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#4: Online Investigations and Open Source Intelligence with Eliot Higgins

#4: Online Investigations and Open Source Intelligence with Eliot Higgins

In this episode we discover and explore how a new kind of citizen journalism is changing the world with Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, the foremost pioneer worldwide in online investigations and open source analysis, whose work uses publicly available online resources and content freely - and often bizarrely - shared in social media to expose alleged Russian state killers, identify the exact anti-aircraft unit involved in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and prosecute murderers of innocent children and their mothers in Cameroon.

From this very practical, deeply determined work from his home - and alongside a growing team and crowdsourcing community - Higgins has built up a unique global expertise.

Through our discussion, you’ll hear Eliot’s stories and practical examples that range across some of the biggest events and news stories in the world. You’ll learn about the workflow and tools of open source investigation and intelligence brought to these global events, the motivating forces of accountability and justice, and we get properly into the timely topic of conspiracy theories, including QAnon, manufactured consent, misinformation and propaganda - a topic that first bubbled up in conversation with Eric in Episode 2, ‘Deep Fake, bots & Synthetic Art with Eric Drass’.

I’m pretty sure this episode with the founder of Bellingcat will get you thinking more about the power of online communities in our lives - both for good and for bad, as well as casting a comically amateurish light on how evil perpetrators handle themselves in digital spaces.



Automated Transcript

Automated transcript

Will McInnes  00:04

Now today we have a very special guest, who's going to expand your mind about the world of online investigations until this moment, You might not believe that you could credibly prove the identity of highly trained undercover Russian killers. The origin and type of chemical weapons used in an attack in Syria, or the exact location where an American journalist was assassinated, just from online research, but you can, or more accurately, Eliot Higgins and the team and crowdsourcing community he's built up bellingcat can do prove all of this. They don't just prove it. Their work reaches international courts, law enforcement agencies and worldwide media, bringing justice to victims and accountability to the world's most feared perpetrators. So let's dive right in and learn more about what's here right now. So Elliot, thank you so much for being here with us today. I've been following You and your work for years now is just trying to dig around the internet and do my own online investigation and try and find out how long I've been following you for but I couldn't, couldn't quite get to the bottom of it. But you've come a long way. And the practices and tools and quality of your work has has had a really meaningful impact. And I just have so much respect for what you've achieved. How did you get going, like where did this all begin?

Eliot Higgins  02:26

It really started probably back in 2011, with the conflict in Libya, where I was just spending a lot of time online kind of arguing with people on the internet about things and I was interested in the Arab Spring what was happening there just because my own kind of interests in you know, I kind of grew up between the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War in 2003. And the kind of build up of that and kind of misinformation around that and the discussions around it kind of fueled my interest in kind of Middle East and US foreign policy. In a kind of Europe's in the UK, his involvement in that. So obviously Libya and what was happening there was of great interest. But with the internet, you had this kind of new element where now you have lots of videos and photographs being shared that claim to be from various places showing various things but issue around verifying what was actually true and what wasn't and arguments about that. So I first started doing is looking at these videos and thinking, you know, how can I figure out where these were actually filmed. And that's when I first realised you could look at satellite imagery, and compare what you could see in satellite imagery to what you could see in videos and photographs and confirm these locations. And that was kind of my first experience with what then became known as your geolocation, which is like a core kind of skill and technique we use nowadays with open source investigation. Over time, I kind of built up a kind of little reputation online for doing this kind of thing. And then in early 2012, I started a blog that then just let me I kind of did it as a hobby as a kind of give myself some time. Because my first child had just been born, and for previous few months, my kind of hobbies and interests got out the window. So I was getting used to that. And then I found myself with a bit of time. And I kind of came back to looking at these kind of videos. And this time it was mainly from Syria, and also looking at the phone hacking scandal in the UK, but it was all using kind of open source material. And it really just kind of dip out from that there is kind of small community starts to emerge online of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, some work in places like storyful, and Dublin, which was kind of factchecking and looking for this kind of content. Human Rights Watch, for example, there's some interest from journalists and it kind of just built an expanded from their entire launch bellingcat in 2014.

Will McInnes  04:41

It's brilliant, and I can't wait to share with people some of the the global events of such huge significance that you've, you and your team have contributed to understanding better. I guess when I was thinking about us talking I was wondering, were there clues in Who you were growing up? I used to be really interested in the armed forces. I was thinking maybe you were interested in puzzles, like, is there clues that got you into this line of work, but now you look back down the road, you can see the kind of the trail? Well,

Eliot Higgins  05:14

um, I mean, when I was a teenager in my 20s, I used to read a lot of kind of, like, I guess you would say, left wing, especially American left wing literature. I was also interested, you know, I grew up watching things like michael moore's TV nation, you know, listening to, you know, kind of spoken word stuff that was kind of a left wing, you know, read loads of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and, you know, that kind of literature. And then that gave me an interest, I think, in kind of American foreign policy in particular, but also, you know, with things like Manufacturing Consent, this information and how countries use information to build narratives and how the media is complicit in that. I mean, now, the kind of people who do that nowadays are the people who kind of read Hey, cat rubber ironically. So I always feel a bit, it's a bit of a shame that those people kind of see it as being, you know, bellingcat been part of the CIA and, you know, that kind of thing. But I kind of understand where they're coming from it to a certain degree. But that's kind of where I think a lot of my interest was I also, you know, I was kind of a Sony spent a lot of time on the internet. So I think big part of kind of internet culture kind of helped me kind of understand, you know, certain aspects of it, or how information was being shared and how these debates happen. And that's become kind of more more useful as kind of online culture has kind of grown and also, you know, started having kind of negative impacts. You've kind of started seeing communities go around conspiracy theories, you know, Cuba norm and all these kind of things, but in a way, it's just repeating the same dynamics I've seen over the kind of last kind of 2025 years of how the internet has developed and also has meant that I understood how as we've kind of done the work of belling cat and we've kind of grown this network have individuals working together? You know, globally or online? It's because I think partly I understand how online communities kind of work. I mean, part of that is just through kind of experience, you know, doing online gaming and building communities there. And the same kind of dynamics exist in all kinds of different kinds of internet communities be they focused on serious subjects or more enjoyable, fun, lighter subjects. But it has been very interesting, particularly last few years seeing the rise of these kind of conspiracy minded communities, how the kind of dynamics and what kind of fuels that is often exactly the same kind of thing happening again and again, born of a wide variety of topics.

Will McInnes  07:39

That is a really fascinating point. And I would love to come back to conspiracy theories because the rise of conspiracy theories is it's a tide that's reaching shores far closer than I'd expect. I actually had the first WhatsApp message from some of my oldest and most trusted friends were one of them shared something that was conspiracy theory and it feels like a very timely topic for us to return to at some point in this discussion when I think about your work, just a, you know, a short potted history you've uncovered the use of barrel bombs cluster weapons, chemical weapons in Syria. You've used your location to estimate where the American journalist James Foley was executed. You've proposed a particular anti aircraft brigade and the actual serial number of the launcher that shot down Malaysian Airlines Mh 17 I was watching the saulsbury documentary or or drama on Netflix yesterday, you uncovered the identities of two or three of the key Russian operatives involved in that poisoning in Salisbury in the UK, it's an incredible body of work. I guess. I wonder what for you selfishly has, has given you the most reward satisfaction in the discoveries that you've contributed to or the in justices that you've attempted to balance out?

Eliot Higgins  09:07

Oh, I mean, there's quite a lot. I mean, mX 17, for us was very important. Because there we had the first case where we had a really strong counter narrative coming from Russia and really strong disinformation, which we're able to kind of categorically disprove and counter that narrative and, you know, within the public bring this understanding to them of what really happened. And now, of course, we have the core case. And a lot of what we've been saying for the past six years is now you know, being brought up in the court case, and you know, the story of that they're talking about in the school case, is what we revealed over the last six years, we've done work, for example, elsewhere, using crowdsourcing to help with the Europol trace and object stop child abuse campaign where Europol has asked the public to look at objects that were basically cut out of abuse imagery, and ask them to help ask the public to help figure out where they work by amplifying that and working on that we've, you know, help children's be rescued and suspects be arrested. So that has a really positive impact. You know, the stuff we've done, for example, we work collaboratively, collaboratively with BBC Africa is on a project examining the execution of two women and two very young children in Cameroon. It was a video that was being distributed on social media. And because we did that work, the soldiers involved were upon trial and be found guilty for this murder. And if it wasn't for that open source investigation is extremely unlikely anything would have ever been done about this execution. So I mean, that's just a small example of it. But also, you know, more broadly speaking, it's taking this kind of thing I started as a hobby back in 2012, to a point where we're now talking to bodies like the International Criminal Court about how open source investigation can be used in the work they're doing and turning this kind of new field of the kind of online open source investigation into something that's being taken very seriously and it's becoming something that although is kind of in a way, first really done by him. is now something that's widely recognised as a very serious and professional field.

Will McInnes  11:05

Just so profound the work you're doing those examples, you know, just reflecting like wow, to be able to say that you have helped with the identification and prosecution of war criminals who've done such appalling things. It's just amazing and and I hear you talking about the the maturation I guess the the movement from, you know, inverted commas amateur to professional and the significance of the attention and respect that this that these practices are getting. And I'm just imagining if someone's listening to this podcast on a jog or on a commute, not that not that many people commute anymore, they might be trying to catch up. They're like, this sounds interesting. This guy and his team are working on incredible things that I recognise and have heard of, but what is open source investigation, and could you just unpack that a little bit, for the for The novice.

Eliot Higgins  12:01

So open source intelligence is something that has been around for a long time. It's basically using all publicly available material to help build intelligence. And in a way, what we do open source investigation is very similar. The online part is actually fairly crucial. Because what's happened over the last 15 years or so is there's been a massive increase in the amount of information that's coming from online sources. And this is a very, very new thing. And it's partly fueled by the rise of smartphones, particularly with the release of the iPhone in 2007. And in parallel to that the availability of information thanks to social media platforms making information more available, and that's fueled by smartphones being available to everyone. So you can take a photograph and share within seconds. The rise of sites like Google Earth, and Google streetview given us reference imagery, and just basically more ways to discover and search for, for just a huge, vast, unimaginable amount of information and actually use To draw conclusions, you know, just piece stuff together, in a way is when an event happens, it creates kind of ripples on the internet. And we're trying to identify those ripples and figure out where they're coming from and kind of focus on one part of, you know, one event and reconstruct it using this information. This kind of, we explore the kind of networks of information that are being created, not just you know, social media accounts being linked together. But even within a photograph that is shared online, there's a vast amount of information that can be gathered from that you know, where it was taken, when it was taken, who's in it, what it shows in the background. And when you have one of those images, it's strong, but when you have dozens of them, and you have material that you can piece together, you can actually get a very complete picture of what happened in somewhere that could be thousands of miles away in a remote location. I mean, we've been spending a lot of time recently looking at Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. And when we first started that, I generally believe, you know, there wouldn't be that much information because you don't think of Yemen as being a very connected sculpture. But even there we are finding enough information to draw conclusions about these airstrikes to show there were targeting civilian infrastructure, you know, marketplaces were being bombed. And there was no evidence of, you know, suppose a targets military targets that were being targeted there and contradicted directly what the Saudis were claiming about these attacks. So it's kind of using this kind of digital detective worse work, I guess, to piece together things. And going back to the idea of conspiracy theories, you know, in a way this is what the Cuban community does, they piece together stuff, you know, from online sources, but the difference is, we have kind of more of a we're looking for soul connections we're not looking for Oh, you know, someone most once posted on this day, you know, something, the word pizza therefore, this guy is a paedophile that kind of cueing on stuff. We're looking at direct connections between things. And for me, when I started blogging, I understood the limits of my knowledge. You know, I don't have a background in arms and munitions and, you know, conflict analysis. My background I used to finance and admin work, but What I was very clear about is what I could see in these videos and photographs, what I could say about it and what I couldn't say about it. So I could say this video was filmed in a location. And it see it has these military vehicles in it and these other details, but at first, I couldn't say too much about it. But over time, I built my own knowledge, but also was very important about this online open source investigation is it involves an online community, and some of them are experts. Some of them are keen amateurs, some have experience in different areas. When we were doing the Cameroonian investigation, for example, that was made up of a team of people from Amnesty International people from belling cat people from the BBC, but also people from Twitter who are just basically keen amateurs, but who are really, really good at doing things like geolocation. So and they're really motivated to do that. So it's not something that's kind of exclusionary. It's not like saying how we're the experts and no one else can be an expert. You know, my own background is not an expert background. So I understand the value of that. You know, a good research you can can kind of come from any kind of background. You don't have to go to university and spend, you know, five years getting a master's degree in open source investigation, partly because those kinds of courses don't exist at the moment, so much. But often the best people who do these kind of investigations are kind of very keen amateurs who will obsess over a particular subject

Will McInnes  16:20

from following you for years. I can I can picture in my mind the kind of materials that you guys scour your way through. You know, from from memory, it's, it's Russian soldiers posting photos to Facebook groups, its YouTube videos filmed by people of, of war, they may be civilians, they may be participants. So you're so in very practical terms, that content as well, as you mentioned, Google Earth and Google streetview. You're taking these broad sources but you're also taking individually shared so Media on you'd like it's it's cut. There's been moments where it's made my mind boggle the amount that people who are apparently, you know, conducting secret military operations or doing very bad things are actually still sharing this stuff online.

Eliot Higgins  17:14

Yeah, when we're looking into one of the scripts or suspects, I think it was wrestling before Bhatia off was the student and he was using those reports in the home it was the Daily Mail that young woman was claiming that she had been contacted by I should met this guy, and they're kind of been flirting and she said, Follow me on Facebook and we discovered the Facebook page of Ruslan boshirov. But what we're able to do this, he had taken it, there's no posts on the page here just listed. He was from Russia in the description, his name, we're taking a photograph and that photograph was taken in a square and posted on a certain day and it was taken in a square in the Czech Republic we had geolocator and this is where she says she met him. And not only that, but later reports showed that the two suspects had actually been in the country on the that very day when this photograph was taken and shared on Facebook. And he just done that. So we could kind of chat up a girl basically, he was married as well. So that's, that's an issue for him. But it was a really dumb thing to do. And we find that time and time again, you know, people you, I mean, there's this sense that, you know, if you're a spy, you're gonna be really careful and really intelligent and, you know, cover your tracks and you know, be really good. But we time and time again, find that's not the case at all. I mean, it's like with the triple case, you had this completely absurd interview on Russia day where you had the two suspects, and they were sports nutrition salesman, and within 24 hours, we could show that No, they're not sports nutrition salesmen. They're very different from sports nutrition salesman, but still, they made this public appearance that in a way, if it wasn't for that public appearance, maybe our story wouldn't be so big, because they made this kind of big show of it. It gave us a kind of real boost for the story that we did published and in the end, what we revealed ended up in the Yukon The front page of pretty much every single newspaper. And it was incredibly embarrassing for the Russian government. And then what happened to add to this kind of stupidity of the situation, you had the Russian ambassador to UK giving a press conference, where he repeatedly claimed that bellingcat was working for the intelligence services and funded by them. And were part of what he described as the British deep establishment, which I think was his attempt not to say the deep state. And at the end of that press conference, he asked questions, and the very first question was from a journalist saying, Well, where's your proof that bellingcat is doing this? And he says, Well, we don't have anything we can show you. We just have a feeling. And it was just a perfect encapsulation of how dumb and how you know, you know, just completely prophetic. The Russian strategy is when it really comes down to communication because it's not based on fat builders any garbage they like, but when they actually get challenged on it, it just all falls apart immediately. And we found that time and time again, it's like we've me, Chairman team, they're bombing Serious buys everything they just don't expect, but they don't even I mean, they might expect it, but they don't seem to respect that if they lie, and so and catch them at the lie, it's a bad thing. They just keep lying again and again and again, I advise anyone who's getting into open source investigation is to watch a kind of Russian Ministry of Defence press conference. In fact, check it because you'll always have to be fine. They're lying about something. And it's a good way to kind of practice your skills.

Will McInnes  20:23

Kind of comical, awful, hilarious, all in one go. When something happens. What is the workflow? Are there other things that take a very long time to build? And then they gain a momentum? Or is there a kind of an early rush? Like, what's the Do they have different peaks and troughs? what's the what's the rhythm of the work?

Eliot Higgins  20:43

It can vary a lot. For example, at the start of this year, we have the shooting down of ps 752 and around a Ukrainian aircraft. And when that happens, we were kind of doing other stuff as a kind of team. We're now like, we've got like 18 staff members, that The moment and volunteers work together on slack and other communication channels. But at first, we weren't really looking at it. But because we were known for Mh 17, people saw aircraft being shot down in Ukraine and started just sending us everything about pr 752. And very quickly, we just had so much material, we kind of had to look at it. And it was an interesting case anyway, especially when imagery started showing up that appeared to show a missile hitting the aircraft that night. The remains of missiles that are anti aircraft, missiles supposedly taken in that area. And we have to kind of do some analysis on that just because it kind of grew very rapidly and organically, in our kind of, you know, our investigation team. Sometimes it's an individual investigator will be interested in something and work on something and then come to us with kind of the finished product or you know, nearly the finished project. Sometimes a few of the team will work together. So, and I'm a very strong believer that I want people to investigate things that interest them, not just tell people to do stuff, so I'm never really telling people suing him. investigation, they're finding interesting stuff. And then if they're investigating it, and they're interested in it in it, they will dig and dig and dig and dig, and they will stick at it. And it's like what happened to me 17 I mean, we've got, you know, people who've been working on that since July 17 2014, who are still looking into new angles on Mh 17. And because we've stuck at it for so long, we have people who want a new piece of information appears like we're seeing at the trial. We can contextualise it very, very quickly, because we understand all these tiny little elements of the entire case. And I think that's been very important for us to kind of go have an edge over more traditional media organisations, and also unusually bellingcat. Whilst it is often seen as a media organisation, we do a whole range of different kinds of work with different kinds of organisations and some of it is focused on more Justice and Accountability then producing a kind of final media project project. So we have a process we'd like to call identify, verify and amplify where we identify information as part of our investigation. But then verify it. Once it's verified, we then have multiple ways to amplify it. So bear with me, show me team, we've done multiple articles and reports. But we've also done a very high quality podcast series that we released last year. We've worked with various media produced different kinds of products, we've submitted information to the European Court of Human Rights case on it, and you know, all these different kind of applications of what we've managed to verify. Because I kind of feel like you want to make the most of this material because often this material is being filmed by people on the ground, who are at great risk, and they're filming it because they want something done about it. They want the world to know about it. They want accountability for what's happening. And in bellingcat that's in a way what we try and deliver with this material.

Will McInnes  23:45

When you harness the interest that your researchers have and you and you encourage that kind of climate of, let's pursue what we think is interesting and let's see where it takes us. What are the underlying behaviours or qualities that may People great at this work like what what does it take to be this kind of investigator or analyst,

Eliot Higgins  24:06

I think it's more perseverance and a real desire to find out as much as you can about a subject and the kind of feeling that's rewarding because often you're digging through masses of irrelevant material. Like when we were looking at the 53rd Air Defence Brigade, which we identified as being part of the, but they basically transferred the missile launcher that shot down extremities to the border with Ukraine through Russia. And they had a social media page and their social media page was filled, followed by a lot of the brigade members. So over about a year, a couple of researchers used all of that, that basically entire social network to piece together the entire structure of the brigade photographs and names of all the people in there, the people who are parts of the convoy and which vehicles they were in and, you know, all these tiny little details but that requires digging through literally thousands of web pages 10s of thousands of photographs looking at tiny tiny details, and that The kind of perseverance you need when you're building something like that. That's not to say that every single investigation is like a huge complex thing. Sometimes it's just like saying, you know, where was this one video filmed. A good example of that is when we were doing our investigation into Russian airstrikes in Syria that started in late 2015. Because there, Russia had started posting gun camera videos of their bombings onto YouTube. And they would post a few every single day. And very quickly, a very small community of people on Twitter started geo locating them and showing that they were inaccurate. They weren't the places where they claimed to be bombing. Sometimes they were the only one example. They bombed the same place three times. And on each video, it claims to be in a different part of Syria. So we started a project there where we use that small community of people doing in a way a fairly discrete task of geo locating one video at a time and use that to build a dataset showing that Russia was consistently lying about who and what it was bombing in Syria. So what we'll do with that now is we're launching a volunteer session on balance bellingcat because we get A lot of people asking if they can volunteer will have those kind of more discreet tasks shared with the kind of public allowing them to get involved with that kind of investigative work.

Will McInnes  26:10

That's amazing. So like your own belling cat, Mechanical Turk, a kind of army of volunteers who are motivated and who do some of the next line of of the work that happens. And I was wondering about this, this beautiful interplay between you and your close collaborators, and then the broader community? Because you and I are familiar with the idea of crowdsourcing, but what does crowdsourcing look like in practical terms for you guys in the work that you do?

Eliot Higgins  26:41

I mean, sometimes it's because we're making a request to our audience on social media, we'll say, you know, particularly on Twitter, you know, does anyone know what can I figure out where this was filmed? Like we've made 17 there was a video showing missile launcher driving down the road. I just tweeted out Can anyone figure out where this is and within 10 minutes at you 20 ounces of people pointing to set several locations, but most of them point to this one location showed double checks and it was the correct place. Another example we had ISIS supporters posting images on telegram where they were holding a piece of paper with a kind of ISIS hash tag on it. And we and they were ISIS supporters were part of these telegram group groups, and they're in Europe. And the idea was they were trying to spread fear in Europe that there's ISIS supporters everywhere. But because they took photographs with pieces of paper with a background, you could actually geo locate the background and there is kind of followers on Twitter if they could figure it out. And most of them they found within about 10 minutes. So and then that was kind of passed on to local law enforcement, I'm glad to say that found some very bad people and got them into trouble. So that's kind of how we would do crowdsourcing. Sometimes it's also seeing what communities are out there already doing stuff. There's a you know, examples like even pre internet you had the kind of plane spotters with this CIA rendition flights, gathering all this information that they didn't realise pointed to what was happening, but by exploring that kind of network of information that being correct, created by people of this face specialised interest, you can discover new information. I think there was a fake photograph shared by 4chan. Alexandria ocasio Cortez, supposedly in the bath, it was her feet. But there was a reflection they were claiming it was on her Instagram account. And the wiki Fie community, which is a community of fetishes, immediately discovered, said this is not her This is this particular model, ever. It's only because they have that very specialised knowledge of wind speed, that they can make the identity identification very quickly. But it's always you know, that there are these communities out there have all kinds of different interests that can be extremely useful. I mean, even now, play spotters are very useful for kind of spotting people who've landed in airports without their transponders on, you know, that can be used for investigation. So that information is out there, it's just kind of knowing where to look and how to explore it.

Will McInnes  29:04

I literally can't imagine a better example of how to tap a niche community of knowledge than the wiki feet community, which is, which I've only just learned about right now. And that is quite amazing. One of the other things that I'm guessing that our listeners will be pondering to themselves is Whoa, like, this is pretty heavy duty. How do you interact with authorities? And does it feel heavy to you this this work? Does your own personal risk and safety come into it as well?

Eliot Higgins  29:34

Obviously, we haven't got many friends in the Russian authorities. So we kind of had the policy that you know, we can take certain steps which are kind of cyber security, for example, our personal security to a certain extent, but in a way, the best security you can have is by just being as high profile as possible and making as a difficult target to attack. I mean, I've been attacked a lot in the Russian media, we've had cyber attacks, but that kind of all is something we publicise as much as possible, because then it kind of gives us, you know, it makes people aware that we're the sort of person who will be, you know, attacked in this way by the Russian government. And if I stub my toe, people will think the Russians government's behind it. So in a way, that's a certain level of protection. I mean, we get contacted by authorities as well in different countries, because often we're talking about, you know, discovering spies and stuff. They've been operating in their country, and they'd really like to fight, find out how we figured it out. So, for example, in Bulgaria, there was a case where a local businessman was poisoned. And we discovered that it was actually connected to the same Gru unit that poisoned skiffle. And then that led to the local authorities reaching out and talking to us about us and asking us, you know, could we tell them about what we found? it? I mean, one of the most alarming things for this is often where we're approached by people look kind of law enforcement, you really haven't even discovered you've got a clue about what we're doing, let alone the evidence we've discovered. But that's kind of understandable because the kind of origin ones that are doing investigations at the moment are often quite large bureaucratic organisations. And this is a very new and kind of amateur in a way feel that's becoming professionalised. So it's really only in the last couple of years with the skripal case, in particular, and how the Mh 17 cases moved into trial session where I think that kind of community is taking open source investigation more seriously. So that's kind of been a real change over the last couple of years of how that's being used now, by organisations like that and the interest in it amazing.

Will McInnes  31:31

How do you personally find downtime in this work like the headspace? It strikes me that this is always on and there's always something to solve? How do you chill out

Eliot Higgins  31:43

I think a lot of the people who do this kind of work because they find it so enjoyable to do it's kind of their it's their hobby as well as their job. So it's not a nine to five job where you kind of switch off at five o'clock because you're you enjoy so much the investigation process that often it just becomes useful. Tired day. I've wife and two children, so I have to be a bit more careful about that plus, now betting has become a much larger organisation with like, for example, a fully registered charity in the Netherlands and we have a proper Business Administration team and stuff like that I find myself more doing the higher kind of level organisational stuff than the investigative stuff which I missed to a certain extent. But it also means that I can now go and do interesting projects like you know, I've been working on a book that will be coming out next year called we are belling cat. We've got various media products that we've been developing, we've worked on podcasts. And that allows us to bring this message to a new audience. So it's a new interesting thing for me, but it is difficult to switch off when you're an investigator and you're like, Okay, maybe if I click on that number 20 web pages, I'll find that one little clue I'm looking for. And then when you find that little clue, you think, okay, I can look at another 50 web pages and maybe find even more stuff and it just builds from there. So it can be quite, it's enjoyable, but it can be quite exhausting doing it kind of nonstop, but You know, it is very satisfying when you find that one thing that basically makes your entire case for you and approve something, you know, beyond that,

Will McInnes  33:07

yeah, I totally get that. When you think about the future of the world, I'm curious, you know, your vision of how this interacts with whatever we mean by traditional journalism. So I see you as a pioneer, I see the practices and, and, and work that you guys have done this early signals of what will become normal. And you just gave an anecdote there of the bureaucratic, slower moving organisations that are formally responsible for law enforcement often kind of stumbled on your work and reveal just how little they know about these opportunities to solve to solve the problems that they want to solve. So I'm curious, like, where does this go? How does traditional journalism evolve? Is this a distinct area when you forecast what does it look like?

Eliot Higgins  33:53

I think the one trend I'm seeing more and more is an understanding that it's no longer a world where and it organisation kind of work can work on itself, you know on a story and not be involved with ever organisations that are maybe in different fields like we've been doing a lot of collaborative work with human rights organisations, news organisations, Justice and Accountability organisations where we all work together on the investigation because it's using open source evidence, and we're verifying and everyone is kind of transparent about what they're sharing. It means that again, we come to that kind of amplify stage and a newspaper can write a new story about a human rights organisation can do a kind of more reporting their style, just as accountability organs or organisations can take it to a court spelling camp and kind of produce our kind of own glasses a bit. So in a way, by collaborating together, we all get what we would get out of it anyway, but it's much much more better and it has more impacts over a wider range of fields. And I think for most people who are more used to working in a kind of more traditional model, a, you know, the idea of a human rights organisation and a news organisation and you know, all these different ways organisations working together collaboratively was quite alien. You know, you don't share your scripts with other people. But often we're working with you know, we'll find a print organisation to work with television news organisation, maybe a documentary film, kind of, you know, all those different elements of it working together to produce multiple final products. And I think that's far more effective at getting the message out than just saying, here's a news report paper report on this investigation. Because then the life of that kind of what you've discovered, what you've verified, goes beyond just that one moment is creates a series of moments and different range of fields, some of which have a much longer impact than some of the other kinds of moments but they all serve a purpose. You're much more comfortable in the pragmatic outcome focus blurriness of it you don't really care about

Will McInnes  35:51

which silo or team people belong to particularly and I think what you're saying is those who are bred bred in a in a more formal Domain might find that blurriness a bit more challenging to deal with. It's it's fascinating to me how that how that story evolves. And I think the multi disciplinary nature and the collaborative DNA that you guys have is really interesting part of the success,

Eliot Higgins  36:17

I think, as well, when I'm often talking to organisations that are interested in countering disinformation, for example, and that's a big topic at the moment. They're often so focused on the kind of thing they're doing, they don't actually think about how they're going to go about doing it. They think they think they do, but they don't understand that we live in a connected online community. And you have all these kind of counter disinformation groups appearing and they produce stuff on the internet, but because they're kind of one thing in a massive kind of community, they don't really propagate through that community, if you see what I mean. And because with bellingcat, what we're doing is we're connected to all sorts of different people in all sorts of communities and we're using our community to be part of our investigation. It means we're almost like part of a living organism rather than just something that's kind of stuck on the side of it. And I think understanding the difference between the those two is crucial to, you know, a whole range of fields, particularly this issue now, where we have disinformation and conspiracy theories becoming so widespread. And the reason those conspiracy theories become so widespread spread is because they are part of that same organism, they're kind of internet organism, and they kind of grow and evolve and spread through it. So as I mentioned earlier, and as actually our guest, I think it was on episode two who specialises in creating art from what lots of people would call deep fake. He was saying that he'd noticed more people in his personal social network spreading conspiracy theories and, and I was alarmed at that, but it hadn't affected me yet. And then in recent times, graduates in my social network, people who you know, are in theory, I'm not graduate, so I don't really care whether someone's been to university or not, but but I'm trying to reach for like something level of healthy scepticism and education and worldliness

Will McInnes  38:04

conspiracy we seem to be awash in conspiracy. And given how bizarre and awful 2020 has been, I can understand that that's an environment ripe for fantastical beliefs. But what's your take on all of this

Eliot Higgins  38:17

being very much part of unlike communities, I've kind of seen this evolve over time. And it really comes down to how the internet is really good and make you find people who think exactly the same way that you do. And for most people, we've kind of fairly normal thoughts, that's okay. But you always have part of those communities of kind of buy into conspiracy theories or kind of more fringe theories. And then when they do that, they kind of become the outcasts of those communities. But luckily for them, they can find another community that is has a similar kind of viewpoint, and then they might become too extreme for that and they find another community that's a bit more extreme. And it goes on and on before you before you know it, you know, you're thinking that, you know, bleach is a brilliant medicine or Or you know Coronavirus is complete fake, or that, you know, Donald Trump is trying to save the world from a evil cabal of paedophiles. And those people because they tend to be more extreme in their beliefs also tend to be the kind of noisy so now this online, but also we have it working now is the kind of algorithm that these social media companies use to help people find content. And I think one of the issues is if you're, you see a video on YouTube, and it's claiming something completely wild, you might click on it, you know, for a laugh, just kind of something boring, you probably won't. And you might not believe it, you might never watch a video like that again. But the algorithm has been taught that people will click on these videos, and it will then recommend these videos to people. And even if 1% of those people buy into it, you start building a community around it. And that starts you know, creating creating a feedback loop into the algorithm where more and more people are seeing these videos, meaning that more and more people are being converted into these crazy ways of thinking and you see this time and time again with all kinds of different things. Also, you have people in this country He's especially the more extreme ones where they are often people who spend a lot of time on the internet and base a lot of their personal value and what self worth on being part of these communities and being a useful part of these communities. So they tend to be quite noisy, they also tend to be quite aggressive online or you know, quite produce a lot of content, which means it creates even more people who are following this stuff because there's more content for people to be found. If you just got normal average views, the internet isn't really for you. The internet is designed around people who have kind of more extreme or specialised views and that can be in sometimes quite useful. I mean, in a way the Bangkok community has people arranged in a specialised area. But in other areas, it's not it's like q anon for example, you also have this other layer where certain communities are really interested in investigation and the bellingcat community because in a way, it's almost like a in a way a game is something that you can come get absorbed him it's something where there's always a new clue, a new thing to discover. And you see a power With that, I think with the Q anon community, it's almost like alternative reality games, except the community itself with q anon is building that alternative reality as they're playing in the game in a sense. So there's always some new idea, someone's always adding something saying, Oh, well, you know, if you look at the cue clock, it tells us, you know, this piece of information, and none of it really makes any sense, even to some of the people who are part of it, but that kind of feels like it makes sense, if you see what I mean. And that really is what fuels this and that's why in a way, it's so dangerous and damaging because there's no way to kind of stop that kind of thinking you know, you can't like say to you can't explain to people they're wrong, because then that you become part of the conspiracy they said, well, you're just you know, she Paul who believes any nonsense, and you know, q anon is kind of one of the biggest examples of this but it also comes down to things like truffer ism around there. Mm hmm. Team, for example, you have a community that is so convinced that Russia Russia is completely innocent, even though there's literally photographs of the missile in the ad, you know, videos of the missile So launcher, they always find some reason to say, Oh, no, that's fake. That's misleading. It's the same with chemical weapons attacks in Syria. And that is actually an area that's becoming slightly more dangerous because you're seeing slightly more mainstream acceptance of the idea that these chemical weapon attacks in Syria are fabricated. You know, it's the White Helmets faking stuff. Yeah, typically around the 2018 doomer. chemical attack? Well, I know there's Members of Parliament who believe the Duma chemical attack was, you know, a setup wasn't, you know, fake. And that's completely insane. But there's a community of this kind of alt left community that promote these ideas, they get these leaked documents from the OPC w that don't quite say the things they say they mean, but they're very technical and difficult to understand unless you've really been in the roots of it. So this is kind of where, in a way you have, if you imagine kind of the Venn diagrams of online communities, the kind of mainstream community and the edge of the kind of conspiracy theory community is kind of where you want to place that's where you want to watch. You can't jump in conspiracy theorists community and tell them they're all wrong. It's all conspiracy theories, because they aren't going to listen to you. But we can look at is how the kind of edges of that kind of Venn, the circles of that Venn diagram start crossing over, and what are in a way the centres of gravity that's drawing those together and why that's happening. And that's the area that I think needs to be paid attention to and analysed. And in a way, often when we're dealing with bellingcat. Now, you know, some of the topics we work on with like me, 17, and chemical weapons attack. We know that by kind of trying to debate every single point, you're just adding fuel to the conspiracy theories fire and it's best in many cases, just to try to ignore it until it gets to the point where it has this kind of mainstream crossover, but at the same time was ignoring it also knowing what it is and actually having a reason to counter it because you will end up in many cases, having those arguments with people who should know better

Will McInnes  43:49

is the people that should know better than I'm most worried about earlier, but there was loads of wisdom in what you just said. There was also a moment that genuinely introduced a new idea. And kind of blew my mind a little bit, which is, you're the first person that said to me that these narratives can create a world that people can live in and calling on popular culture, my own experiences, playing video games, you know, my love of fiction, whatever, the power of propaganda misinformation, just I've never thought of those as a world, but when you think of them as a world, there's, there's magic in that world building is a magical thing to do. Whether you're JK Rowling or Tolkien or Putin, I guess, will trump I will have to ponder that

Eliot Higgins  44:40

a bit further. If you think about what's happening in America at the moment with kind of the way Trump kind of says something stupid. And then you have the alt right media kind of laundrette for him and then you have kind of Fox News kind of give the mainstream version of it and Fox and trump watches that go so I was right all along and you have an entire Media community that people who want to believe Trump is great can go to and just exist inside. It's an alternative universe they've basically created. And in America if it gets particularly severe because you've got an entire political network that is part of that now, the republican party has basically bought completely into this kind of cult of Trump and how the right wing media uses, you know, misinformation and disinformation, to propagate stuff. That's untrue. And it's part of American culture. And we get to that point, we can clearly see the dangers of that by just looking at what's happening in America at the moment with Coronavirus and the violence that the protests and the way Trump is fueling this stuff because he realises or maybe just naturally moves that way that this is where in a way his power comes from, and that he's got a supplicant political party party and media ecosystem that supports that. And in a way, you know, you have these discussions about Oh, how did Russia influence the US election in 2016? Yeah, they had fake news sites, but the real influence there was the Fox News not rush today.

Will McInnes  46:01

Hmm. There's one last question I'd like to ask before we start to wrap up. And that is prompted by what we've just been talking about. In part, I know that you've said the people on your team need to be able to follow the things that they're interested in. That said, How, how do you guys still decide on the boundaries for where you work and where you don't? What's characteristic about the core of the work that you guys do that then determines where you find the interesting angles?

Eliot Higgins  46:30

It varies quite a lot. I mean, usually what we're thinking about is more kind of the victims in the stories and whether or not it kind of serves them to write the stories like if we have a story that would probably bring unwanted attention to the victims, we would kind of move away from that. We also think, you know, if we're writing a story, and it has more value being used elsewhere, rather than the story on the website, like we might be doing an investigation that is actually more useful if it's part of a Justice and Accountability process and maybe publishing about it will kind of reduce usefulness, then we'll kind of focus on that rather than pulling something out on the website. But, I mean, we have a pretty wide range of subjects that we look into. And usually, if there's some kind of injustice that has been done that can kind of be highlighted and corrected by investigating it.

Will McInnes  47:16

Yeah, that's what it feels like. Because it does feel like your geographies, the actors in the stories, the topics, they are broad, but I see that core of injustice. So that's that's what binds it together. I'm so grateful for your time today, Elliot will be sharing in the show notes, the links where people can find out more about belling cat where they can pre order your book where they can follow you on Twitter,

Eliot Higgins  47:38

tell us a bit about the book is basically kind of the story of you know, what I've kind of been through from my own background of, you know, non professional background turning bellingcat and my work into something that now has this kind of worldwide recognition and talking about the development of online open source investigation where it came from the impact. It's having the details of some of the investigations that we've done. You know, things like the scripting investigation and HMT and kind of how that has helped shape this kind of online open source kind of field of investigation in the community that surround that. And it's, it's full of kind of, you know, the unusual stories that we encounter and kind of this quite a lot of weirdness that happens with this kind of work as well, and some of the interesting personalities that appear around it as well. So I'm really looking forward to seeing people get a chance to read that story.

Will McInnes  48:27

I think it's gonna be great. And that's available for pre order now. That's right, I pre ordered my copy this morning. Okay, so that's we are bellingcat. And what guides what comes next for you guys?

Eliot Higgins  48:39

Well, what we continue to do is kind of expand the work that we're doing into new regions of the world, we've we're starting an expansion into Latin America and Africa. We're also developing now more ways for people to get involved with banner cast work. So we're adding a volunteer section that I mentioned before to the website, also part of the website that has basically all the tools that we use, which is many, many tools But making that more accessible for people. So it's easier for anyone who wants to do this work to actually find the guys the case studies or tools and something to do. And you know, just to continue to expand bellingcat. And you know, we've spent the last 18 months getting charity status and being audited and all this really complex business stuff. But that's given us a really solid base for future growth. So I'm really looking forward to seeing where we can go in the future.

Will McInnes  49:23

amazing work. So you are at Elliot Higgins on Twitter, which is with one l one T. Eliot Higgins, thank you so much for giving us your time today. So there it is. Episode Four with Eliot Higgins of belling cat. I hope you got some new perspectives on what's changing in the world today. I know I really did. If you enjoyed this, please do sign up here right now but sub that way you'll be the first to know every time a new episode comes out, get the guest details and the transcripts and do sign up. As for our future. There's so much more for us to cover. We have some insanely interesting guests coming up. Please do let me know if you have any feedback on Twitter. Onwards!

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