Interview with Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat

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Credit: Marius Nyheim Kristoffersen

Verifying missile launchers, tracking down ISIS supporters and holding worldwide governments to account is just a day’s work for 36-year-old Eliot Higgins.

Last time I met Higgins, an independent intelligence analyst, he was giving a talk about his work with Bellingcat, the investigative news network he founded in 2012. It was this network that trawled the internet’s vast and polluted reservoir of publicly accessible material to track down the Russian-owned missile-launcher that took down the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014.

This time, it’s me doing the tracking, struggling to find Higgins on the hectic roundabout at Old Street station. I eventually spot him standing next to a telephone booth squinting through his glasses, in a Matrix-style black coat.

We only have fifteen minutes but there’s an excitement in Higgins’ eyes as he talks about his work, while easing into his chair. Ordering a Coke, he laughs at how he’s been trying to avoid caffeine.

Bellingcat formed after Higgins’ personal blog, Brown Moses, attracted huge attention as he was able to uncover war atrocities, such as the use of cluster bombs, from the comfort of his home in Leicester. It was the readily available nature of open source tools that prompted Higgins to start Bellingcat and form a network where others were able to learn how to use such tools in their own investigations.

I ask him what his proudest moment is with Bellingcat since his formation. He screws up his face a little, “Hiring people is a lot of fun”, he says. “If it wasn’t for what we did, we would have had this whole narrative of [the] Russian government [claiming to intervene in Syria only to fight ISIS, and not prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime] that wouldn’t have been challenged,” he explained.. “And, you know, there are families involved who are being lied to by the Russian government and without us, there would have been no push back.”

“For me, a lot of what we do is about accountability and justice and working with international organisations on that.”

Though the website states it is by and for “citizen investigative journalists”, and many news outlets, including the Financial Times, call its founder a “citizen journalist”, Higgins himself is uneasy about the label.

Shuffling in his seat, he explains: “It’s not citizen journalism. It’s not just about conflict or journalism. It’s about all kinds of different areas. From my perspective, the work we do is not about journalism: it’s about the research and getting it [the findings and tools] to people that can actually do something with it.”

“For me, a lot of what we do is about accountability and justice and working with international organisations on that.”

While Higgins wants to distance Bellingcat from being purely journalistic, the network’s handful of contributors definitely shares a hack’s mind-set, utilising publicly available tools, such as Google Earth and social media, to investigate atrocities abroad.

Credit: SKUP 2015, Marius Nyheim Kristoffersen

Three years after the network shot to fame by solving the MH17 mystery, it now covers all corners of the Earth and is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. This was made clear last November, when Higgins quashed the Russian government’s denials over the bombing of a hospital in Syria. By comparing satellite and on-ground photographs from 2014 to 2016, he was able to show specific areas that were in fact damaged by bombing.

Bellingcat also drew huge media attention after using social media to track down ISIS supporters. Most recently investigators used archived Facebook profile and geo-located social media photos to hunt the Berlin Christmas market attack suspect.

“We thought it would be impossible. Within an hour we had the exact location”

When I ask him about how Bellingcat uses social media in their investigations, he blushes, admitting that they recently caused a “minor panic” in Holland, after the network asked its Twitter followers to geo-locate a photograph found on an online community consisting of ISIS supporters. He laughs, shaking his head as he notices my eyes widen: “It’s nothing urgent or scary. We had one photograph [and] we just wanted to know where it was because it looked like it was in Europe. So we put it out on Twitter, asking if people could help geo-locate it.

“We thought it would be impossible. Within an hour we had the exact location: in a holiday park in Holland. The police showed up at the holiday park and the poor manager had to come out in the middle of the night.”

This brings our conversation to online privacy, as I noted that day he asked his 49k strong Twitter followers about Donald Trump. He says, with a cheeky glint in his eye: “My Twitter page looks like I do a lot online. But if I’m away, I won’t share when I’m actually away. If I post a picture of my time abroad it’s often a week after I’ve actually been there.”

He adds, laughing: It amazes me that people keep their Instagram profiles public. Who needs likes that much?”

I keep my own settings to myself as he stands up to leave, shaking my hand and plonking the Coke can on the table. At that point, I sadly decide it’s time to change my Instagram settings to private.

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