A Conversation with Bellingcat Founder & Creative Director, Eliot Higgins

A Conversation with Bellingcat Founder & Creative Director, Eliot Higgins

Bellingcat is an independent investigative collective composed of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists, all united by a shared fervour for open-source research. Having been established in 2014, the collective has blazed a trail in the realm of open-source research methods, investigating a vast array of topics of public interest. The subjects they have probed into span from the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine to police brutality in Colombia and the unlawful wildlife trade in the UAE. Their meticulous research frequently finds mention in international media and has been quoted by numerous courts and investigative missions. The Bellingcat team not only designs but also disseminates verifiable methodologies of ethical digital investigation. By circulating guides to open-source research methods and conducting bespoke training sessions for journalists, human rights activists, and the general public, they are expanding the scope and application of open-source research. Bellingcat’s Global Authentication Project (GAP) aims to leverage the potency of the open source community by fostering and endorsing a network of volunteer investigators. In addition, their Justice & Accountability unit endeavours to illustrate the feasibility of online open source information in judicial processes.

In this interview, I speak to Eliot Higgins, the Founder & Creative Director of Bellingcat. Eliot was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Global Thinkers in 2019 and one of Politico Europe’s top 28 most influential people in Europe in the “Disrupters” category in 2021. He was also awarded the Hanns Joachim Friedrichs Award for excellence in journalism in 2015.   In 2022, he was awarded the Swedish based Monismanien Prize for freedom of speech. He is the author of ‘We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People‘ (paperback -2022), a Sunday Times best seller.

Q: Why did Bellingcat need to exist?

[Eliot Higgins]: From around 2007 onwards, a new era dawned, marked by the widespread adoption of smartphones, essentially equipping every person with a sensor device. In tandem, social media platforms proliferated, facilitating incessant information sharing. Concurrently, Google services like Earth and Street View began to provide unprecedented access to geospatial data, granting us both the means and the method to verify a plethora of information.

However, by 2011, a catalogue of events revolving around open-source investigations had already left the media industry wary, thanks to a series of trust breaches. Perhaps one of the most infamous instances was the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog, ostensibly a Syrian woman’s narrative but in fact, a fabrication by an American man. This incident, among others, fostered a deep scepticism about the authenticity of online content.

That’s where my journey began. I noted how footage from conflict zones, such as Libya, was being extensively discussed or debated by conspiracy theorists and forum users, while the mainstream media largely ignored it. Realising this, I devised a set of verification procedures, which would later become the foundation of Bellingcat. The timing of our launch was serendipitous, coinciding with the MH17 incident that unfolded just a few days later.

Q:  What is open-source research?

[Eliot Higgins]: Open-source research pivots on the use of publicly accessible material, and the narrative has drastically shifted in the past decade, owing to the sheer volume of such material now available. The vast landscape of information, ranging from personal shares to more sophisticated resources like satellite imagery from Google Earth and Maps, empowers the public to authenticate images, an advantage previously unavailable.

This access has significantly altered what individuals and communities can accomplish, challenging traditional power dynamics. It’s essentially a democratic revolution, wresting control from the conventional gatekeepers like intelligence agencies and the media. A case in point is Bellingcat’s breakthrough investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. We meticulously traced the path of the missile launcher responsible for MH17’s demise, from its launch site to its origin at a Russian missile base.

Leveraging the culprits’ own social media profiles, we managed to profile the soldiers involved, their ranks, positions, and roles in the operation. This investigation is a testament to the degree of detail achievable through open-source research. Currently, we’re witnessing an evolution in this field, particularly regarding Ukraine, where evidence unearthed is being incorporated into legal procedures. This transition signifies a monumental shift in the realm of investigations.

Q:  How viable is open-source research in judicial process?

[Eliot Higgins]: For the past four years, we’ve been concentrating on one crucial question: How can we transform the concepts and techniques we’ve developed into viable tools for legal proceedings? Much of this endeavour involves conducting in-depth, meticulously documented investigations. As this is a novel approach, it hasn’t undergone extensive testing yet. However, there’s a definite receptiveness to this methodology within the justice and accountability circles, including human rights organizations, investigators, prosecutors, and even international courts.

Q: How do you ensure open-source research is not falling prey to fake content?

[Eliot Higgins]: At its core, our process is about rigorous triangulation, often involving a multitude of diverse sources. A crucial aspect of any photograph or video verification is geolocation. In the realm of open-source investigations, geolocation entails using supplementary reference material, such as satellite imagery, street view imagery, or other people’s photos, to ascertain the exact location where a photo or video was shot. Until you can connect an image to a specific incident under investigation, it doesn’t hold much value.

For instance, while AI can generate images that appear real, it cannot create convincing backgrounds that can be geolocated, since they do not correspond to actual places. Yet, there are other factors to consider. In our investigation into MH-17, we identified numerous images and videos of the missile launcher. Within those, we could analyze aspects like shadows to determine the time of day the photos were taken. We also found independent social media posts from individuals who had seen it, and journalists on the ground were able to gather testimonies from local residents. Hence, each piece of data we draw upon undergoes a thorough, multifaceted verification process.

Q: What has been the role of transparency in the success of Bellingcat?

[Eliot Higgins]:  Open-source evidence is essentially public information available to anyone and can be traced back to its original source. We’ve always maintained transparency in our methodologies and the step-by-step processes we employ to validate an image or investigate. Thus, our work can be reverse engineered. If there are any flaws in our methodology, they’re readily apparent. However, this transparency also enables others to contribute additional information.

When I began, I was merely another amateur blogger exploring this field, so I didn’t presume to know everything. But I was able to share my findings as comprehensively as possible, inviting others to supplement my research with their insights and knowledge. This innate collaborative framework is embedded into our investigative process.

We encourage others to build upon our work because our goal is to unravel the truth that lies within the information we gather. If someone can take our findings and draw out additional insights, we consider it a triumph. Our aim is to constantly enhance our understanding of the world, and contributions from others are invaluable in this pursuit.

[Vikas: And has the diversity and scale of your researchers been a big part of this?]

[Eliot Higgins]:  This approach served as a true force multiplier, particularly in the initial stages. During that time, many of my interactions were with experts from various fields. What we managed to do was to bring these people together. I soon realized that human rights advocates, arms experts, and policy makers, despite their different fields, were all driven by the same curiosity and thirst for more information, each bringing their unique perspective to the table.

However, these people weren’t necessarily communicating with each other because they weren’t aware of their counterparts. As a neutral intermediary, I attracted people from diverse fields, and beyond just interacting and learning from them, I facilitated connections between them. This synergy not only expanded our knowledge pool but also fostered a vibrant network of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Q:  What are some of the ethical considerations of open-source research?

[Eliot Higgins]: We base our work on publicly available information, typically sourced from individuals’ social media accounts. This approach, however, can present potential risks to those sharing information. For instance, if someone consistently films artillery strikes from their home, not only can we geolocate where the strikes are occurring, but we can also pinpoint the filmer’s residence. If an unfriendly state actor would rather not have such footage made public, they could easily direct their artillery towards the identified filming location. This situation underscores the importance of witness protection.

Furthermore, we also prioritize victim protection. Our investigations cover a wide array of topics, often related to conflict, and occasionally involving gender-based and sexual violence. It’s critical to ensure that we do not revictimize individuals by republishing certain materials. Consequently, we make careful decisions about what to publish. While some materials are open source and readily available, we refrain from sharing links to potentially traumatic content.

Moreover, we must consider the risk of vicarious trauma. Viewing disturbing imagery online can indeed have a psychological impact, and we need to account for that. At Bellingcat, we regularly face a plethora of ethical dilemmas. To navigate these, we have established an ethics council that deliberates and makes decisions on such matters.

Q: Has your organisation therefore come onto the radar of state-actors?

[Eliot Higgins]: Over the years, we’ve certainly been on Russia’s radar. I personally experienced this when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, sued me for libel in the UK courts after I tweeted about his connection to Wagner before he had acknowledged it. I emerged victorious, but only because Prigozhin withdrew due to failing to submit the required paperwork in time. Clearly, this underscores the need for heightened vigilance and caution in our work.

However, there’s another dimension to consider. In certain countries, journalists face threats and pressure from their own governments, making their work exceedingly challenging. Yet, by building a global network of individuals, we can connect with these journalists and offer them support. This approach not only provides them protection from threats they might face in their home countries but also strengthens their standing when they are targeted. With a network capable of amplifying their cause, they gain an additional layer of safety. This is the power of collective action in safeguarding individuals within our network.

Q: How can philanthropists support the work of Bellingcat?

[Eliot Higgins]:  Currently, Bellingcat operates as a charity based in the Netherlands. We generate a portion of our income through both public and private workshops we host. So far, we’ve trained around 7,000 to 8,000 people in these workshops, and the impact has been tremendous. More and more news organizations and NGOs are establishing their own open source teams, most of which have received training from Bellingcat at some point, illustrating our influence in this space.

Lately, much of our work involves legal accountability. Our fundraising efforts in 2022, for instance, focused on Ukraine and the development of legal evidence—a mission that proved successful. However, our techniques can be applied in numerous other areas.

Currently, we are concentrating on the far-right movements in Europe, expanding our work in Latin America, and preparing to extend our reach into the US, particularly within colleges, universities, and journalism schools. Initially, my plan was to collaborate with local, independent media in the US, but I quickly realized the unfortunate scarcity of such entities. As a result, we’re starting our expansion through journalism schools.

At Bellingcat, our investigative approach goes beyond merely publishing findings on our website. We strive to build coalitions of organizations, each with its own interests and goals, which converge on a specific investigation. An illustrative example is our involvement in the investigations into Mediterranean border pushbacks implicating Frontex and the Greek coast guards.

In this case, we teamed up with Lighthouse Reports, a small Dutch NGO that focuses on such issues. We also collaborated with Spiegel and Japanese news outlets to reach diverse audiences in their local languages. Other members of the coalition were advocacy-focused groups.

While open-source evidence was the common thread binding us, each organization contributed its own unique resources and more traditional investigative methods. Each entity retained the liberty to publish independently, thereby reaching different audiences.

A coalition approach enables us to attack the issue from multiple directions, creating a more potent pressure. A single article on a website doesn’t exert much influence. However, when multiple organizations are reporting on the matter, offering civil society, media, and legal perspectives, the pressure mounts.

In the case of Frontex, our collaborative efforts led to an investigation by the European Union, which resulted in the resignation of the head of Frontex and an overhaul of the organization. The key is to create these pressure points, and by collaborating, you open more opportunities to do that. It is not about just publishing an article and moving on. The issue remains in focus, allowing for sustained pressure.

Q: What worries you about our world today, and what gives you hope?

[Eliot Higgins]:  In essence, our focus on legal accountability underscores the vast amount of information available, not just related to Ukraine, but to numerous conflicts worldwide that often don’t receive as much attention. Nevertheless, such evidence continues to be produced.

I wouldn’t say there’s a single issue that worries me. However, in the short term, the most pressing concerns revolve around global warming and environmental issues. While open source can contribute to a certain extent, its impact in this area is somewhat limited.

When it comes to conflicts, however, there’s a wealth of opportunities for advancing legal accountability. Seeing our accomplishments with Ukraine, the processes we’ve established, the interest it has sparked, and how we can impart these methods to other organizations beyond the Ukrainian context, it fills me with optimism about the prospects of accountability in the future.

This concept can extend well beyond conflicts alone. While that is a substantial area of focus, we can also apply our approach to crime and corruption, and issues concerning the far right, for instance. I find a lot of hope in how this methodology is being embraced. Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen many major organizations establishing open-source investigation units to bolster their operations. This is indicative of considerable potential, and as we continue to broaden our horizons, I believe we can accomplish much more with it.

Q: What have you been most proud of in your work? 

[Eliot Higgins]: There are several projects I am particularly proud of, the work on justice and accountability being one of them. The process we’ve developed there has had significant implications. Notably, our investigation into MH-17 played a crucial role as it truly brought open-source investigation into the limelight across various fields, effectuating a profound change in the world.

Sometimes, it’s even the smaller projects that leave an indelible impact. Around two years ago, I assisted an organization dedicated to finding lost or stolen dogs. In a mere two hours, we managed to recover three stolen dogs. For the third case, we didn’t even need to intervene. After successfully locating the first two dogs swiftly, the organization we were collaborating with warned the individuals involved about our capabilities. Intimidated, they returned the dog promptly, eliminating the need for further action. While it might seem trivial compared to war crimes – investigations that could span 10-20 years before yielding a result – this was a personal triumph for me. Being able to effect change within 24 hours can be quite rewarding.

In a way, I view our work as creating a hostile environment for such malicious activities to thrive. It’s not just about Bellingcat leading the way, but about training other organizations to take the reins. In the dog-napping case, where our intervention was no longer necessary, I saw a glimpse of the ideal scenario we are striving for. Bellingcat doesn’t need to be involved in every case; in fact, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a Bellingcat because people would already be employing these methods themselves. That’s why we dedicate so much time to training others in these techniques, as it’s ultimately about decentralizing this power we hold.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Eliot Higgins]:  I feel fortunate to already witness a significant part of the legacy I hope to leave behind. The global media’s reporting on the conflict in Ukraine has significantly been influenced by Bellingcat’s work over the past eight years. I’ve had direct conversations with individuals from these media organizations who told me, “Our unit exists because Bellingcat paved the path.” That acknowledgment, in my view, is a testament to the lasting impact of our work. I firmly believe that this influence isn’t going to dissipate but will continue to persist and shape the future. So, in essence, that’s the legacy I envisage.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.