When open source investigation network Bellingcat launched off the back of a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, founder Eliot Higgins probably never imagined his work would eventually be cited by lawyers in the International Court of Justice.
But two and half years later, Bellingcat's fact checking expertise is in higher demand than ever, according to Higgins, prompting Bellingcat to launch a fresh campaign for funds so its work can continue. What with all the #fakenews that's been going around, is it any surprise?
"Fake news is, in a way, our baseline," Higgins told Motherboard over the phone. "We've been factually debunking stuff over the last two and a half years."
Bellingcat's name has been behind a number of high profile investigations over the last couple of years, including its spearheading of the investigation into the crash of Flight MH17, the collation of data regarding the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo, Syria, and collecting evidence on Russia's war in Ukraine. Bellingcat's main business, through all of this is, fact checking.
At the heart of these fact checking operations is a method called Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), which is essentially the use of publicly available information, such photos from social media, to aid in investigating events.
"Open source information can be so powerful," Higgins told Motherboard. "It's not just about one photograph, or one video, it's about the network of information that exists and exploring that network online." A prime example of OSINT at work is Bellingcat researcher Nick Waters' collation of images from Islamic State drone strikes. Pulled together, the images tell a bigger story about Islamic State's tactics than single images alone.
Higgins explained how his investigation into the Buk missile launcher linked to the downing of MH17 in Ukraine relied heavily on sourcing publicly available information from the internet. Bellingcat's own conclusions about how MH17 was shot down vary drastically from Russia's official statements.
"When that missile launcher was travelling through Ukraine, we had photographs shared online, people discussing the photographs, people tweeting about it. It created ripples, and what we try to do is identify them, and understand them in the context of all the other material. That gives us a very solid case."
But how does anyone make a start in contributing to an open source investigation? Motherboard asked Higgins how our readers could get involved with Bellingcat's work.
"The tools are out there. Satellite imagery is widely available on Google Earth, which is probably one of the primary tools we use," he replied. "There's really not too many fancy tools you need, it's really just a matter of doing it. I personally think even as a pastime it's very enjoyable, when you can be part of a community that's actually trying to sort fact from fiction. My advice for anyone doing it is do it because you enjoy doing it, and then the rest of it is a great reward."
Much of Higgins's work also includes teaching, lecturing, and giving workshops on investigation methods. Some of the money hoping to be raised through the Kickstarter campaign, some £60,000 ($70,000), will be used to expand these educational services, as well as the hiring of administrative assistants so Higgins himself can dedicate more time to investigations. Motherboard also asked Higgins if there were any plans to expand Bellingcat into a more journalistic service.
"In a way, we're moving away from that at the moment," Higgins replied. "We're still publishing articles, but what we're focusing on is not publishing an article as a journalistic endeavour, we're publishing it to summarise data we've collected from investigations into certain types of incidents."
Higgins said that organizations like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court are even interested in the work of Bellingcat and the wider applications for open source investigations, especially when it comes to legal work. "There's lots of questions raised, for instance, if you download a YouTube video, how is it used as evidence in 15 years time if the original video is deleted?" Higgins said. "We're looking now more towards the questioning of justice and accountability."
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