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5 April 2021

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins: “A 16-year-old could do what I’m doing“

The head of the celebrated investigative website on open-source sleuthing, mistrust in governments and how to prevent online radicalisation.

By Sarah Manavis

“I’m quite an average person,” says Eliot Higgins, a husband and father working from home. Ten years ago, this might have been easy to believe: Higgins was working in a dead-end admin job, struggling with anxiety and spending his days debating with strangers on internet forums. Today, it is much less convincing, now that the 42-year-old is the head and founder of the renowned intelligence agency and investigative journalism website Bellingcat.

To date, Higgins and his team of paid staff can be credited with uncovering the culprits behind countless high-profile crimesThey have confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the role of Russia in downing the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, and the identities of the assassins who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018 – all of which are detailed in Higgins’s new book We Are Bellingcat.

Even if Bellingcat had access to confidential government files or had used techniques such as hacking, it would have been impressive that the team had managed to make these discoveries. But their work is all the more remarkable because they obtain most of their information through open-source material online.

Higgins first realised the power of open-source investigations during the Arab Spring in 2011, when he was able to compare publicly available videos and images from Libya to find out what was actually happening in the country. He wasn’t alone: there were dozens of people online using the same methods he had adopted.

Today, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Google Earth are the main tools in Higgins’s investigative arsenal. He and his team – a rag-tag group of digital vigilantes from all over the Western world – will spend weeks scrolling through footage posted on social media to find clues that might lead them to the truth. (Bellingcat found footage of the missile that took down the Malaysia Airlines plane being transported to and from its launch site via pictures and videos shared on Instagram and YouTube, and used the time and location of each post to track its progress.)

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“Every frame and every part of the image potentially has another clue that brings me closer to conclusions,” Higgins says. “You’re just digging for those small fragments of information.” When it comes to events such as the violence at the US Capitol – something Bellingcat is currently investigating – he says it’s more like having to put together “a 1,000-piece jigsaw instead of the usual 50-piece one”.

The extensive time commitment required to solve any of these investigations is striking, but each Bellingcat case suggests the truth is readily available to anyone willing to find it. “A 16-year-old could do what I’m doing – it’s not rocket science,” Higgins says. “It’s looking at images on the internet and playing spot the difference half the time.”

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Higgins believes the internet has fundamentally changed society and is concerned about the rapid rise of online radicalisation. “You see the same pattern of behaviour, whether it’s Flat Earther believers, Syria chemical weapon truthers, or QAnon people,” he says. “They find online communities that reinforce their own beliefs and, thanks to the way social media platforms work, they are constantly recommended this information and these counterfactual communities are created.

“It comes down to this core lacking of trust in traditional sources of authority, so people go online to find alternative sources. The issue really is, in my mind, not distrust in the government because of one particular issue, but distrust in the government. And that is a years-long issue.”

He adds: “Basically, governments need to be lying less and being honest more, which is fundamentally not what they’re very good at.”

[see also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]

Radicalisation prevention forms a large part of Bellingcat’s future strategy. “One of the current failings of society is that we don’t offer people an alternative place to go other than these conspiracy theory communities,” Higgins argues. Bellingcat is aiming to change this through its new volunteers’ section, which will teach users the Bellingcat methods of investigation, and help encourage people towards a more productive, safer part of the internet. “If you can sit down and do all kinds of horrible things on 8chan 12 hours a day, then you can certainly sit down and look at those webpages to find a little bit of the truth,” Higgins says.

Of course, Higgins doesn’t think everyone is going to go on to uncover international crimes using Bellingcat’s methods, but he believes open-source investigations could provide a sense of empowerment for internet users, in areas and issues as small or local as why bins aren’t being collected on time. (Last year, Higgins undertook an investigation to help someone find their stolen dog.) Otherwise, he says, it’s easy for people to slip into conspiracy-minded thinking, scrabbling for control over their lives. “If you’re 50 years old and you’ve never used the internet before, you can get dazzled by it,” he says, and references the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, “and [you can] find yourself suddenly saying a bunch of Satanic paedophiles are hiding out in the basement of a pizza parlour”.

For Higgins, it is those with real power who present the biggest obstacle to preventing radicalisation and misinformation online. “The people who are in the positions to actually do something – the policymakers, the donors – don’t understand the issue at a fundamental level,” he says. “It’s down to sheer luck if they make changes that are actually going to be useful and productive.

“They look at the problem through more traditional lenses, when we need to treat this as a completely different thing. The approach has to be completely new.”

We Are Bellingcat achieves what Higgins sets out to do: it makes what seems like the most impossible task completely accessible. Growing Bellingcat’s audience, and its potential pool of volunteers, is a crucial part of Higgins’s future strategy, which he hopes will be helped along by an upcoming six-part documentary about the website’s investigation into Russia’s chemical weapons programme.

Higgins is optimistic that this project, along with his book and the new volunteer base, will expand Bellingcat’s reach. “We’re tiny – we’re just 20 people. And we’ve got the entire internet to fight against,” he says.

Ultimately, Higgins wants to transform the opinion that the internet is somehow separate from “real life”. “We need to figure out how we engage with these online communities, rather than think of [them] as something separate from society.

“Until we start addressing that, we’re just going to keep making the same mistakes and things will get worse,” he says. “This is society now. The online world is society.”

[see also: NS Recommends: New books from Eliot Higgins, Matthew Kneale, Jane Smiley and Sam Mills]