Why Bellingcat wants to teach normal people to be investigative journalists

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins Credit: SKUP.no
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins Credit: SKUP.no

It’s been said that intrepid reporters burn a lot of shoe leather. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins built a news startup and burned his fair of shoe leather covering wars in Ukraine, Syria, and ISIS-controlled areas of the Middle East, he’s just done it all from his home in Leicester, England.

Higgins went from being an administrator at a nonprofit for asylum seekers to a foremost expert in forensic evidence found in photos and videos shared online. He thinks virtually anyone with curiosity and a sound mind can perform some of the duties of an investigative journalist.

With five days to go, Bellingcat campaign has raised roughly £54,000 from 1,300 backers towards a £60,000 goal in order for the publication to expand its operations into British banking crimes and to spread open source investigation methods to more people.

Since its launch, back when founder Eliot Higgins was better known as Brown Moses — Bellingcat has turned to crowdfunding a total five times, bringing in more than £100,000. There was a big 30-day £51,000 campaign for seed money in 2014, as well as one that lasted one hour to raise $800 to pay for satellite images to challenge assertions made by the Russian military about MH17, the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down in Ukraine.

The Bellingcat campaign is being managed by the crowdfunding firm Vann Alexandra. Incidentally, this week Vann Alexandra founder Alex Daly published her first how-to book on crowdfunding.

Through the Cracks spoke to Higgins recently to talk about his belief in open source investigation by regular people and his desire to spread those methods among young local journalists.

Through the Cracks: Shortly after we wrote about your MH17 campaign back in 2015 I remember spotting reaction from what appeared to be Russian trolls on Twitter. Has your work covering Syria and Ukraine brought you in contact with a lot of that sort of activity online?

Higgins: We’ve had the Russian Minister of Defense attack our work, we’ve had the Russian Foreign Ministry attack our work, and we had the hackers from the Podesta emails and DNC leaks targeted us for hacking.

The reaction from Russia and trolls was one of the most rewarding things. Just after the second anniversary of MH17 we had I think 37 separate articles written about me and published within an hour attacking my work all just appeared online at the same time. And the funny thing with them we knew half of them were from Russian troll factories because we had established they were run by those already but we didn’t know the other half were so all that gave us was more data about which sites belong to Russian troll factories.

Through the Cracks: How has Bellingcat changed since its launch?

Higgins: I kind of look at this as four phases of how this has developed. So you know 2007-11 we saw the induction of the iPhone and social media platform so we could share information a lot more easily with each other then in 2011 with the Arab Spring.

That added a new aspect to it where it was something being used to show what was happening in conflict. In that sort of 2011-14 period you had NGOs and organizations start to use this information. So Human Rights Watch, that kind of built up, then in 2014 we had MH17. Now this information was being used to directly challenge claims made by the government, and it got more interest from policymakers and governments. Now we’re moving into a fourth phase with the justice and accountability interest. So we’ve kind of changed and adapted. Lately I’ve been quite proactive about talking to organizations like the International Criminal Court and OHHR about how this stuff can be used because there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before this kind of first big case where this is used a great deal but I’m glad that these discussions are happening now and that they’ve been taken seriously by the sort of organizations that may eventually use this.

Through the Cracks: What’s this funding for? You want to do some more training? What else?

Higgins: Well we’re in an interesting period at Bellingcat at the moment because beyond just the training. We’re actually getting a lot of interest from various justice and accountability mechanisms asking how they can use the information we find particularly in regards to Syria as part of that. I’ve just been out in the Hague for a meeting about a UN mechanism on Syria looking at the ways to gather evidence and files where possible, prosecution in various countries and there’s a lot of discussion there about how we can use and gather and preserve and open source evidence that we’re seeing now cause no one’s really answered that question yet.

Through the Cracks: Like the process of getting all of this stuff categorized and in a library?

Higgins: There’s already some projects for archive material. We have our own project called The Syrian Archive. The issue is no one really has presented any guidelines to any organization doing this to say this is how the International Criminal Court (ICC) would want you to preserve video. So if we download a video from YouTube, what is the correct procedure to ensure that in 20 years time it can be used in a war crime tribunal?

Also there’s questions of how data is organized because we’ve got lots of different organizations saving information from online sources, but there’s been no work on actually making sure everyone’s doing this the same way, so if this UN mechanism decides they want to get video for a specific instance and 20 different organizations with 20 different systems are organizing it, it’s going to be a nightmare for them to deal with that so we want to have discussions now where we’re saying if you’re going to preserve video you’ll do it this way, if you’re going to save that video into a database you do it in this format that everyone recognizes because that means we can share information more easily.

We’re also looking at ways to code specific events so in 20 years time when it comes to a war tribunal, you just ask for the code and get that information or video.

Through the Cracks: I write about AI for my day job so I’m wondering: Do you use any computer vision or artificial intelligence in your forensics process?

Higgins: Not really, not today. The thing is when we’re looking at these images, we kind of are looking at really subtle parts of it or stuff that wouldn’t make sense that you can’t really train AI to do. But if you could get AI to detect certain cluster bombs in videos then it could help to sift through a lot of videos and I’m sure as there’s more and more conflicts, you’re going to be seeing an increasing amount of videos coming from those conflicts, we’re going to see a hell of a lot more information, and currently organizing that is a very manual process, which is good in one respect, but if the next big conflict produces 1,000 videos a day, you’re going to have to have an army of people doing that, and if there’s a way that AI can assist with that, we can train it now using a range of content from Syria showing all kinds of weapons and situations. If that can be used to train it I think that could be quite useful.

I mean maybe one day not too far into the future you can do the kind of massive investigations with the click of a mouse button, which is a fairly terrifying idea considering what we’ve been able to find out while doing it manually. If you look at the report we did on MH17 where we looked at the 53rd Air Defense Brigade and made all those connections, it’s about a year of work. If you can train AI to do that quickly then that has all kinds of massive implications about defense and security let alone investigations.

Through the Cracks: This is about the expansion of Bellingcat and your methods of open source investigation community. You have a history of investigating Syria and the Ukraine, but are there other areas you think you can do some long term investigative work?

Higgins: Yeah I think there’s a massive number of areas. We’ve actually just been working quietly on a project to do with financial corruption in the U.K. We’ll be releasing that hopefully this month, but that again is just using public record to examine a mechanism that’s been used. Basically we have massive volumes of corrupt payments and money laundering and it’s quite a complicated system but it’s all there if you look for it by digging through it and monitoring it we’ve actually learned a great deal, and that’s just one example.

that came to me because I speak to the director of the organized crime and corruption reporting project called Radu and he’s always been very keen on building networks of journalists across borders because as he says crime works across borders so journalists have to start working that way. That’s what we saw with the Panama Papers Project that we were heavily involved with.

What we’re trying to do is develop these networks of journalists, so we’re now looking at possibly doing some work in the Latin America region partly because it’s just such a rich environment for this kind of work but also because that’s a whole new language group that we can start producing material in to hopefully inspire people to actually do their own work.

I’ve also been discussing with some people in America about going to schools and teaching high school students how to do this and looking at much more local issues. Because there’s been at least one experiment where the teacher did that and they really were engaged and interested and they felt empowered by that and that’s kind of one thing I might . We look at these kind of big global conflicts but also I’m really interested in looking at local stuff and talking to people in an area so they start getting engaged about issues in their area. Because I think there’s a lot that this kind of work could offer. I think over time they’ve been disempowered because they kind of expect this to be something that a journalist does, but in fact you can do it on your own laptop in your own home.

Through the Cracks: Why have you chosen to go back to crowdfunding so many times? Were you able to find funding through other means?

Higgins: Well we found funding for specific projects but stuff like paying the rent I don’t get as much money to do, which is frustrating. Going to on-call funding means we can be more flexible about what we spend on. For example doing the trips like when I go to the Hague or Geneva and talk about how this is going to be used for this stuff, I don’t get any money for doing that so that has to be funded somehow, and it’s really important so it’s frustrating that we’re so in demand yet at the same time it’s hard to make money doing what we do.

Through the Cracks: In an age of fake news and other things happening in the world people feel why do you think it’s important that people feel they can jump into open source investigative work?

Higgins: Because it can teach you a lot about the world and actually make you feel that can change things. Rather than it just thinking that it’s your vote that counts to change things and you end up voting for someone you think is going to shake up the system when really you can do that from you own home nowadays. We’ve challenged the Russian government in ways thought completely unimaginable even five years ago so you can really change things and have real influence with this, and that’s why I think looking at small local issues is expandable.

I mean I saw some stuff happening around the Ferguson protests I wish I was aware of. I was so busy sorting out things in Syria but people documenting the kinds of non-lethal and less lethal munitions being employed and there was a link from those protests to protests we saw across the Middle East with the same kind of weaponry being used in those so there’s a whole interest in area around there that if I hadn’t known it before I’d probably have read a lot about it just how this was being done because to me that’s really interesting. Just gathering this data and preserving it and displaying it to the world can be very useful and that was just people on the ground taking photographs but I just think there’s so much you can do this and that

It’s really a tiny number of people that are doing this kind of work and yet they’re already making big discoveries and really informing people’s understanding at the very least and then actually having influence on how these things are treated in the future. Now we’re looking at this stuff being involved in criminal cases and justice and accountability. Hopefully we’ll see this stuff being used for the MH17 case when that concludes but I just think it’s a very empowering thing for people to do.

Through the Cracks: Who should consider getting involved in open source investigations?

Higgins: If you have an obsessive tendency and you like digging through stuff that’s a good place to start and there’s quite a lot of people like that. We do a lot of training and once people start getting into it and figuring out you can do a lot, and it’s not hard to do, you don’t have to be a super genius to do it. It’s quite straightforward. And when we show people how to do that they get excited and they get addicted to it. So it’s just finding those people and feeding their addiction to open source investigation and then they really get into it.

Through the Cracks: How big is the group of people is that’s involved with Bellingcat today?

Higgins: Well there’s different skills. I can actually afford to pay four members of staff now so we have two on the Middle East, one on Eastern Europe, and one on financial investigation. Then we have a team of about 15 volunteers that we kind of call the investigation team and work on Slack together and they’re mostly doing this in their spare time.

Then you have the wider Bellingcat audience on Twitter who get involved and we can crowdsource through them. We’ve done that in the past and that’s been very effective. I’d say there’s about 20 to 30 people there who are kind of the real people who get involved a lot with this but sometimes people put something out saying does anyone know where this is or know about the area and someone responds saying oh yeah I know where this is I walk by it every day, which we did when we were doing the ISIS social media campaign where the members were holding it with a piece of paper and taking photographs in Europe. There I just ask these people on Twitter if they can find it and within like an hour we all four of these photographs identified to the exact locations where they were taken that was Paris, the Netherlands, Munich in Germany and London.

Through the Cracks: So if someone wants to get involved they just go to the Bellingcat website and sign up?

Higgins: Well I actually wrote a post on my Kickstarter about this because I do get a lot of emails from people saying oh how do I volunteer? And you know can I intern and stuff like that and really what I say to them is just kind of do what I do and start their own blog perhaps. I mean you don’t have to share the posts. It’s just a good writing exercise to write down what you’re doing.

You can just say I found out where this video was filmed. And all these small things can add up to quite a large rapport of case studies. I would get on Twitter and just listen to people having discussions about this. You can go through videos we’ve shared on how people geolocate things and stuff like that. It’s just kind of choosing to get involved.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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