The man holding Putin to account
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It was 2016 when I met Eliot Higgins in the huge courtyard of Somerset House, central London. He sat down next to me at a small, wrought-iron table; mid-thirties, bespectacled, in a pressed shirt and smart green trousers.

Four years earlier, Eliot been made redundant and went straight into the first job he could find: a temporary administration assistant for a lingerie manufacturing company based in Leicester. Life looks rather different now. Since then, he has found himself in the middle of the swirling, dangerous waters of geo-politics. He found evidence of cluster bombs in Damascus and those responsible for the downing of commercial airliner MH-17. And as of this month, Eliot and his colleagues claim they have uncovered the true identity of the would-be Skripal assassins, Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga and Dr Aleksandr Mishkin.

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“I had some time on my hands…” he began. Bored at work, and with Libya in upheaval, he started arguing on Guardian comment threads. He would get in to work at 7.30 every morning, and do a sweep of all the latest reports, and then post on the comments thread of each story, linking to additional information that supported or disputed the story. The difference was he turned to sources that most journalists at that time neglected and overlooked.

From shaky YouTube videos panning across dusty, arid landscapes to fighters posting grinning selfies on Twitter, the war was being chronicled online. Eliot saw that this new information often wasn’t forming part of the journalistic picture of the war that most people were seeing. “I got a reputation” he told me, “for being the first person to post every day with a list of links and other details I had gathered together.” It was a humble beginning. 

At the very end of 2012 Eliot had his first break. He was an obsessive and regular observer of the YouTube channels used by the Syrian opposition. “One”, Eliot said, “was a video of cluster bombs.” The Syrian government was denying that it was using cluster bombs in the conflict, and Eliot’s finding was first written about by human rights organisations and then the mainstream press.

Still combing through hours of YouTube footage, in the New Year of 2013, Eliot found another surprise. “I’d been watching videos from Syria every day and trying to ID new and interesting weapons and some stood out like a sore thumb,” he said. He collected them on a spreadsheet, looking for more videos from the same sources and taken from the area where the new weapons had appeared. He blogged about it, and a week later Eliot received a call from the New York Times. They had been following up what Eliot had found, and realised it was a huge story.

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The weapons were Croatian, and officials had admitted to the newspaper that they were part of a smuggling operation. It was the first real evidence of a foreign nation arming the Syrian rebels. Rather than running on the blog, on 25 February 2013, the New York Times ran Eliot’s discovery, acknowledging him, on their front page.

Then, on 17 July 2014, a Boeing 777 disappeared mid-flight somewhere over eastern Ukraine. Operating as Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, its remains were found shortly after. The MH-17 had crashed, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.

The day of the crash, amid the furious accusations that Russia and Ukraine were already throwing at each other, Eliot wrote a post on his blog, Brown Moses. He had found a single video, quickly taken down after the crash, that showed, in the far distance, a squat green military-looking vehicle slowly driving up a two-lane road. Eliot thought the vehicle in the video was a BUK missile launcher, a military anti-aircraft weapon capable of downing a civilian airliner. He shared the video, and the network of like-minded people who had gathered around him sprang into action. They called themselves the Bellingcat Investigation Team, or BIT.

BIT spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours poring over videos and photos looking for other sightings of the BUK launcher. A picture dated the day of the crash captured it rumbling along a road on the back of a red low-loader lorry. One of their biggest tasks was to work out the exact time and location of these sightings, and an investigator followed the same route virtually, somehow discovering the precise location by finding the same combination of power wires, poles, cables and the silhouette of the treetops. It was in the city of Donetsk, one of the major sites of fighting during the war.

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It was exactly this painstaking and forensic research – wading through satellite imagery, tallying the location of bins, plotting the layout of pathways – that led to further sightings tracking the BUK’s progress. Month after month, they laboriously built up a picture of what had happened. Through this intricate, detailed form of online detective work, they developed a good idea of where the BUK came from and where it went afterwards.

For three years, BIT kept on the story pursuing not only the BUK but also the military personnel they thought were on the convoy. Eliot was interviewed as a witness by the Joint Investigation Team, the international task force set up to investigate the tragedy. Then on May 24, 2018, the Joint Investigation Team released their conclusion – and it was the same as Bellingcat’s.

Eliot’s story and his rise represents something even bigger than the revelations he has helped uncover. It is a story about how the Fourth Estate is being both destroyed and reborn.

It shows how social media has completely transformed journalism. Eliot tapped into the wealth of ‘open source’ information that digital networking platforms make available, meaning that citizen investigators can, at times, know more about what is happening than a war correspondent shouting dispatches to the camera above the sound of shelling.

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And the power of BIT’s revelations was revealed in the subsequent attempts to smother the truth and undermine the people who were looking for it. On an anniversary of the downing of MH-17, a series of blogs sprang up, he told me, offering ‘revelations’ and insults against Bellingcat. A series of apparently volunteer Russian investigators formed into something called ‘anti-Bellingcat’, alleging that they’d falsified online sources.

A network of mainstream media sites, paid propagandists, unpaid fellow travellers and bots were ready to pump out information calling Eliot’s findings into question. This was information warfare, a digital extension of the actual warfare Bellingcat exposes.

Eliot and his fellow citizen investigators started out at a time when traditional newspapers were experiencing a painful commercial emasculation. British newspaper ad spend had fallen from $4.7 billion in 2000 to $2.6 billion by 2015. Over roughly the same period, the number of journalists in the UK shrank by one third, and 181 local newspapers in the UK had shut down. The journalists that survived often had to write ten times more stories than they used to, with little time for exhaustive investigative work.

Or to put it another way, just when militaries began to understand that wars had information at their heart, journalism was at its weakest ebb. Elliot was entering a world where state-sponsored actors were increasingly masquerading as journalists and members of the public, yet mainstream media had fewer journalists to hold them to account.

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Bellingcat isn’t, of course, doing anything that professional journalists can’t. They don’t have special skills or technology that are unavailable to others. In this world swollen with information, they have one precious asset that professional journalists too often lack. Something that was probably more important than anything else in telling the difference between good and bad information, and especially bad information masquerading as good: time. In that sense Bellingcat is a return to the basic art of journalism – tracking down the truth has always been time-consuming, tedious graft.

The journalism of the future will increasingly be about helping readers navigate the terrible information – and outright disinformation – that exists online. A journalist’s role will be as much about verifying and curating information as generating it, and the tools and methods that Eliot and Bellingcat have so visibly showcased point the way. But while the essence of investigative journalism hasn’t changed, who can do it has. For it is increasingly people outside of commercial news who have the time it takes to chase the truth down.

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