another Russian hacking group called cyberbucket. Russia Today has become obsessive about me, which you see a bit of in the documentary.
There’s been no physical attacks, although that is something we keep in mind.
Is it worth the risk?
Yes. I’m kind of glad we are pissing them off because it means we’re doing a good job.
For me I’m happy to do it, I enjoy this work more than anything I’ve done in my life.
How can the Bellingcat method help human rights investigations around the world?
One of the good reflections of this is the work we did on the al-Jinah mosque bombing in Syria, where we worked with Human Rights Watch and Forensic Architecture. [Human Rights Watch deeply criticized the US’s bombing of the mosque, which killed 38 people]. We all played to our strengths. Bellingcat sourced the open source material and did the analysis, which we shared with Human Rights Watch. Because Human Rights Watch had connections on the ground, you could find information that was useful to our investigation that way. Forensic Architecture could then develop their work and model based on all that information.
Part of open source investigation is also how we work together with investigators. Collaboration is something I find extremely important and I have seen more and more collaborations between different groups.
If people go and see the documentary, what message do you hope they come away with?
I hope it leads to more people trying to do these things in their own way – it doesn’t have to do with conflicts or war crimes or anything like that. This is why we’re working now in the Netherlands to do training workshops and support for projects that focus on local issues for local people; working with university students, academics and journalists to look at issues affecting the towns they live in.
I think for an individual it can be very empowering, and I hope people realize they don’t have to ask permission to do this, because that’s not what I did.
Bellingcat - Truth in a Post-Truth World is being screened on Thursday, June 20 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.