We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Detectives, and the Bold Future of Information
By Eliot Higgins
The author of the new book We are BellingcatEliot Higgins, a college dropout, is a former obsessive World of Warcraft online gamer and stay-at-home dad who is apparently among the least likely to influence contemporary international relations, and yet he did. In the 272-page book, Higgins gives us an interwoven story about himself, his newfound passion that redefined his life, and the (still-evolving) Bellingcat online investigative organization it grew into. Higgins has since become a much sought-after commentator by global news organizations, has been a visiting research associate at Kings College London and the University of California, Berkeley, and has direct relations with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The work roughly covers the period from 2011 to mid-2020, chronicling some of the organization’s major achievements, such as its groundbreaking investigations into the Russian chemical agent attack in Salisbury, England; the Russian crash of flight MH17 over Ukraine; and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. Bellingcat, by the time the book was completed, is characterized as “an international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media surveys to probe some of the world’s most pressing issues” (blurb ). Paid member staff number in the tens, with a vast network of unpaid volunteers with varying levels of distributed collaborative access. The staff and core contributor group use an “internal Slack message board” (p.70) for larger projects with additional collaborations. outer rings and channels extending further into the network. It’s far from Higgin Brown mosses blogging days (before July 2014).
The introduction begins with the March 2018 Novichok attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, discusses the rise of social mistrust in the digital age as well as the need to counter it with OSINT (open source intelligence), and how Bellingcat represents “an intelligence agency for the people” (p.8). We are Bellingcat is divided into five main chapters. The first chapter, Revolution on a laptop, recounts Higgins’ online activity in early 2011 as an Arab Spring Observer and how he became a “truth seeker” (i.e. a digital sleuth) first posted to the Guardian live blog site, then later on his Brown Mosses site. Higgins stumbles upon online investigative techniques around this time, begins to create a distributed network of experts with whom he can interact, and gains esoteric expertise related to weapons used in Syria, such as barrel bombs. The transition of Higgins’ organization from its ad hoc past when Flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian Buk missile launcher in July 2014 is explained in Chapter Two, Become Bellingcat. The investigation of the incident is widely discussed, as well as how it helped shape the future of Bellingcat.
The third chapter, Facts firewall, highlights the fight against the ‘digital dystopia’ resulting from the rise of authoritarian and associated entities that have created a counterfactual online campaign against the truth and how those who oppose it (especially networks of empowered individuals) can determine the real facts in order to create a protective “firewall” against them. The investigation into the Novichok attack in Salisbury is the focus of Chapter Four, Mice catch the cat, as well as its direct links to the Russian GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the various forms of backfire that may arise for Bellingcat investigators (i.e. physical and digital threats and PTSD. The Final Chapter, Next steps, explores the exploitation of social media recordings via systems activated by AI (artificial intelligence), the dangers of AI linked to “deepfakes” and “synthetic media”, using new software (i.e. i.e. Hunchly), and highlighting new innovative Bellingcat initiatives and partnerships.
The essence of the book is that it relates the revolt of amateurs …the mouse; who have become empowered individuals – against predators –bad cats; authoritarian states (and groups like the Islamic State), which are the perpetrators of heinous crimes. At the same time, these empowered mice attempt to provide support to intelligence professionals and agencies associated with good cats– democratic states, which seem totally incapable of using new types of 21st open source business of the century. Within this struggle, authoritarian states and their associated “bad guys” have created a “counterfactual community” (pp.114-122) as a social media strategy to enable them to achieve impunity for their immoral physical activities. For example, the Russian disinformation campaign is centered on the “4D approach: reject, distort, distract, dismay” according to the analysis of Ben Nimmo (currently Global IO Threat Intel Lead at Facebook) (p.75) . To counter this community and its techniques, the Bellingcat approach is based on the following mission statement:
• Identify problems both overlooked and detectable online.
• Check all evidence, and never indulge in speculation.
• Amplify what we learn, while amplifying the field as a whole (p.60).
This developed over time as Higgins’ thinking shifted from a reactive to a proactive one – in an effort to alleviate human suffering – after his coverage of the Houla massacre in Syria in May 2012 (p .27). Also, one of the nice approaches taken in the book is for Higgins to openly give credit where it’s due. While he may be recognized as the mouse that actually “made the cat ring the bell,” when it comes to the brain behind the creation and growth of his organization, he recognizes the contributions of many of his associates to the endeavor. global and the various projects that the organization has been involved in.
The style of the book is journalistic in nature which makes it better and more enjoyable to read. As such, it caters to a more general audience as opposed to an academic market. Higgins is portrayed as a Steve Jobs-style visionary, an underdog with the game against him who has the motivation and work ethic of a fanatic, ultimately for good causes. While he does not fully embrace the myth of the archetypal hero’s journey as expressed by Joseph campbell in The hero with a thousand faces, the work exudes an air of nobility and bravery, especially with increasingly pronounced physical threats against Higgins and his associates. Some, however, may be immediately put off by the book’s narrative and cynically see it as a marketing ploy on the part of the author whose group is primarily funded by grants.
While Higgins has had great success in its innovative approach to online investigation (focused on the use of open source and social media), OSINT (open source intelligence) – both physical and digital – has been capitalized since at least the 1990s by progressive entities. for counter-terrorism purposes. Therefore, Higgins did not “discover the wheel” so to speak (and he does not seem to claim it), but perfected his own survey / OSINT model using distributed collaboration tools, a wide area network of its staff and volunteers, and a new generation of online programs and applications (Google Earth & 3D, SunCalc, TrueCaller, Check, et al.) creatively applied. Notes, except in a dozen cases, are simply URLs (uniform resource locators, which are unactivated hyperlinks in the physical version) with no other citation information provided. These won’t age well and create source verification issues down the line. Considering the importance of social media, image interpretation and geolocation analysis, any photo gallery would have been welcome as well, but for some reason it was not included in work. However, the overall reviews of the job are minor.
In summary, We are Bellingcat provides a sometimes captivating ‘cloak and dagger’ display in a new form of criminal and humanitarian crime investigation. The work is easy and enjoyable to read and well priced. This can be seen as how citizens living in democracies – and in some cases authoritarian states – can help tackle the harmful activities perpetrated by 21st villains of the century as characterized in earlier works such as Like war, Playing with the enemy, and The war in 140 characters. The book will be of interest to academics and the general public alike who focus on social media and its relationship to fake news and disinformation.
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