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.