The future of online investigations with Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins
Terry Pattar: Hello, and welcome to this Episode of the Janes Podcast. I'm joined on this episode by Eliot Higgins from Bellingcat. Eliot, thanks for joining us.
Eliot Higgins: Thanks for having me on.
Terry Pattar: So obviously you've been doing some really impressive work at Bellingcat and we talked about that in the past, but in particular there's a couple of things I think we wanted to talk about on this episode. One in particular is the book that you've got out now, which is We Are Bellingcat. I like the way that you've characterized Bellingcat as the people's intelligence agency. It'd be good to get your thoughts on that as well, but yeah, I mean, what was the Genesis really behind the book and why put out the book?
Eliot Higgins: Well, I've been asked to write a book in 2016, but I didn't really feel like it was a good time to do that because I still felt there was a lot already going on with the kind of development of online open source investigation. Around came 2018 and we did our story on the Skripal investigation, and I was approached again. It just seems like a better time, because at that moment we just started moving into looking at the use of online open source investigation and evidence in justice and accountability. It kind of gone from what was started as my hobby to something that was now being considered as free use in court, so I thought it was a good time to kind of summarize where Bellingcat came from, the development of kind of the whole field and what kind of the future held for online open- source investigation.
Terry Pattar: I would agree it's a good point in time at which to do it. Do you feel like you've now reached a point where the sort of vision of what Bellingcat is, has sort of coalesced to a point where actually you've sort of really framed it?
Eliot Higgins: Yeah, I think over the last two years in particular, we've gone through quite a lot of rapid growth because at the end of from 2018, I started turning it into a more professional organization. We went from my kind of blog with me doing all the kind of admin and finance along with everything else to having like a business director who then set Bellingcat up as a foundation in the Netherlands. We're basically now a charity in the Netherlands. We hired a lot more staff. We went from six staff members up to about 20 that we have now. We expanded a lot in that period of time. As part of that, we really had to think about what Bellingcat was, which is even from my perspective is a difficult question because we're often seen as like a journalism organization, but we do so much more than that. Because we're dealing with what is effectively evidence we are exploring how the evidence can be used now for justice and accountability, because ultimately the kind of goal of Bellingcat is to have as much impact with our work as possible. That means engaging very differently with a whole range of actors than you would if you were a journalist, because we don't want to just like write a story and put it out there. We want to see if we can actually make change because of those stories, work with partners and kind of approach this problem, I guess, from different angles and hope there can be real effective change from it.
Terry Pattar: Do you see yourself as being fairly stable now or do you see there being more kind growth coming up for Bellingcat or more change?
Eliot Higgins: Well, we're doing a lot of work to give ourselves a stable base for growth. Now we've gone through this whole process of professionalization. It's like now we have yearly audits and stuff like that, so we have to be very careful about how Bellingcat is run as an organization. But part of that was because we wanted to have more transparency about how we're funding. Because as you know we get constantly accused of taking money from MM5, the CIA... all the three letter agencies, and we just want it to be a bit clearer about that. Plus it's helped us to have more kind of better organizational structure for our staff, so it's kind of clear what they're doing. But now I'm personally working a lot now on setting up Bellingcat's production company, because we get a lot of interest in our work from people who want to make documentaries about it even like drama series sometimes. We wanted to kind of more control of that, so we're now setting up a production company and we're hoping to start signing some deals quite soon to produce documentaries based of our investigations.
Terry Pattar: That will be excellent I think to watch. Yeah, definitely. It's an interesting development, I guess then from going from the online sort of information in terms of your website, et cetera, and all of that to then going on to a more video- based and a documentary type output, so yeah, that'll be one for us all to watch I think. In terms of, I mentioned earlier the sort of way you've kind of characterized Bellingcat in the book as being an intelligence agency by the people for the people, to what extent is that the driving force for Bellingcat? How much do you see that being a large part of what you're about?
Eliot Higgins: Well for me, I mean even in the very early days when I started doing what I was doing, I was always part of online communities. I was always kind of doing it to inform people and do it using evidence- based investigations. But as time has progressed and kind of the network around Bellingcat has grown both in our kind of audience and the people we work with, I see this just increasing value of collaboration, involving people from a whole range of backgrounds. And not just professional backgrounds, but inaudible from social media, they've all been a big contributor to the work that we've done with Bellingcat. For me, the future of Bellingcat is continue to build those networks and connecting people, and looking at the way online discourses kind of turns to conspiracy theories and what that's kind of led to in Washington DC, it started this year. I think there needs to be a kind of counter movement that kind of counter- culture to that kind of conspiratorial mindset. I think one way to develop that is engaging people with these kinds of investigations. It doesn't have to be about Russian assassinations and Syrian war crimes. It can be more local issues, where I think often in this world we feel we're so detached from politics and even locally our kind of local community, that that might be a way to reengage with it. Feel you've actually are empowered to change things that affect you directly rather than being drawn into conspiracy theories and nonsense online.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. I mean, that's certainly something you've noticed that's grown a huge amount. I think the way you've described in the book that Bellingcat started off by being very much based on putting out evidence and showing where you've got your information from, and crowdsourcing as well. So that you're happy to take people correcting you or perhaps, or sort of asking questions about where did you get this from? How have you verified it, et cetera, and actually verifying information is, is more vital than ever really isn't it? That information environment, the way it's gone over the last years what's your sense for where that might go in the next year or two?
Eliot Higgins: Well, I think here we do nothing and we just sit back and hope democracy is going to be fine, as long as we just keep on going. I think we're... that's definitely not going to happen. I mean, the thing with the internet is people are being drawn together in communities that do kind of draw them into different kinds of conspiracy theories, not everyone, but there is a significant proportion of people. When we have the situation like we have in the US when mainstream politicians are using that for their own political gain, that's extremely dangerous. But when there's no kind of counterforce to that, I think as well, we miss an opportunity to actually have a great benefit to society by engaging people in these kinds of investigations. I think there could be a real positive benefit for actually showing just ordinary people that they can be part of something like this. They still need to be... have direction. I mean, we don't want the kind of online mobs going after people like we've seen in the wake of the January 6 violence in Washington, DC. I think there's better ways of doing it. But I think we have to do something because if we don't do anything, it's just going to get worse. It's not going to get better. We can't just sit back and think it's business as usual. Maybe we have to kind of reassess our relationship with different kinds of organizations, our relationships with politicians. It's been very interesting for me doing this work, how our kind of evidence- based investigations have actually been very useful for policymakers, politicians who actually want to make change because they feel that there's actual evidence they can use to build their opinions on them. By engaging with them and talking to them, they find a way forwards. I mean, it doesn't work every single time. I mean, politicians are politicians, but it gives us an extra way to actually engage rather than feeling you're always in opposition to people. I think we need to find ways where we actually have similar views. I have my own political viewpoint, but that doesn't mean that people on kind of the opposite end of the political spectrum, to me, at least the central part of the inaudible not the file left or right as they seem to be in opposition to me a lot. There are people you can talk to those people and work with, even if you don't agree with them on every single issue. I think we need to stop thinking about people and this is unfortunately what the inset does as our enemies, because they might disagree with us on one issue or another, because I don't think that's a very healthy way to run a society.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, no, I couldn't agree more. In terms of the online discourse being broken up into sort of various tribes I guess, or people having different allegiances, I think we'd all agree that it's been an unhealthy development. It's interesting, you see that your work as being vital to helping prevent that. I'm sort of in part thinking about some of the things you described in the book in terms of not necessarily your relationship, but how you sort of compare yourself or contrast yourself really, and Bellingcat with traditional journalism. Do you feel like the way that journalism has gone over the last decade or maybe even longer that actually it's made the problem worse or it's sort of set the scene or laid the groundwork or however you want to characterize it for the kind of current online information environment we're dealing with, and that somehow your work is correcting that imbalance almost?
Eliot Higgins: I think to an extent, but I think there's a kind of big ear issue. I think there's an increase in lack of trust in authority and often that's because of certain big moments that have occurred. The buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was I think a very significant moment. A lot of the communities that appear online who kind of promote conspiracy theories around things like the conflict in Syria, or the downing of MH17 often cite that moment as a reason, not to trust the mainstream authority. Then they use that to basically reject all mainstream authorities so they can kind of have their conspiracy frees reinforced. Don't forget that I'm saying they believe in conspiracy theories, but they personally they think they're seeking the truth, and that we're the ones who are kind of trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. I think more of it is a kind of a erosion of trust at the typical sources of, traditional sources of authority. That's not really being replaced by anything it's being replaced really for most people by kind of online communities. Some of those online communities kind of basically lead people to become radicalized. There's been such a kind of foot focus of the Internet's role on the Islamic extremism and radicalization, but I think the same processes take place on a whole range of communities from people who think the earth is flat, to deny chemical weapons attack in Syria are happening. I think it's the same kind of mechanisms that are behind that. You can go on YouTube and click one video that says the earth is flat and it will recommend you another one. You might click on that. You might not click on it, but someone else might, and that person might keep clicking, and then they're drawn into these kind of alternative media ecosystems because the way social media and tech platform works is to find stuff that they think you want to watch. If you're inclined to believe conspiracy theories, you're going to find plenty of them online. I think what's a more worrying thing that's happening now is we have all these separate online communities who believe in conspiracy theories that have been drawn together. You see that I noticed in particular with the kind of Syria MH17 truthers and coronavirus conspiracy theories, because they've started moving into that territory because it's obviously such a huge story internationally, and that's drawing those kinds of people in contact with the kind of alternative health kind of conspiracy minded folks. You start getting this kind of one big group who believes in conspiracy theories. I think you've seen something very similar to that happening in the US with the various movements that have arisen around Donald Trump. The people who believe in satanic pedophiles running the world, or Q being real or that or the Democrats wants to overthrow the election. In a sense, there are separate kind of groups there, but they're kind of being drawn together by the way in which that election was kind of attacked by the Republican party and by Donald Trump. If we aren't aware of that, and I honestly don't think many people are, we can't solve the problem. Because when I talk to policy makers... I was speaking at the European parliament recently, and it was all about bots and Russian influence, not about the kind of damage that we're doing to ourselves as a society. Until we recognize that, I don't think there's any chance of actually taking the problem seriously and stopping it from becoming worse.
Terry Pattar: There's couple things there. One I liked in the book and what you just hinted out there, which is that you've drawn a direct line between some of those key events that have taken place over the last 20 years from the Iraq war two in 2011, the journalists phone hacking scandal we had in the UK, to other events which as you said over the years of, of eroded public trust in authorities and actually where we get information from, or have done in the past such as newspapers, et cetera. But then how do you feel like we bring that back and how do we break people out of these kind of online communities where the conspiracy theories are being fostered and spread?
Eliot Higgins: I think the big problem is, is that you can't really get people out of those communities. Once they're in there, they believe it. They believe that anyone against them is part of a conspiracy against them and against the world. Once you're kind of sucked into that, it's a real problem. I think what we need to do is first of all, kind of offer an alternative place for people to go when they... They want to know more about certain subject. Currently, if you say, are really interested in Palestinian issues, often the loudest voices there are connected to more conspiratorial thinking about other topics like Syria, for example. You're going to be drawn into that community because there's no alternative. But if you can start creating communities that are focused on these issues, that are working more in the Bellingcat way of analyzing the evidence, working collaboratively, connecting people to different sorts of communities that can help them understand what they're looking at and empowering them in that way, then they aren't going to be drawn into these alternative communities. But currently we don't offer an alternative as a society, as a culture. Until we start doing that, we can't be surprised that if someone's really interested in an issue that might not have a lot of mainstream coverage, they're going to find this alternative media and information ecosystems, and they're completely absorbed with them. Some of them are going to become increasingly radicalized until they believe in all sorts of things that are just not based on the truth.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. Within that atmosphere and those online environments, it is difficult to break into them, isn't it, and get people to think differently and to sort of accept that there could be alternative explanations to what they might believe and to actually look at the evidence. What about in terms of... and you mentioned this in the book as well, but in terms of the level of impact you can have, or Bellingcat can have, or other organizations can have by putting out sort of information that is thoroughly researched rigorously referenced, you verified it. How do you go about making sure that that actually does have a positive net effect?
Eliot Higgins: Well, it's something we've had a lot of challenges with Bellingcat, but what we've found particularly effective is working collaboratively with a range of different partners. I described this process we have at Bellingcat identify, verify and amplify. Where we identify information, we verify it and it's amplified. Now the amplification can come in all shapes and sizes with the case of MH17 for example, we did articles, we did lengthy reports, we've done podcasts. But we've also done documents with courts as well because it's based on evidence. That's been like a multi- pronged approach. Now you can actually do that all at the same time if you organize things. We've been doing a lot on border pushbacks with Frontex, and there we worked with media partners, partners who were NGO focused, legal partners. When we actually did our investigation and launched it, it was launched on multiple angles to attack that one problem. That actually had a really big effect. I mean, now the European parliament is investigating Frontex because of what we've published and finding a lot of issues there. But that's, I think because we had that range of ways of approaching the problem and raising the issue, because it wasn't just about one story, one media report one Bellingcat article. It was about a whole range of different actors who had their own credibility saying the same thing, but saying it in a different way with a different focus on different aspects of it, but still bringing it to the attention of the public, and bringing it to the attention of those policymakers who could actually take action and knew they could actually look at our work and know it was reliable. I think that's very important. I think that's something that's very scalable. I think there's something that can be scaled down to a very local level. That's why I'm quite interested in training local groups and getting them connected to other more local NGOs with communities and connecting them to government and having governments understand that they're working with reliable information. They aren't just being presented a bunch of opinions, they're present being presented hard information, data evidence, because... And then if they don't do anything, you can get angry and vote them out. But hopefully most politicians want to make things better in the areas around them, at least in most parts of the world I hope. Well, maybe not most parts. But if we're trying to communicate to politicians without giving them something they can actually use then we can't be surprised when nothing happens. I think what has happened over the last years is we've become more and more detached from how our countries are run both for, to the national level and a local level because we see politics as something other people do. We only see politics as a certain engagement. Our approach is more that we engage in every way possible, and we bring people together in like a node where they might not... Someone might be interested in an issue, but might not want to get involved with the politics of it because they don't feel they're a political animal maybe, but they can still get involved in the sense of doing investigation and analyzing information. Then that can be shared with people who can then take it further and move it forwards. Maybe that's the best approach to resolving the issues of misinformation and disinformation, the issues we face than just a bunch of websites that do fact checking and people writing about bot networks.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. That's often where a lot of this does go, which is interesting. A lot of that is interesting. I think it's useful to understand and know about how the online information environment might be being manipulated currently and how different actors, especially state level actors are using things like bots to do that. But you're right. There's got to be more engagement, I think from people in how they can also do this themselves and understand what's going on in the world around them and actually contribute to that. That's a really interesting concept. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future, and I've got a couple of future- oriented questions for you. One is around how you see the online information environment changing in terms of... based on what you've seen so far, and also the response to some of this. As you describe all of the things you were just talking about there, in terms of, let's say more people become adept at some of the techniques and some of the practices that you've promoted at Bellingcat, and you've got more local groups operating in the way that you described. Does that in turn then change the response of some of the... it could be governments or other actors that they're writing about or that they're exposing?
Eliot Higgins: Well, I hope it can have a positive effect. I mean, it's hard to say, because in a sense Bellingcat has done that, but it's not in a mass organized scale. Now imagine if there was a Bellingcat in every country, working with local groups and the impact that could have. We've already done work where we, for example, are looking into executions in Cameroon. Where the government went from saying, it's fake news to put putting the people on trial and jailing them because of a group of people online working together. I've helped rescue stolen dogs using opensource investigation. You can do this on a really wide scale. I think in fact we're talking about if I could wave a magic wand, I think it would be a net positive if we did have communities online who were focused on a range of issues, both local and international, but connected to each other. There might be someone who is a really good investigator, but they just enjoy doing investigations and they aren't focused on a particular issue. If those people can be connected to people who want stuff investigated and want to be part of something like that, that can be very powerful indeed. Really, it's never really about Bellingcat being like a central node in that network, but one of many notes where we can constantly be connected to each other and find the right people to work with. We don't always have to work with the same people every single time. We do that all the time, but the alternative is we don't do something like that. We start saying, " Okay, what's the alternative?" Well, social media, and that seems to be quite bad. Let's just ban everyone who's sharing misinformation. Well, what's true and what's not true? Well, who's the judge of that. It's easy to say yeah, flat earthers are crazy. What about then people who say that Syrian chemical weapons attacks have been faked? Should they be banned from social media? Because then there's quite a few journalists and politicians who might start getting banned from social media for saying that kind of stuff. I mean, who then becomes the people who decide what's true or false. Do say the OPCW decides if a chemical weapon attack happened or not? Well they certainly haven't looked at every single chemical weapon attack in Syria, so If I say chemical weapon attack happened and the OPCW doesn't, does that mean everyone can argue about those ones. It just becomes so insanely complicated. I think they're just, obviously when it's extremely blatant, there has to be a line, but policing, this is really difficult. The fact we're giving the power to decide how that's done to policymakers who don't even have a clue about any of this on any level, it's scary. Like we're talking about the repeal of what is the US 230, for the thing that allows you to say anything you want on social media in America. I can never remember the number, but it's Article 230 I think it's called. They're talking about repealing that so you can't say false stuff on social media. The platforms, Twitter, Facebook are treated like publishers.
Terry Pattar: Well, this hasn't always been an interesting debate, hasn't it? About whether they are publishers, because they've always vehemently argued against it. Increasingly they've had to step in and become more editorial, I suppose, in terms of what they allow and what they don't allow. I guess the question is, are they the publishers or are individuals their own publishers?
Eliot Higgins: This, I think is an issue because Facebook by creating Facebook groups allowed a way for communities to be built and that's lovely. You can all go and talk about our favorite things. Unfortunately, some people's favorite things are anti- Semitism racism, conspiracy theories. But Facebook in a sense, a equal opportunity platform where you can talk about nice things, you can talk about bad things and you'll be pointed to like- minded people. Maybe the question is maybe Facebook should get rid of things like Facebook groups to make it harder for us to communicate together, or maybe they should push certain kinds of groups off those platforms, but then they just find other platforms that aren't so well- regulated. They go after 4chan and 8chan and Parler. Do we then start pushing the people with the most extreme and radical ideas to the edges of the internet, that's harder to police? I think the way the solution is being approached at the moment of saying, we need to ban people from these platforms, we need to put restrictions on them will never really resolve the issue. It's just pushing it from one platform to another whilst we aren't readdressing the fundamental issues, which are the distrust in authority that's developed and the way in which that community is self radicalized over time. The fact that there are communities that are looking for a way to engage in politics and engage with the world, but they aren't really finding a way to do that without becoming drawn into these more extreme communities. In a way it's kind of... If you think about where the development of 4chan and those platforms, a lot of the reason they got involved with where they are now is because they realize that they can have an impact in the real world by working together. Things like Project Chanology when they went after Scientologists. I think quite a few people will be quite pleased that 4chan had gone after Scientologists, but then that eventually built into the activism you see around Donald Trump and the far right coming from those kinds of platforms. But it's really, I think about a bunch of people on those forums realizing that they could actually do stuff. I think for me, one of the earliest moments was when Obama was elected when Joe Biden was possibly going to be the nominee for vice presidents. There was like a live stream on the internet. This was quite a... This is mid 2000s so a livestream on the internet was a special thing then. Someone ordered a huge amount of pizzas and sent them to Joe Biden's house, and then everyone watched on the live stream as this poor pizza delivery guy came up with an arm full for the pizzas and like got stopped by confused secret service people, which was very funny for the people watching it. But for me, I look at that as one of the first signs of people on the internet realizing that they can have an impact in the real world in that way. Then you saw building from there, these kinds of things like Project Chanology, and these are things where people online started basically harassing people, but in an activist way, but it just got worse and worse and worse. That's why we are at the point we are now. I mean, really that pizza delivery could be almost a direct line from that pizza delivery to what happened on January 6 in Washington, in some sense.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, it's interesting seeing the buildup of these things over time and how it has changed. I guess to that extent, are you seeing any sort of negative impacts in terms of how the information environment is being affected or changed because people are trying increasingly to hide some of this negative activity that you're aiming to expose?
Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I mean, the thing is when everyone's using Twitter and Facebook is a lot easier to find them. When they all go off and start using telegram and WhatsApp and Parler. And Parler gets shut down and then reopened, it's harder to track them across platforms because it becomes fragmented. It's a lot easier if everyone's just on the same Twitter thread being terrible so you can all find them. It's the nature of the internet that is constantly changing and evolving, and that you've just got to deal with that as an investigator. We can't assume that stuff that worked a few years ago will work today. You're constantly have to be learning and seeing where the information is, but that's just the nature of the internet. That there are going to be governments who crack down on stuff. Like in Russia where they've started banning soldiers from sharing their photographs of their service. That seems to be in direct reaction to what we are doing with Ukraine and MH17 showing Russia's involvement there. But that hasn't stopped us doing more investigations as Russia is fully aware of. Even then when we've done like the Skripal stuff, and the stuff with Navalny and all the other people they've been murdering with nerve agents. They've tried to shut down these sources, but in a sense, Russia is so inherently corrupt that they can't, because there's always going to be another source that appears somewhere that gives you access to that information, because there's a fundamental cancer of corruption at the heart of Russia. I mean it changes and it evolves and we just have to change and evolve along with it.
Terry Pattar: Interesting. That sort of leads me on to what was the sort of second future oriented question I had, which was you mentioned that some of the big cases that you've been involved in the MH17, the Skripal poisoning. I was really interested in the passage in the book actually where you're describing almost being on sort of tenterhooks waiting for a lead that you can actively investigate around the Skripal poisoning. A lot of the investigative work you've been involved in is focused on looking at something that's already happened. Are you aiming to do any more in terms of trying to anticipate when something might happen? So in terms of when the next conflict might flare up somewhere, or where there's potentially sort of a genocide in the offing that you could spot potentially early and do something about?
Eliot Higgins: I think it's possible, the problem is people don't want to pay grants and funding for stuff that hasn't happened yet. There has to be a consistent monitoring of places. It's like, where do we monitor? I mean, Bellingcat has 20 staff members who are doing current investigations and monitoring takes a lot of work. You need people who are constantly engaged, looking at stuff. Doing that in a centralized fashion really wouldn't work. But again, we can look at almost a decentralized model for this. There are bodies NGOs who focus on certain regions of the world, and equipping them to actually monitor this stuff and then connect them to a open source community. When stuff does look like it's going in a bad direction, they can immediately start pointing that out to a community that might have the capacity as a thousands of people to start looking at something rather than trying to rely on one group expanding, expanding to cover it all. That's why at the moment on Bellingcat we're trying to develop like a volunteer section that will allow people to come, just volunteer a bit of their time. We'll task certain things for them to verify a lookout, but then it's a lot more organized than the situation at the moment which is basically Twitter and hoping people come across stuff, and then just having endless threads somewhere. Because then we're hoping that will act as a basis for a growing community of people who engage with open source investigation and have a way to constantly hone their skills with a constant stream of new stuff to look at, because we're approaching that by working with partners like Mnemonic Labs, who run the Syrian archive and the Yemen archive by taking content from those archives that need know geolocation done to them and having that done in batches by this community, alongside ongoing investigations and breaking news events like we had with the downing of PS752 at the start of last year. Where that just was suddenly a thing where there's all this evidence and we need lots of people to look at it. We were able to do that ourselves. But if we can have that in a volunteers platform, we can process that data in a way, a much quicker way. In a sense you could think of it as like a organic human search engine that's much better than Google. You just have to figure out a way to get everyone looking at things.
Terry Pattar: So kind of crowdsourcing essentially.
Eliot Higgins: Yes. Effectively, yeah. By building that community of people who are involved in this crowdsourced analysis, the fact is open source as well, is that you can double check this stuff and you can cross reference it against other people and be sure that this stuff's accurate. But by building that you'll eventually have not just dozens of people doing it, you could hopefully have thousands, tens of thousands of people engaged with going through this material. That could be extremely efficient and extremely quick, because we've done work for example, on the Europol Trace an Object Stop Child Abuse campaign. Where Europol was asking for people to identify objects cut out from abuse imagery, so they could hopefully find where they were taken. We started amplifying that. We shared it with our audience, which was much bigger than Europol's audience and was made up of people who love those kinds of puzzles. That led to lots of these objects being identified and victims and perpetrators being rescued and arrested.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. That's fantastic work. Yeah. Just in terms of that more future oriented requirement, is there anything do you think, or you anticipate in terms of either technological developments or the way that people are approaching this type of work that you think could help?
Eliot Higgins: I think it's coming up with more systemized ways of collecting information. It's like you look at the work of the Syrian Archive, they have over a million videos from Syria at the moment. If we can start collecting that information from conflicts in a way that's gathering additional information, not just downloading as much stuff from YouTube as possible, but hopefully adding useful metadata on there it makes it much more searchable and useful. By having these kinds of big sets of data, you can start doing interesting things with them. It's like they're currently developing processes to automatically identify things like cluster munitions and videos. One of the ways they're doing that, they're working with a partner who they're 3D printing copies of cluster munitions, and then scanning them from every angle and using that to train AI to identify them in videos. When a video is being reviewed, it can automatically pick out every sighting of a possible cluster bomb. Forensic architecture, for example did that with identifying tanks in the conflicts in Ukraine from a large data set of videos. It developing those technologies that are very much focused on conflict could be very useful, especially when combined with the platforms where they're initially being shared, which is often YouTube to make it a lot easier to find this material. If you have massive archive search through that material. I mean already we are using facial recognition quite a lot to search through masses of material. Like I've been looking for the January 6 videos, and that's... They're very useful for reducing the amount of time you have to take through every single video looking for an individual face. Now, I don't think tools are ever going to replace the work of a researcher, but it can make the work of a researcher a lot less painful. Really it's about having an expanding toolbox that we can draw on when we're doing these investigations. My hope is that in the future we have plenty more tools to actually work with.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, no doubt. Especially when, as you said, going through video content, which can be incredibly resource intensive, and you mentioned in the book the challenge of deep fakes, which interestingly, I thought you said it doesn't worry you at the moment too much, but what do you worry that as that becomes better quality, and as that trend we see maybe increase or become more prevalent that, as there's more of those videos out there, it does increase the amount of time you've got to spend perhaps verifying information, which ultimately is rubbish, but looks genuine enough that you've got to spend time digging into it?
Eliot Higgins: I think there might be a bit of a deep fakes arms race, where you'll have tech companies trying to develop software to detect it and other tech companies trying to develop stuff that's undetectable deep fakes. I think that's the way it's going. Because I mean our approach, because we're approaching this stuff as evidence, we cross reference stuff, verify it. If a video pairs online, we don't just assume it's true. But then there's plenty of social media users who will retweet that in the time it takes us to verify it. That's where I think the danger is. It has to be identified very, very rapidly. Otherwise we'll still have this danger where a deep fake could become viral and then cause something to happen, and the original thing was not true.
Terry Pattar: A question I wanted to ask you actually, which was related to an event that I was involved in recently where I was talking to a group of students about careers in open- source intelligence, open source investigations, I guess, as well. One of the questions that came up from a few people was where's a good place to get started or how to get started in this sector. I thought I'd throw that question to you and see what would you advise people who are trying to get into this area these days? Because obviously you started in a particular way 10 years ago analyzing videos from the Arab Spring related turmoil and conflicts that were going on at the time. But how might people get started these days?
Eliot Higgins: Some sense it's a little bit easier because there is an interest in hiring people with open source investigation skills. But I think still when people are looking for that, they're looking for people who have some sort of track record. The only way you can really do that before you have a job is basically just spending time and doing like a blog or something like that, writing your own articles, showing your analysis and do it because you love doing what you're doing, not because you feel it's serving a particular audience. Because otherwise I think the best open source investigators are the ones who are doing things because they're interested in the topic they're doing and they're willing to look for a million social media pages to find the one photograph that gets them and have the patience to do that. If you aren't doing it because you love it, then you're just going to end up hating your life. I'd recommend finding something you enjoy doing, and it doesn't have to be the biggest topic in the world. It can be lost docs or whatever it may be, but just dedicate yourself to working on that, writing about it and thinking about how you're writing, how you present your work, how you're transparent about your evidence and your methodology in you're writing. The fact that when you actually write something up, you're explaining it like that will make you a better investigator because you'll be constantly thinking about what you're doing. You could go to our website actually yemen. bellingcat. com, where we actually lay out an investigative methodology that's designed to be used for legal proceedings. If you're working to that level and you're trying to aim for that every time, then you'll be producing really good quality work.
Terry Pattar: But the next thing I was going to ask you about was maybe you could talk a little bit more about that Yemen Project. Yeah.
Eliot Higgins: With our experience with MH17, where we were asked to present some evidence to various legal proceedings, and then having to go back to our work from 2014 and basically recreate it using dead links and really painful recreation of all our work to fit a four core. We realized that there was a lot of these incidents that could be investigated in place like Syria and Yemen, but no real way, no framework for doing it. We wanted to develop a process where a typical Bellingcat researcher, which we hope is going to be an average researcher in any organization could have a process laid out where they know what they're looking for in terms of what they're ... The kind of who, what, why, where, how of the investigation they're doing it, have a process that allows them to archive material as they're doing it. We're using Hunchly for that in our process. But also the idea is that each part of this process can be replaced by another platform or something. You can keep upgrading it or use whatever's more suitable for your organizations, but there's always a minimum standards for what you're trying to achieve. Plus working with the Syrian archive and Yemen archive to create a platform for storing videos that we're finding in a hashed and secure way, and then being able to combine that all at the end of the process. We basically have one case file that has all the evidence, the analysis, the Hunchly recording of all the stuff we've looked at during the investigation, that then can be used in any legal proceeding that requires that evidence... that is investigating those incidents and requires those evidence. We did that with multiple instance in Yemen. That was quite an interesting process because it does teach you that there's not a one size fits all incident in a sense. There's a certain kind of incident that can be investigated like an airstrike or a bombing or one explosive moment in a way can be investigated in one way. But if there's something that's more complicated, you've got to take another approach to that. That was something we learned from that, and we've developed one approach I'm going to hopefully develop the other one. We worked with the global legal action network and actually had that evidence from Yemen submitted to the UK government's inquiry into arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Not that it made any difference because they just move the goalposts and did it anyway.
Terry Pattar: I was going to say it's a current and live issue, isn't it? That's being debated I suppose at the moment?
Eliot Higgins: This week we'll be having a mock trial with real lawyers and judges on one of those incidents that we documented so we can test how it would be used and attacked in a courtroom environments, because we'll then take that and then use that to refine what we're doing. I mean our initial feedback so far has been very good on what we've provided the lawyers. Well, it's been very bad for the defense but very good for the prosecutioner. So, yeah. It's been good we continue want to refine this process. But, but again, it comes down to the thing that Bellingcat is doing this and we're a small organization and we're trying to resolve, what's actually a really big, complex legal problem. I think with the amount of open source evidence that's now coming from conflict zone, you need to have a process for analysis that isn't just... doesn't belong to one organization, and doesn't belong to an organization that has a massive budget, because I think you will see more smaller organizations that might be like Bellingcat or more traditional NGOs investigating these incidents. The idea of developing this process is so we can actually package it up and give it to other organizations and they can tweak the bits they want, but they know that it has been tested. Part of that as well is as we're developing archives of material from these conflicts, creating an archiving system that allows multiple archives have to talk to each other and be searchable from one main interface. Because as people are gathering this evidence they might not want to share it with other organizations, but you still want parties who want to find that information. Like for example, the inaudible on Syria or the ICC to be able to search and discover that. On top of all those archives, you want to system that allows for searching through that material, which then brings us to the point of creating material that has useful metadata, which is part of the reason we've got this volunteer project with the Syrian archive to add useful metadata to the content they've got. We have to again have a multi- pronged approach to this process. It's not about just about creating stuff we can give to a court, but turning that into something that can be shared with organizations and having all those organizations being able to work collaboratively together or work separately from each other, but still have that information accessible to the end users of what we'll be doing.
Terry Pattar: Does that mean that there's got to be some way of creating a common way of structuring those archives so that they can be cross searched?
Eliot Higgins: It's not even that the structure has to be common. There are ways to put something in that allows it to be translated so that the search engine can actually look at different styles of archives, but we just have that intermediary step to translate it. Really we're looking at how we can index that content. We've been working with Benetech or they've been working rather, I should say, on a engine that allows them to basically index videos based off the content of the videos. If you have similar videos, they'll actually be grouped. You can actually tell if... If you film a building from one angle and someone films it from another angle, those videos can be associated with each other, which is very good for looking through a million videos, because it allows you to group those videos that have similar structures. Then in the case of what we're doing with the volunteer section, we can give those in batches to the volunteers to geo locate. Because they're all showing a similar location, it should actually make it a lot faster than 200 random videos from all over Syria. You can actually be a lot more systematic about how you go through it, but it also means you can create indexes across multiple archives where you might have a video in one archive and another three archives have the same video, and they will all have the same indexing number, just separated by archive. You can say, " Oh, you've got that video, so I can actually share the metadata about that video with you or not if I don't want to." Or you might find someone has videos that are actually similar to your videos that you don't have, and you can communicate with them say, " Well, can I have a look at those, because it might be useful in my research?" It's really about taking this huge issue of data management and trying to find a solution for it. Keeping in mind that the people who we were often working with these videos at the analysis end of it won't have mega budgets for it. I think in a way, the donor community, the community of people that have end users have to see the problem in those terms, which are very different terms from, as they've handled them in the past, even if they have handled them. Because you know this is a data management relating to conflict videos, which is not a huge wide known issue. I think until we meet those challenges, we're always going to be having the same problems again and again and again when we're looking at conflict where we're building everything from the ground up because the people who worked on Syria have built all this stuff, but the people who might be working on a completely different conflict that has no connections, don't even know that's a thing that exists. It's a really big challenge and we're trying to do what we can at Bellingcat, but we're a tiny organization. We have to carry a lot of weight and we're doing this stuff on like a shoestring budget. I mean the initial Yemen project, honestly nearly caused Bellingcat to go bankrupt. It turned into a real nightmare for us. Fortunately we survived that, but it's not something that's easy to do. If I think donors don't really realize that, and they don't learn about it, and they don't the value of it, which I think might be the case at the moment, we'll never really be able to build anything that's usable. I think it's really crucial for the future of conflict analysis that we start doing this. It's not just about Bellingcat getting the money to develop it, but then giving it to other organizations, trading them at how to use it, and letting them use it in their own work and then developing the platforms for indexing that allows the end users to actually access the information. It's a big complex issue, but unfortunately at the moment it's very hard to communicate because it is a big complex issue.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, no, indeed. But I mean, if that problem can be solved, there's a huge benefit there in terms of that data and that those archives being connected together, being incredibly powerful for researchers into current conflicts, ongoing conflicts, but also then when it comes to those legal prosecutions afterwards. That just sounds like an incredible resource that would be of a huge benefit generally for everyone. Yeah, I mean if... I hope there is some way for it to be put together and that you can get the funding for that because I don't think anyone should underestimate the amount of work that's involved. I know just from what you've described there, that that is an incredible undertaking in terms of just the level of effort that's involved. If you're relying on, as you said, volunteers who might, or even smaller organizations who might have a focus on a particular conflict, then you're going to end up with lots of desperate datasets sort of spread around the place, but the power really comes in connecting them together.
Eliot Higgins: I think as well, once you have those massive data sets, you can do really interesting things with the analysis of those data sets. The Syrian Archive is already doing this a lot with the AI searching for certain munitions thing I described earlier. But there's so much that can be done with that, that will in the future, make this content easier to search through and it'll make it easier for us to identify incidents in conflicts that need investigation rather than the situation we have with Syria, where it was being left down to often, it felt like just me and my blog and hoping someone would find it. It allows people to be more informed about what's happening. It allows policy makers to make decisions based on evidence, not just like we saw with the debate about the Syrian chemical weapon attack in 2013 in the UK parliament, a discussion about their favorite colonists views on chemical attacks. It's just one of these really frustrating things I think sometimes with Bellingcat where we can see the problem, and we can see the scope and the scale of it and the solution for it, but we're a tiny little organization despite our profile. We have 20 staff members and... I think sometimes people think we must have millions of people working for us for some of the stuff we achieve. It's like the Russian spy stuff. I mean, that's the work of one person doing it on a volunteer basis. I think sometimes I've spoken to funders in the past who just say, " Oh, Bellingcat must have huge amounts of funding for the work we do. I was like, " Well, I inaudible have that £60, 000 pounds a year, thanks. It just is very frustrating when you know there's a very clear path towards to find the solution to the problem, and you know what that solution is. You just need the resources to magically appear from somewhere to actually make that happen.
Terry Pattar: Wow. Yeah. No, that's incredible. Is that funding that you're all always having to apply for as well and keep applying for?
Eliot Higgins: Well, yeah. I mean a big part of my business team at the moment, and fortunately we've... We've doubled our size with regards to turnover every year since we launched. We've gone from 2014 having mountain £ 50,000 pounds from a Kickstarter to our budget this year to being about € 2 million which when you compare it to some NGOs it's still tiny. But it has allowed us now to have a business team that is focused increasingly on fundraising. But before 2018, it was literally me doing all the fundraising, all the accounts, all the bank reconciliation's, all the invoices, everything. Even this development to where we are now has only happened really over the last two years. Sometimes it does feel like we're carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and they aren't very big shoulders, but I'm glad to say that we are still growing and expanding, and we do have a solid growth for future... solid base for future growth.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, I hope so. In terms of the work you're doing, as you said, I mean, it really does establish a basis for then how we look at and study future conflict. When those break out that there is some basis there for doing that in a way which doesn't reinvent the wheel each time. That we've got that already there and that other organizations can use that methodology you've developed and hopefully make it easier to bring to light the truth of what's happening in these places and in these conflicts.
Eliot Higgins: I mean for me it was very frustrating during the Armenian Azerbaijani conflict that we could see exactly the same sort of content that we'd seen in every other conflict, but because we were busy doing other stuff, we couldn't analyze any of it, and there could've been so much valuable analysis done of that conflict that includes identifying war crimes that we literally couldn't do because we just didn't have the capacity to do it at the time. The fact that a lot of this ends up relying on like single organizations just having enough time in their schedule to investigate horrific war crimes is a really, really big problem. I think until that problem is addressed, we're going to see more conflicts where terrible things happen that could be investigated, but don't get investigated just because tiny organizations don't have time to do it.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. No, indeed. I mean, maybe we can sort of help you through this podcast perhaps to amplify that message that there are ways to do this better and that you guys are there in the forefront of developing those methodologies that will help keep on top of conflict research. Yeah, hopefully if there are organizations out there listening that hopefully they'll find ways to help you fund some of the activities, because... Especially with some of these conflicts, even something like Yemen where there's been conflict now going on for I think since 2013 the current conflict and it just doesn't get the coverage that it should have. There's so much there which is critical not only to the region, but on a more geopolitical global basis that could have an impact based on how that conflict plays out. Yet it just feels like it's almost sort of semi forgotten in a way, and there's a huge human tragedy at the heart of it. I think there's a real value in the work that you guys are doing, and so hopefully it'll get more attention.
Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I hope that with what we've done with Yemeni, it shows that it's not just about one conflict or another. It's not that Syria is unique. It actually did surprise me with Yemen, how much information we are able to find. Because you think of it as being kind of a less connected society, yet we are able to investigate dozens of incidents using exact the same sources and methodologies that we've been using in our previous investigations on Syria. If we keep on having to reinvent the wheel every time there's a major conflict, then we're really not going to get anywhere.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. No, indeed. Well, I mean, yeah. Let's be hopeful and let's hope that things do improve and that just through the rigorous information gathering, and verification, and putting out there actually what's going on in conflict zones that you're able to achieve a huge impact. Yeah, look forward to seeing how things develop for Bellingcat. As I said, I've really enjoyed the book and I hope other people will too. So yeah. Thanks for coming on the podcast again Eliot. It's been great to talk to you and great to get an update on what's been going on. And also where you see things currently and how you see the information environment developing in the future.
Eliot Higgins: Oh, that's great. Thanks for having me on.
In this episode of the Janes podcast, Eliot Higgins and Terry Pattar explore the world of online investigations and the future of conflict research with Bellingcat.