With his open-source website Bellingcat, journalist Eliot Higgins has uncovered the story behind the Skripal poisonings, flight MH17, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Now, he’s taking his investigations to the next level.

With his open-source website Bellingcat, journalist Eliot Higgins has uncovered the story behind the Skripal poisonings, flight MH17, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Now, he’s taking his investigations to the next level.

At the opening of Hans Pool’s documentary Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World, a Michel Foucault quote flashes up on the screen: “Truth does not belong to the order of power but shares an original affinity with freedom.” It is an apt opening statement for a film that follows Eliot Higgins, a man arguably obsessed with the pursuit of “truth” and facts.

In 2012, Higgins founded Bellingcat, a website that publishes the work of his band of curious volunteers who use open source information online to hold the world’s superpowers to account. The self-appointed investigative journalists use tools like Google Earth and social media to ensure the truth is reported in a world awash with fake news, propaganda and cash-strapped media outlets. CNN might have tried to dismiss Higgins as a “stay-at-home Mr Mom”, but Bellingcat has uncovered the culprits behind the Skripal poisonings, proved that Russia downed flight MH17, and identified violent protestors carrying out racist attacks at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

Higgins is at the forefront of a revolutionary way of investigating and recording criminal activity – so much so, that he has been approached by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to lend his expertise. Bellingcat has also just received a large amount of funding to set up its first permanent office in The Hague, where Higgins hopes they can start training others in open source investigating in earnest.

But away from all the glitz and glamour of international press briefings, TED talks, and meetings with the United Nations, Higgins’ endgame is still to find out what really happened – where did those weapons come from? Who really dropped that bomb? Is Salisbury cathedral really a hot spot for Russian tourists? Over the phone from his home in Leicester, Higgins speaks to Huck about the future of open source investigating.   

At what point did you realise there was the need for something like Bellingcat to exist?
It was a slow process. In 2013, I could see that there was an increase in interest in open source investigations, and there were a small number of people doing it, but not really getting the same attention I was, which in itself wasn’t that much. I wanted to create a new website that would give those people a place to come together, publish their work and take advantage of my own reputation, whilst also publishing guides and case studies to show people how to do it themselves.

Did you notice that there were some discrepancies in what the mainstream media was reporting?
I initially started because I was looking at what was happening in Libya back in 2011 and I noticed a couple of things. One was that people couldn’t really agree on whether a video was authentic or not, so I wondered if there were ways that I could fact check it. The second thing was that I saw journalists on the ground in Libya who were seeing something and then tweeting about it, but then it wouldn’t make it into any of their reporting. Often, when I combined that tweet with other information coming from the ground, there was something interesting that I always thought would be worth writing about.

In the doc you talk about having an obsessive type of personality – do you think you absolutely need to be wired that way to be a good investigative journalist?
When it comes to these online open-source investigations, it helps because you have to dig through a vast amount of material before you find the thing you are looking for. So, if you aren’t able to do that, then you are not going to find those really interesting bits of information.

You have a great team of volunteers around you – why do you think people join you?
I think for the most part they are just really interested in the topics they are looking in to. There is this puzzle solving aspect to what we do as well, so it is very engaging for the right personality. I don’t think that many of the people we work with are approaching topics from an activist kind of viewpoint. Often with the topics we are discussing like Syria or the Ukraine, the people who are really into it have picked a side and are trying to make a point. But with Bellingcat most people aren’t really like that at all, they are interested in the investigation and understanding stuff more than anything.

Is political neutrality important then?
Everyone has opinions, but there are people I see all the time who are very, very strongly one-sided and they will completely ignore evidence. They aren’t people I want to work with. I want people who – even if they have an opinion on a subject – want to see the truth, not what supports their viewpoint.

But do people view you as a political organisation?
We have just published a piece on Venezuela about the trucks that were burnt on the border. It was quite interesting because some of our detractors like to think we are a massive tool of western imperialism, but this piece went against the line being pushed by the US and the US officials that the government burnt the trucks. This really confused the detractors because they like to project their own strident political viewpoints on to our work and assume we think in the same way, and really we don’t.

How does Bellingcat continue as an independent accountability stick when you need money to survive? How do you maintain your integrity?
We get our funding from two sources; either grants from foundations or from workshops. We plan to have a membership system soon that will hopefully add another good stream of revenue. If any funder came to me and said “we want you to write this thing” I’d say “no” and then I’d probably write about them asking me to do that, because that’s not an acceptable request. We are funded to do projects in areas, but we have no editorial input from any organisation that funds us. 

Your work is very helpful to authorities, but do you ever find they want you to keep your noses out?
On the Skripal case, I heard through the grapevine that one member of the cabinet was annoyed about us revealing the identity of the suspects because it put pressure on them to do stuff. In the case of the MH17 investigation, as we were doing research and identifying suspects, we shared that with the investigation team ahead of time so they had the chance to preserve any evidence and also let us know if there would be problems with the investigation if we named an individual. The last thing we want to do is actually cause a criminal investigation to collapse because of something we have published. If the government said “please don’t publish this thing” and didn’t provide a good reason for us not to do it, then we would ignore them. This has never been the case, but I don’t know if it will be in the future.

In recent years there has been a rise in concern over how much information is available online, but this information is obviously very useful to you – do you ever feel conflicted about using it?
I think the issue is how data is used. With Bellingcat, everything we do is very manual. Facebook collects massive amounts of data without people even realising that data is being collected. I don’t think that is acceptable. But people choose to share information about themselves up to a point. It is not like we can do all the tricks Facebook can with gathering information about people – it’s just us clicking on links and photographs and figuring stuff out. It is automation that is the biggest difference between what we do and the way in which these big social media companies collect massive amounts of data about everyone.

Where is Bellingcat at now?
We have been planning to open an office in the Hague for a while, and we have just got half a million euros of funding from the Dutch postcode lottery. That will allow us to have a base for our administrative functions. Bellingcat has grown a lot – the team has grown from six members of staff this time last year to 16 members of staff. We have developed a process – in conjunction with lawyers – for investigating and archiving open-source evidence that can be preserved and then used in courts. So, we are going to be working on a local training project where we’ll be working with a whole range of local individuals and organisations to train them how to do open source investigations with a focus on the local issues that affect their lives. We’ll be training students, professors, academics and activists in Amsterdam to do investigations focused on Amsterdam. Our hope is to start growing this grassroots movement of open source investigators in the Netherlands who are initially focused on local issues. I think it could be a very effective way of spreading the use of open source investigation.

In the documentary, you talk about the fact Bellingcat has forced you to do all sorts of new things that you’d never imagined you’d do. Has there ever been a moment when you felt you have really achieved something special?
In a way, it’s what’s happening now with the opening of a new office, because everything we have done has led to this moment. The ideas we have developed, the community we have built, all the fundraising – it has all led us to this moment where we can do this big, important project that I think will really have an impact on the way open source investigation is done in the future.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World screens at Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Thursday 14 March, Barbican London, 6:15pm, followed by a Q+A with Eliot Higgins and director Hans Pool. 

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