Watch out for Bellingcat

Former blogger Brown Moses is trying to build his own type of investigative news operation

In November 2013, The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe called Eliot Higgins, an unemployed man from Leicester, England, “perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war” in Syria. As leading authorities go, Higgins, who used to blog under the pseudonym Brown Moses, is an unlikely one. He has never been to Syria or any other war zone. Yet he consistently identified which weapons were being used by which side (or rebel group) through the meticulous appraisal of photographs, satellite images, and YouTube videos, and the use of social media to seek information when he was uncertain. His work on the rocket fired into Ghouta in August 2013, widely remembered in the United States as the chemical attack that violated Barack Obama’s “red line,” was cited in a report on the incident by Human Rights Watch and helped prove that the culprit was almost certainly the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

At the end of The New Yorker piece, Higgins is quoted as saying, about whether others could emulate the model he has established, “Believe me, there are a lot of obsessive people out there who could probably put their passions to a more productive use.” His new project, a website called “Bellingcat,” initially funded via Kickstarter this summer, will give him a chance to prove his point. Higgins, who now publishes under his real name, is its most prolific contributor, but most of the other authors use similar investigate methods. While he says that the site gets as many as half a million visitors on high-traffic days, he adds, “I’m more interested in who reads it than how many.” In this sense, the site’s tagline, “by and for citizen investigative journalists,” is telling: Bellingcat articles are not noteworthy for their literary artistry or for an aspiration to mass digital appeal. They generally are rigorous, evidence-based examinations of extremely specific questions, such as the geolocation of the “June Russian Buk Convoy in Millerovo.”

While they may not be the kind of pieces most people want to read over their morning coffee, Higgins’ own work has repeatedly demonstrated that investigations like these can be extremely valuable in helping us understand complex subjects that would be highly dangerous or even impossible to cover on the ground. I exchanged emails with Higgins about the potential of “citizen journalism,” how he runs the site, how he hopes to sustain it, and what he wants it to eventually become.

What is the basic factor that distinguishes citizen journalists from professional journalists? That’s a hard one to answer, but in my experience I would say it gives people chance to experiment with things that might not be possible in the confines of a traditional news organization. For example, with my Ukraine work, I now have a team of eight volunteers working with me, and we get to try out all sorts of ideas and methods to investigate the conflict, working with a variety of organizations, and without too many concerns about having to produce X amount of material on a regular schedule.

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What hole in the media do you think citizen journalism can fill? There are things that can be done as part of investigations that aren’t particularly difficult, but require the sort of personality that finds it rewarding to dig through huge amounts of rubbish to find that rare piece of gold that adds something to an investigation. And when working with social media and open-source information, that’s a pretty key trait.

People tend to be skeptical of blogs or “amateur” reporting partly because it’s not connected to a brand they recognize, but also because there’s usually not as stringent a fact-checking or editing process as at many professional news organizations. You’ve managed to overcome this perception through your scrupulousness and record of accuracy. Do you view overcoming that perception as a problem for the other writers at Bellingcat? Whenever a contributor is writing a piece that involves open-source information and verifying content, I encourage them to be as transparent as possible about how they came to their conclusion. Anyone reading it should be able to look at the same information they’ve used for the article and understand how they came to their conclusion. One new tool we’ve started using recently is Meedan’s Checkdesk, which allows us to collaboratively and transparently verify content, and that’s something I’m hoping to encourage the use of among my contributors and my audience. The hope is that my audience will see the process of verification and investigation, learn from that, and participate, so they learn how verification works and become skilled investigators themselves.

Have you found a major error after publishing a story, or found someone to be untrustworthy after having initially trusted them? I’ve turned down articles in the past because I don’t feel I can understand how the potential contributor has come to their conclusions. I’ve a pretty vicious band of trolls who follow my activity closely, so failing to survive those seems to be the biggest obstacle contributors face.

What do you pay writers? How about yourself? For myself, I’m most reliant on money I make from doing workshops, lectures, and the occasional piece of consultancy work. Fortunately, Bellingcat is pretty cheap to run as it stands, although I’d really like to be in a position where I can hire full-time staff rather than relying on volunteers. As for contributors, currently they’re unpaid, but I soon plan to implement crowdfunding for individual contributors with Uncoverage, so readers can support their favorite Bellingcat contributors directly. I also have a pretty wide network of contacts in a variety of fields that allows for various opportunities for contributors, and I’m very keen to encourage those types of connections as it helps create new opportunities for them.

How do you plan to fund the site over the longterm? I’m looking into hopefully getting some sort of grants or other funding. I’d like to run Bellingcat as a nonprofit organization, especially as we combine an experimental approach to journalism with training for journalists and other organizations in the methods we’re developing.

You used to focus mainly on Syria. A lot of your work on Bellingcat has been focused on Ukraine. What was the reason for the shift? On July 17, I had a number of people on Twitter asking if I could geolocate videos of the Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed that day. As I did that, a number of other people were doing the same, and there ended up being this community of people who came together to examine the events of July 17. I then suggested we come together using the Slack platform, and there’s now nine of us doing open-source investigations on all kinds of things to do with Ukraine. We’re working on something I think will be very significant at the moment relating to Russian involvement in Ukraine, as well as a project that I hope will get many more people involved in the open-source investigation of the conflict.

Most pieces on the site are narrowly focused on the analysis of specific geolocations or weaponry. But there are some pieces–like the one on the drug war in Mexico–that are more general in their focus. Do you intend to publish more pieces like that? I’m trying to have a wider range of contributors who are doing different kinds of work. I’m personally moving toward larger investigative pieces that involve a lot more time and research to produce, but result in far more compelling work. Our report on MH17 [the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down over Ukraine] is really the first of the type of in-depth investigations I want to do, because it involves using a lot of different techniques, some of which we’ve developed, and reaches much further than the sort of work I was doing before.

What will the site become if it fulfills your ultimate ambition for it? Ultimately a huge global network of investigators exploring a wide range of topics, from conflict to corruption, with transferable skills and tools that can be quickly brought to bear, regardless of where a story is occurring in the world. I want the very idea of open-source information existing to put the fear of God into the sort of people who have something to hide, because they’ll know there’s a network of people primed to use it to expose what they’re trying to keep hidden.

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Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.