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Citizen Journalists Are Banding Together to Fact-Check Online News

Eliot Higgins, aka UK blogger Brown Moses, is launching a new site to teach citizen journalists how to use open source tools in investigations.
Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses. Image: Eliot Higgins

The internet, for all its benefits of spreading knowledge, is also saturated with disinformation. Right now, for instance, images are flooding in from social media that claim to accurately document the destruction taking place in Gaza. But according to the BBC, some of these date from years ago or actually show scenes from Syria or Iraq, and the organisation has urged people to verify images before sharing them.

This is old news to citizen journalist Brown Moses, who made his name crowdsourcing information in conflict zones, such as analysing weapons in Syria. “It's quite incredible for me to see images from 'Gaza' and recognising that half of them are coming from Syria,” he told me. But he isn't on the ground, checking the facts. Instead, he does it all from his front room in Leicester, England.


Brown Moses, or Eliot Higgins to use his AFK name, makes use of social media, open source tools, and public information to verify details that news organizations can miss. Today, he's launching a site to pool his and others knowledge together in one place.

According to Higgins' blog, the "Bellingcat" site will include tutorials and contributions from himself and some of his favourite writers who use similar open source techniques. A Kickstarter campaign for the site launches today.

Higgins explained that he had found a lot of speakers at journalism conferences would cover new online tools, such as getting the most from social media, confirming the geolocation of a photo, or using publicly available databases, but would rarely actually implement them. “It just seems these aren't being brought together to create great work,” he said.

Bellingcat will also include interviews with designers of the technology, so people can learn directly from the developers, with audio, video and text being used. “I'm keen to use different mediums to get the point across about these things,” said Higgins.

The sort of tools that will be included on Bellingcat include the Investigative Dashboard, which allows users to search business databases from all over the world using just one interface. Amnesty International's Citizen Evidence Lab is used to verify information, and Higgins is hoping also to integrate Meedan's Checkdesk—another verification tool—into the site.

As a citizen journalist and not a media organization, Higgins has turned to Kickstarter for funding and aims to raise £47,000 ($80,500). This is to maintain basic running costs for at least six months. But “it's not just about asking for money,” he said. “It's not about saying we've got these techniques and hide them away from people; it's about sharing as widely as possible.”

The idea is to build upon the crowdsourcing methods that Higgins has already developed. People will come to the site, learn something new, and then hopefully apply it to their own country or area of interest. “There are plenty of other people out there. They just need to be shown how to do it.”

“There's always a lot of talk of engagement with the community, and that usually comes down to having a comment section on a blog,” said Higgings. He intends to go beyond that, and encourage people to do something new. “There are examples of war criminals being exposed because of open source information. People just have to be shown that they can find this information themselves and actually do something with it.”

In a time when internet fakes seem to occur weekly, the more people that actively take part in filtering content for the truth, the better.