How Bellingcat is transforming investigative journalism

In just six years a small team of investigators at the Bellingcat website have chalked up some remarkable achievements. One was their naming of Russian agents who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal with Novichok in Britain – followed, a couple of years later, by identifying those behind a similar attack on the Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in Siberia.

Other investigations have included the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, airstrikes against civilians in Yemen, and the activities of far-right agitators in the United States.

In reporting stories like these Bellingcat has often led the way, leaving better-resourced news organisations, and sometimes even intelligence agencies, to follow. So what is the secret of its success?

The short answer is that there's no secret. The evidence Bellingcat uncovered was available for anyone who took the trouble to look – in postings on social media, in leaked databases, satellite images and other online resources. How Bellingcat made use of it is described in a new book by the organisation's founder, Eliot Higgins, whose detective work began in the English city of Leicester, sitting at home on a sofa with his laptop.

Higgins' book, We Are Bellingcat, is due to be published on February 4.

The book's subtitle is "An Intelligence Agency for the People" but Bellingcat is really a mixture of things. "We are not exactly journalists, nor human-rights activists, nor computer scientists, nor archivists, nor academic researchers, nor criminal investigators, but at the nexus of all those disciplines," Higgins writes.

That is probably one of the reasons for its effectiveness. Not being tied to any particular discipline has allowed it to develop new ways of gathering information, and in the long run its pioneering of these techniques may prove more significant than the outcome of individual investigations.

Rich pickings online

Journalism is one area where Bellingcat's activities have broken new ground. The vast amount of information that's stored online means traditional investigative methods are now often inadequate. Bellingcat not only tapped into these neglected sources but demonstrated what could be achieved by making systematic use of them.

Some of the larger news organisations have begun to recognise the value of this but, while gathering evidence online is easy enough, making sense of it can be a laborious task involving techniques that most reporters are unfamiliar with.

In the early days Higgins struggled to convince people that the internet, despite all the rubbish it contained, could also be used as a source for countering disinformation.

"When I started, ‘online’ was synonymous with ‘less significant’ and ‘less valid’," Higgins writes. He was often mocked on social media for his lack of any particular qualification and for his place of work – what could he possibly discover about Russia or Syria from his sofa in Leicester?

Among those reluctant to take online sources seriously was Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East reporter who died last year. Fisk not only refused to use the internet but repeatedly boasted about not using it. "To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility," he railed in 2008. "We should stop drinking this digital poison" (2013); "Our addiction to the internet is as harmful as any drug" (2014); "A problem of the internet is it allows anyone to dispense with the ethical rules of journalism" (2015).

As a self-declared non-user of the internet, Fisk claimed to have discovered its perils from print-outs of web pages supplied by friends. He did, however, admit to using email – though apparently only for communicating with his editor.

Fisk's dismissive attitude towards the internet is not altogether surprising since he was a prime example of the reporter-on-the-spot style of journalism, venturing into war zones armed with a notebook. But valuable as that can be, it also has limitations. A reporter can only be in one spot at a time and in conflict zones access is often restricted. These days, more information can often be gleaned by monitoring photos and videos posted online by members of the public whose mobile phones have turned them into reporters.

"Today, when journalists cover hard-to-access conflict zones," Higgins says in his book, "they are negligent if they overlook the mountains of online evidence. Traditional reporting is still irreplaceable, but it is incomplete."

Where on earth is that?

One of the techniques used extensively by Bellingcat is geolocation – identifying the spot where a photo was taken or a video was filmed. Careful examination often reveals clues in the form of landmarks or geographical features. Once a site has been located on a map compass points can be used to glean other information. The direction of shadows, for example, can indicate the time of day when a photo was taken. Remains of a rocket with its nose buried in soil can reveal the direction it was fired from.

Higgins often encourages others to try their hand at geolocation and the photo below is one that he posted online as a challenge to Twitter users. The photo was taken from a plane just after landing and posted at 5.24 pm on March 4, 2016. The challenge set by Higgins was to identify the airport.

<a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Click to enlarge</a>

At first glance the photo doesn't appear very promising but a closer look shows the airport is a busy one. There are several planes in the distance with their lights on, queuing up for takeoff. The sun is also low on the horizon and, based on Twitter's late-afternoon timestamp, we can deduce that it is about to set.

That narrows the possibilities considerably: we are looking for a major airport at a latitude where the sun would be setting shortly after 5.24 pm on March 4. London seems a likely possibility and a quick check on Google confirms that sunset there on the day in question was just a few minutes later, at 5.47 pm.

Enlarging the photo also shows a building (in the distance, on the right) with a distinctive type of roof. Another Google search, this time for photos of airport terminals in London, shows it is the roof of Terminal 2 at London Heathrow.

Tracking a Russian missile launcher

One of Bellingcat's most striking geolocation achievements – described in detail in the book – was tracking the movements of a Russian Buk missile launcher implicated in the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

The attack occurred in an area controlled by pro-Russsian separatists where, fortunately for Bellingcat, locals were in the habit of photographing and videoing the separatists’ military hardware. By geolocating images they had posted on social media Bellingcat managed to reconstruct the Buk's journey from Russia into Ukraine and back again ... minus one of its missiles.

The initial breakthrough came with a photo circulated online showing the Buk on the back of a transporter somewhere in eastern Ukraine – an area controlled by the pro-Russsian separatists. The only clue to its exact location was a shop nearby with a blurred sign in Russian lettering partly obscured by a tree.

A Russian missile launcher photographed in eastern Ukraine. The blurred shop sign provided a clue to its exact location.

One of Higgins' Twitter followers – Aric Toler, based in the US but with a knowledge of Russian – set about tracking it down. Toler quickly identified the sign as belonging to a chain of hardware shops. It was then a matter of searching for addresses and photos of its branches in order to find the right one.

For Higgins, the important thing about this – apart from the actual discovery – was that Toler had located the Buk without any specialised skills beyond his knowledge of Russian. When funds allowed, Toler became the first person to join Higgins on Bellingcat's staff.

A clash of methodologies

The conflict in Syria provided an interesting example of how traditional reporting can go awry if it fails to take online evidence into account.

Seymour Hersh is an American investigative reporter with a formidable reputation. A Pulitzer prize winner, he had exposed the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam back in 1969 and, more recently, the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Hersh built his reputation with startling reports based on claims from anonymous but apparently well-placed sources. That served him well in the pre-internet age but his reputation suffered during the Syrian conflict with a series of flawed articles disputing the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.

His Syria investigations followed the familiar pattern but fell apart because his reliance on anonymous contacts seems to have blinded him to other information that was already available from open sources.

In August 2013 hundreds of people died when two rebel-held districts in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus were attacked with the nerve agent sarin. Given that these areas were under attack from the Assad regime's forces and that the regime had previously admitted possessing chemical weapons, there was one very obvious suspect.

Three months after the attack, however, the London Review of Books published a 5,000-word article by Hersh suggesting rebel fighters were the real culprits. Hersh quoted an unnamed "senior intelligence consultant" as saying that an al-Qaeda group active in Syria "understood the science of producing sarin" but he offered no evidence that rebels had actually produced or acquired any. Hersh also raised issues about the rockets used in the attack, describing them as "an improvised munition" – implying they were not of a type that would be used by government forces.

Raising questions that were already answered

Bellingcat had not yet come into existence but Higgins – blogging under the name Brown Moses – had been collecting images of weaponry used in the conflict and the indications were that the rockets used in the sarin attack had come from the regime's arsenal.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine Higgins responded to the questions Hersh had raised. "Hersh is apparently unaware that there’s a growing body of evidence that answers these questions." he wrote. "Much of that evidence comes from the Syrian military itself – and it very strongly suggests that it was Assad’s cronies, not the rebels, who carried out the August 21 attack." He continued:

"Since the attack, myself and others have been studying the vast amount of open-source information posted online on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which has provided many more pieces of evidence about what happened in the Damascus suburbs that day. This information not only answers many of the questions Hersh’s article raises, but has also provided a much greater understanding of other events in the Syrian conflict."

The evidence compiled by Higgins and others had been much discussed on social media – to the extent that anyone searching online for information about the events in Ghouta could scarcely have been unaware of it. But apparently Hersh hadn't noticed. "[I] am a luddite and do little on the internet," he wrote later in an email.

Had he been less reluctant to use the internet Hersh might also have carried out reality checks on things his intelligence-linked contacts were telling him. A few minutes' research on sarin, for example, would have shown the near-impossibility that rebel fighters – or indeed anyone other than a government – could have manufactured and weaponised it in the quantities needed for the Ghouta attack.

In another of his Syria articles, about an alleged sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, Hersh quoted an unnamed "senior adviser to the American intelligence community" as saying no chemical attack had taken place. Instead, the article suggested Syrian forces had accidentally hit a store of "fertilisers, disinfectants and other goods" with a conventional bomb causing "effects similar to those of sarin". Again, a few checks online would have shown that from a scientific point of view this was nonsense.

Removing the mystique

The clash of methodologies pitching Higgins against Hersh also points to something much more fundamental: the way technology is changing the relationship between journalists and the public, and blurring the lines between the two.

The old style – of which Hersh is a leading exponent – is remote and elitist. It builds a mystique around the process and creates a barrier between the reporter and the public. While the public may be impressed by the reporter's access to hush-hush sources it rarely leaves them in a position to evaluate the evidence for themselves.

The Bellingcat way is the opposite of that: collaborative, egalitarian and, above all, transparent. People can see how its investigators reach their conclusions: there is no need to take the word of anonymous intelligence sources.

Bellingcat doesn't claim a monopoly on its techniques – it encourages others to use them too. It has partnered with news organisations in some of its investigations. It runs paid-for training workshops and there's a growing list of online tutorials on its website – among them tips for using face-recognition software and reverse image searches, for verifying the affiliation of fighters in photos of conflicts, for tracking the movement of aircraft, and so on.

Spreading knowledge of these techniques, and encouraging other to use them, is one of Bellingcat's less-noticed activities but in an era of disinformation it's vital.