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Analogue dictators are no match for digital detectives

The Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Credit: Getty

The Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Credit: Getty

September 28, 2018   4 mins

Few industries have suffered as much digital disruption as the media, seeing powerful giants felled and old certainties shattered with phenomenal speed by a host of new players bursting out of start-ups. Consider the rise of Netflix, which at the turn of the century was renting out videos and today is valued at more than Disney; its increase in spend on content this year is much the same as the BBC’s entire annual spend.

In my own industry of newspapers, titles have seen advertising, sales and budgets crash. Most now fear for their survival, leaving journalists looking anxiously into the future and plotting potential escape routes. I spent 12 enjoyable years as deputy editor of The Independent, which was born amid great excitement the year after I began on a local paper yet has since disappeared as a physical product. A new City University analysis shows the impact of its retreat online – readership and global reach have increased, but time spent reading its content has plunged dramatically.

This is depressing. As a foreign reporter, I am fortunate to write for a title that still invests in journalism abroad. I hear often from colleagues on other papers, though, how budgets drastically restrict their work, especially when it involves travel. Yet as an optimist, I also see much to cheer – and not just from increased accountability in this unruly digital age. As one prominent investigative reporter reminded me this week, it is far easier to probe financial misdeeds when so much information is accessible from a computer rather than having to spend days trekking around libraries, offices and town halls to comb through files and official records.

Two recent exposes have given us further examples of how online data, combined with crowd-sourcing and cross-border collusion, is empowering journalism. In both cases, teams used readily-available information to demolish the lies of murderous regimes. Analogue dictators, even backed by the full power of states, are no match for smart investigators in the digital age. And they show how journalism is adapting to this turbulent era by finding transformative ways to break significant stories of global interest.

The first report was by BBC Africa into chilling atrocities captured on video that went viral on social media in July. The footage is horrific, showing soldiers leading away two women and two young children before shooting them. This is murder in the coldest of blood. It was thought to have taken place in Cameroon, although the government dismissed it as ‘fake news’ and some said it was from Mali. So Africa Eye began to investigate with journalists and freelance digital experts, using methods trialled on footage of soldiers burning villages in Cameroon’s Anglophone region.

They matched geographical details with satellite images to pin down the location after receiving a tip, then assessed shadows cast by the killers to tie down the date with a specialist app. They examined weapons and uniforms to prove the soldiers were from Cameroon, despite government denials, by matching them with pictures on Facebook. Social media even helped identify one man murdering a little girl. “Astonishing investigative journalism, which uses digital technology to amazing effect, cannot be championed or shared enough,” said Amol Rajan, the BBC media editor (and final editor of The Independent newspaper). He is right – and so far more than 55,000 people have shared BBC Africa’s thread on Twitter alone.

This technique adopted open-source investigative methods pioneered by Eliot Higgins, the 39-year-old founder of Bellingcat from Leicester. He started out when, bored in his administrative office job, he saw evidence on social media of ethnic cleansing in Libya that was being missed by journalists covering the 2011 war. “I saw all this information and thought I would begin writing about it,” he told me. “I had no idea if anyone would be interested.”

Originally blogging as Moses Brown, he helped create a form of citizen journalism collating crumbs of information from online sources to discover the truth about contested events. The spread of smart phones meant a sudden surge in information available online. Bellingcat’s work proved Russian links to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 – especially impressive having seen the shattered bodies strewn around wild flowers in fields as Vladimir Putin’s stooges strutted about and looted the corpses. Their work proving Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria was also stunning.

Now Bellingcat – with a team of 10 full-timers and 15 volunteers, backed by grants and crowdsourced funds – is assisting the International Criminal Court, while Higgins delivers workshops sharing his techniques with activists and journalists. He shows how to use satellite images to identify burned out towns and explains how to handle Middle East sources without speaking Arabic. And this week, in partnership with a Russian investigative site, we saw again the impact of his group’s painstaking methods with another bombshell expose that ripped apart the latest Putin lies.

In a superb fusion of old-fashioned journalism – relying on tips, sources and hunches – combined with sophisticated online search techniques, the investigators showed how one of the suspects in the Salisbury poisoning incident was not a civilian on a harmless tourist trip but a highly-decorated Russian officer. It made the Kremlin and its Russia Today propaganda station look ridiculous. Much of the information was sitting out there in the open, even in Russia. It just needed skilled people to harvest it, analyse it and share it with the world

It is another scoop of global importance, followed up on the front pages of British newspapers. It showed the strength of a collaborative form of investigative journalism that is now being taken up by traditional media from the BBC through to The Guardian.

As often with digital disruption, the big step forward came from an outsider. Amid all the fuss over fake news, the swirling mist of conspiracy theories and savagery of so much online debate, this serves as a reminder that we can cling on to some of that early optimism about the internet as a force for good. Such reporting shows technology offering hope as well as fear for those in my trade – and for those seeking truth in these tempestuous times.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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