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Eliot Higgins: wielding the power of the internet to fight for facts
The man behind the open-source intelligence service Bellingcat is on a relentless quest for the truth. You can hear him speak at our New Year's Conference 2023.
The story of Eliot Higgins begins with a self-taught computer geek with social anxiety who managed to uncover such important security information that it is now used as evidence at the International Criminal Court.
Using open-source data – i.e., freely available, albeit often fragmented information online – the 43-year-old Englishman, along with a huge team of volunteer internet detectives, unveiled the rise of rebel forces in Libya and the use of weapons in Syria that had been smuggled from Croatia. He has uncovered the identities of the alleged perpetrators of the poisoning attempt on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia (Higgins' evidence is now also being used by the EU Centre for Human Rights in the case against the ringleaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague). And not least, he has helped to map the movements of Russian forces in Ukraine, among other things through the soldiers' freely available posts on social media.
Open source-data pays off
It all started when Eliot Higgins became unemployed in 2011 and spent much of his time behind the computer screen, consumed by the rise of rebel soldiers during the civil war in Libya. A rebel soldier's video of the rebel army's entry into the coastal city of Brega sowed the seeds of what later became "people's intelligence," Eliot Higgins' organisation Bellingcat.
The soldier's update on the takeover of Brega led to a number of accusations of fake news – because how do you fact-check information in an area where journalists have long since left, and there is a lack of impartial sources? Well, if you're Eliot Higgins, you meticulously compare the route the soldier takes on the video with data and satellite images from Google Maps and Google Earth. The data aligned, and Higgins was able to confirm that the soldier was indeed where he claimed to be.
The investigation continues
His success encouraged Higgins to continue his digital investigations, and two years later he revealed on his Twitter account under the alias Brown Moses that Croatian weapons were being smuggled into the Syrian rebel army by cross-referencing photos from the front line in Syria with data on the producers of the weapons in the photos.
The New York Times picked up on the story, and the reputable newspaper was soon able to share the information that the United States was involved in, or at least aware of, the secret arms deliveries. The result was a multiplication of Brown Moses' Twitter followers and far greater interest in Higgins' work.
Belling the cats
In 2014, Eliot Higgins founded Bellingcat, which conducts independent open-source investigation. The organisation is named after Aesop's fable "Belling the Cat" in which a group of mice work together to hang a bell around the cat's neck so he can no longer move around silently, ensuring their safety.
"That was it: our name and our mission. Belling the cats," Higgins writes in his book "We are Bellingcat" (2021).
In addition to investigative work, Bellingcat is also working on creating standardised techniques to archive online information so that the data can be used in future judicial processes, also in countries with more opaque legal systems.
Volunteers with a laptop and time to spare
Initially, Bellingcat consisted of Higgins and a global team of volunteers "with a laptop and time to spare," as he described it in Time magazine earlier this year. But today, Bellingcat consists of 18 full-time employees in addition to thousands of volunteer digital detectives. Bellingcat was founded as a charitable organisation and has received support from the EU and the US National Endowment For Democracy (supported by the US Congress). Today, just over a third of Bellingcat's funds come from awareness-raising activities such as lectures and workshops. Over the years, Bellingcat has won numerous awards and accolades for their research and journalistic work.
Bellingcat has particularly shown its worth in covering non-transparent political events. Prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it was obvious to everyone in the region that Russia was behind the unrest. But Moscow consistently denied that their troops were involved.
Here Bellingcat and its huge team of volunteers managed to confirm the movements of the Russian army across the border into Ukraine using satellite imagery. Later, Bellingcat was also able to uncover that – despite vehement denials from the Kremlin – Russia was behind the launch of the Buk missile that hit a Malaysian Airlines civilian flight over eastern Ukraine, killing 283 passengers, including 80 children.
“We basically broke down everything [the Russians] said and proved it was completely untrue. It took us several months,” Higgins told GQ in August 2021.
Truth with consequences
Higgins has often been compared to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But the two don't really have much in common. While Assange believes governments know the truth but hide it, and that it's his job to expose this, Higgins believes it's possible to uncover the truth through thorough scrutiny of available data — and it's his job to coordinate efforts.
However, the two men have one thing in common: both have to take certain precautions in the public sphere. Eliot Higgins, for example, no longer eats anything he didn't explicitly order when staying in a hotel, and has even hired a cupbearer. In addition to the assassinations, he is investigating under the auspices of Bellingcat, there have been a handful of attempts to assassinate him, according to the article in GQ. But that doesn't stop him from tirelessly scouring the farthest corners of the web with a single purpose: to get to the truth and spread the word.
You can read more about Bellingcat's fascinating work on the organisation's website, where the team presents both their techniques and their findings. Beware though, the site is a rabbit hole of exciting cases and can quickly swallow up an entire afternoon.
You can hear Eliot Higgins speak at our New Year's Conference 2023.