Information, Please: We Are Bellingcat


A career in IT was once seen as cool; not anymore, apparently. Latest surveys indicate that there’s been a fall in interest among the young just when job opportunities in the sector are climbing again.

That’s bad news for Eliot Higgins, but thankfully he has people with the passion, time and patience to uncover injustices all over the world. His company biography – really a work in progress – is ‘We Are Bellingcat’. It tells the utterly gripping story of the website that proposed a new way of intelligence gathering.

When investigative journalists assemble a news item they keep their sources close to protect their employers, but this lack of sharing paradoxically delays their work and limits its effectiveness. The self-taught Higgins, a Midlands admin guy with no professional journalistic background, realised that if information was scraped from everyone with a specialised or local interest, it could be patched together to form a bigger picture. The trick was making sure that the information supplied remained neutral and did not hail from covert special interest groups. You don’t want a denial about a Russian missile launch coming from a Russian propaganda site.

And it turns out this part was solved with relative ease; make your open-source investigations totally transparent and traceable. If you put up a story about an assassination someone else will attempt to discredit it – but only one of you will have true proof of source.

So it proved. The home-grown investigation unit has transformed the way we think about the gathering of information. Bellingcat has been involved in the tracking down of the Salisbury poisoners to the sourcing of weapons in Syria. It was instrumental in determining the fate of downed Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine, and it does so by using an extraordinary range of data analysis tools.

But more than that it’s about the people who contribute. Trying to find the location of a grainy photograph they’ll throw open the challenge and have thousands searching for a tree, a building, a street sign. Treating shadows like sundials, it’s possible to pinpoint the exact time when government killers stood casting shadows beside their victims. Armchair researchers turn out to have specialist skills; they can spot a fake uniform, a unique tattoo, a type of doorway, an awkwardly worded statement.

When the Salisbury poisoners tried to convince police that they had travelled to Salisbury just to see the cathedral’s ‘123-foot spire famed the world over’ they sounded as if they had memorised the text from Wikipedia. Small mistakes, invisible to the perpetrators of war crimes, aren’t enough to condemn them alone but form part of an increasingly clear picture.

The Bellingcat crew have to continually walk a tricky tightrope, but they’re driven by the knowledge that they have created something truly innovative to cut through the reams of misinformation thrown up by Trump and Putin. Russia turns up again and again, conducting covert assassinations around the world only to destroy their own credibility whenever they try to dismiss the charges.

Higgins was amazed by the lack of information reaching key investigators. With his help, backed by thousands of others dismissed by vested interests as freaks and geeks, the uncovering of dark war crimes has taken a step into the light. With the advent of deep fake AI the challenges will continue into the future.

In the upcoming Danish film ‘Riders of Justice’, a crime is uncovered by a group of overlooked basement-dwelling data-crunchers whose dedication can’t be matched by paid operatives. They clearly represent a new kind of hero. Tom Cruise’s days are numbered.

‘We Are Bellingcat’ by Eliot Higgins, is published by Bloomsbury.

13 comments on “Information, Please: We Are Bellingcat”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    A very positive sounding idea. How long before it is taken over and its value destroyed? Still, Wikipedia has survived so perhaps there’s hope. I think I’d like to see that Danish film.

  2. John Griffin says:

    You will find that one side of the security story consider Bellingcat as a security service project, pushing lines fed to them. Private Eye were similarly sceptical about a year ago. The Guardian was a similar project post Snowden.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm. Well, our library has We are Bellingcat so I’ve put a reserve but won’t get it till mid-April.

  4. admin says:

    I believe Higgins. There’s always condescension from professionals when they regard armchair experts but Higgins has the weight of numbers behind his methodology. It’s a thought-provoking read.

  5. Peter T says:

    I think Mr Bryant and Mr Holmes would love the idea. And I agree with them.

  6. Brooke says:

    Sorry, I’m missing something. “A career in IT was once seen as cool; not anymore, apparently.” Bellingcat is about using open sources to gather “information” and publish it for propaganda/journalism/political PR and the like. You don’t need to invest in IT thinking and credentials for that. You just need to be obsessive…and averse to shaving, hair cuts and office apparrel.

    It’s not weight of numbers–it’s how “reliable,” testible, replicable, the methodology is. With open source you can trace the thread; but you may not reach the same conclusions.

    The New Yorker did in-depth articles on Bellingcat investigations; available online. I think we’ll see ever more conspiracy theories and confusing junk journalism.

  7. Peter T says:

    Brooke, You’ve seriously zapped my initial enthusiasm. As always, take a nice idea and the nutters and manipulators move in.

  8. Paul C says:

    Bellingcat is a very attractive concept which I want to believe in – maybe we’re all too cynical these days. I never believe in any newspaper article (esp the Daily Mail) but the BBC does seem balanced despite constant sniping from the Tories.

    I will read this book and have a good think. Great recommendation. In the end you have to decide for yourself……….

  9. Brooke says:

    Apologies, Peter T. Ignore me…find the New Yorker articles and decide for yourself. It is a good idea and used by both mainstream and alternative journals here in US. As Chris pointed out, thanks in part to groups like Bellingcat, Don & Vlad were exposed.

  10. Brooke says:

    Following John G’s comment… Matt Kennard, founder of Declassified UK investigative journalism, recently posted a tweet about Bellingcat’s involvement in UK sponsored propaganda efforts.

  11. Peter T says:

    I’d hoped that something like Bellingcat would be a breath of fresh air. I’m disillusioned by the general quality of journalism. If journalists touch a subject where I’m knowledgeable, I almost invariably find the treatment at best superficial and most often inaccurate. The possibility of a spectacular headline, the apparent requirement to be even handed on the most stupid views, the absence of intelligent analysis, blindness to obvious lies and corruption and the propaganda of the powerful … I can do without all of it. The coverage of Brexit, Covid, the rubbish talked about vaccines is one continuity of lousy journalism.

    As if bad journalism isn’t enough, it’s all compounded by experts who too often aren’t experts, or who gove opinions driven by financial gain, prejudice or advantage on the academic ladder. I’d like to think that those little people, who sit by their computers for hours, shave only to go to the supermarket and shower only after their twice weekly run, might be intelligent truth seekers and might, just possibly, push back some of the lies and incompetence.

  12. eggsy says:

    Hear, hear, Peter T.
    Lack of hinterland knowledge – Journalists=writers=Eng.Lit. majors?
    Or we can blame subs and editors for “the great unwashed aren’t interested in anything technical” attitude and even a knowledgeable journo’s work is cut to ribbons.
    The Daily Mail gets a lot stick – with good reason – but it once had the best mass media article on antibiotics I have ever read. Why was it good? It wasn’t dumbed down.

    As to whether Bellingcat will be spoofed and spiked after its established itelf as a reputable source, why would the propagandists and conspiracy theorists bother with the effort when they can directly contact the masses through social media?

    A lot of the propaganda you see seems charmingly unsubtle and simplistic…but they’d want me to think that, wouldn’t they?

  13. Joel says:

    My big groan about journalism across all media is that doesn’t know when it is being scammed or misled. Apart from meeting its own political agenda, that is, which even the BBC has some of that. Blatant gaps and lies still occur in my former industry (I’m retired), while media swallows press releases or goes to an ‘informed spokesperson’ – it saves work.

    In the 2012 Olympics run-up, transport issues at Stratford [east London] were being discussed. I tried to raise issues with the BBC Panorama team preparing one programme but none of their ‘researchers’ knew what I was talking about and immediately showed deep disinterest. My point(s) could not be condensed into a soundbite, which is apparently the only way to treat modern audiences. Short answers only please: no wonder interviewers interrupt – they can’t understand, let alone tolerate a reasoned argument.

    A File on Four (BBC Radio 4) programme in 2005 [I have the transcript somewhere] let a spokesperson bullshine the interviewer – anyone inside the industry segment under scrutiny saw the deceit instantly. I’m not picking especially on the Beeb, these are just the two most blatant instances in my mind.

    If journos worked more on detail, they could expose a lot more than just the superficial issues.

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