Foreign Press Association USA
Press Briefing Transcript
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat founder on Infowars and the Truth
Tuesday March 9th, 2021
Press Briefing Transcript
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat founder on Infowars and the Truth
Tuesday March 9th, 2021
Ian Williams: This is Ian Williams from the Foreign Press Association in New York and it gives a great deal of pleasure to me today to be joined by Eliot Higgins, Founder and Executive Director of Bellingcat. I've had other guests who have been enjoyable, we mentioned John Bolton in the past, but whose worldview I do not necessarily share, but with Eliot Higgins I've just finished reading his book, We Are Bellingcat and I found I did share a lot, we've been inadvertently engaged in many of the same battles for truth. And what I like about him is not just that Bellingcat researches and goes into things, but it's the approach which is - just the facts, ma'am. He doesn't start off with a predilection that so-and-so said something so it must be wrong or so-and-so said something must be right, he wants to research the mole and he's done it. So as you all know, Bellingcat has been involved in the Russian poisonings - I don't think we can even say the alleged poisonings anymore. They were poisoning and they were Russian. He's been involved in the downing of the airliner over Ukraine. Looking at the background and excruciating detail. In fact it's quite worrying, as I read his book, to realize how much of a trail you leave just by merely existing with a computer and a telephone. So I'm going to go over immediately, as they say without further ado, to Eliot to explain. How did you get from being a computer gamer, a bored office worker doing computer gaming on the side to being presumably EEnumber one on the Russian secret services hit list?
Eliot Higgins: Yeah, I mean, it's basically just a hobby I had that really got out of hand. So back in 2010, I was working in an office doing kind of admin work every day. I'd been doing that for the past twelve or so years. I was someone who kind of grew up in 90's. I started being a teenager with the first Gulf War and then 2011 with 9/11, and that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So for me, I've spent my teenage years - were very much defined by the U.S. involvement in conflicts and the UK being kind of drawn into those conflicts. So I was always quite interested in kind of left wing kind of approaches to those topics. So as the sort of person who, you know, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger and Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk, those kind of books, and as I was growing up, I was always interested in that kind of area, but also as someone who spent a lot of time on the Internet and, you know, even from like the mid 90s, I was kind of using CompuServe and, you know, those kind of platforms and moved on to using Internet forums like the Something Awful forums going on, places then like the Guardian Middle East liveblog in 2010 when the Arab Spring was really getting going. And what was quite unique to me to that is how you could watch a live stream from like Tahrir Square- you know, security forces battled with protesters over hours and hours.
Ian Williams: In Cairo, which we should explain to anyone not up on their geography.
Eliot Higgins: So during the Arab Spring in Egypt you could watch the live streamed kind of battles between protesters. And then I was kind of just commenting online about it. And when it came to Libya, there were more videos coming from the ground and a lot of debate about these videos, whether or not they were genuine or not. I think the media had got bit scared after a few kind of scandals, like there's a blog called Gay Girl in Damascus that was being cited quite a bit in the media. It turned out to be some guy in the US just pretending to be a gay girl in Damascus. And it led into like a huge string and I think that had a real impact on the way the media saw content coming from these kind of Arab Spring countries. So even when there were videos and photographs, I think they were a bit scared about using it. Yeah, it seemed really interesting to me. There was stuff there showing, you know, rebel groups capturing towns or arms depots, getting overrun where there was stuff that was interesting in there, but it wasn't really being taken seriously or even used. The people really discussing it with the people in the comments under these, you know, the Guardian liveblog where I was talking a lot on the Something Awful forums, who would kind of share it and then kind of argue whether or not it was genuine. And I thought, well, can we actually figure out what is genuine in these videos? And there was a video that came from a place called Tiji in Libya. And it was significant because the rebels had claimed they had captured this town. And having followed the conflicts like every single day and reading all the comments and tweets and YouTube videos and basically everything there was in English about what was happening in Libya. It was significant because it showed the rebel group in the area had pushed out their front line positions. They'd been holding on for weeks. So I saw this video, it was a video that showed a tank running down this road in the center of this town. The road was about two lanes wide with a central divider. It was next to a mosque with a dome and minarets. And I thought, well, let's see if I can see on Google Maps. So I went to Google Maps. I searched for Tiji in Libya, which took me right there, there was satellite imagery of it. And very clearly there was one major road running through this quite small town assumed into that. And I could see it was wide enough to have certainly a tank on it. There were like cars visible showing us two or three lanes wide plus the central divider, splitting it into two sections. So I followed that along and there was a mosque on the road with a dome and minaret and then went back to the video and looked at the smaller details, like the wall that went round the building or the curve of the road or the position of buildings and trees. And as I looked at the satellite image, I realized it matched perfectly. And that was kind of early 2011 when I stumbled into this idea of what we now call geolocation. And I basically did it to kind of win an argument on the Internet.So it kind of just you know, it was a really strange kind of way for me to figure out how to, you know, figure out what was going on. So then I posted that on the blog and people said, oh, I was wrong and I was an idiot and I should go away. And then I just kept doing it. It became like a hobby for me, just like finding these videos and figuring out where they were filmed using satellite imagery. And because I was posting about it almost obsessively every single day, I was kind of training myself to do what was eventually a core skill in investigation. So eventually I decided I would kind of start a blog, really just to bring together the kind of ideas I had kind of come across, not even to be like a journalist or an investigator, really, just somewhere where I could write.
Ian Williams: You weren't being paid for this were you?
Eliot Higgins: No I was just doing this as a hobby and I just wanted to see what I could almost like.. I mean, my daughter had been born a few months early and all my other hobbies had gone out the window. And I thought, well, if I do a blog, I can pick this up and put it down and it's interesting to look at these videos in this way. And that was early 2012, which is when the kind of conflict in Syria has started to escalate. And because I didn't really know any well.. I didn't know any Arabic at all, I was focused on these videos that were popping up online where, like the rebel groups had certain weapons and using resources online I taught myself what those weapons were and I started building up a bit of a following among people who were also interested in these videos and figuring out what they meant and they would be kind of the journalists who were there or someone working an NGO like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty, not many people, but we formed the kind of initial group of people interested in this open source investigation.
Ian Williams: We've got a question here from Ralph Engelman, which I think is relevant. He says, your work is impressive, but is my impression correct that in its work there is a special preoccupation with Russian related stories? If so, might this have been influenced by your work for the Atlantic Council? And if I could follow on from that, I mean, you just mentioned several I would say former heroes of mine, Robert Fisk, Sy Hersh, Noam Chomsky and I discovered whoever idols have feet of clay over the last 10 years, these have had feet of painted Russian red clay that they have continually erred on the side of Putin, thinking he's a nice, cozy figure, improving the world from the Kremlin. So without being on the side of Washington, I tend to share your obsession with them. But I mean, is that the way you came to it?
Eliot Higgins: Well, it really was almost a natural evolution of how, in fact, the entire open source community that formed around the Arab Spring actually developed because initially it kind of develops, particularly around what was happening first in Egypt. I mean, it's literally a handful of people who may have been lifelong. Andy Carvin, NPR, for example. Then when I started blogging, it was focused on two things - the U.K. phone hacking scandal and what was happening in Syria. And it was just an extension of kind of the fact, you know, Libya had..
Ian Williams: Can we just double back and remind people that the phone hacking scandal in Britain was because a Murdoch inspired newspaper primarily was spying on the phones of individuals, prominent individuals, to get their private lives and broadcast them. This closed the biggest newspaper in the world, I believe it was the News of the World, and they're still paying hefty sums out to the victims. So that was the hacking scandal. Yes.
Eliot Higgins: So I was kind of just looking at these videos and remember, this was just kind of like a hobby of mine, I had no intention for anyone to even bother reading my blog, I actually called after Frank Zappa song Brown Moses I was listening to when I addressed it in another account. So it was the Brown Moses blog and everyone knew me as Brown Moses. And it was quite random, but over time, I started finding more and more interesting videos like the first videos of cluster bombs, barrel bombs, and that kind of built up what I was doing - built a reputation for me, and that led me to kind of get more well known. So I kind of focused on Syria for those first two years then that led me to launching Bellingcat because there was an increasing number of people who are interested in open-source investigation, wanted to learn how to do it, and also asked me if they could contribute stuff to my blog. And I thought, well, I'll start a new site where I can kind of have the resources for people to learn how to do it themselves and, you know, submit articles. So that was July 14, 2014, when I launched Bellingcat. Then three days later, MH 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine. What happened then is, you know, this was all crowdfunded. I mean, I launched Bellingcat with a 60000 pounds raised on Kickstarter and MH 17, in a sense, before we just had a community of open-source investigators who are pretty much only looking at Syria because that's where we kind of all emerge from, in a sense. But then you have this kind of community emerge around Ukraine and what was happening there in that community, you know, was just made up of people online on social media, just ordinary people, but some who knew the work of Bellingcat. So what started happening then is I mean, this is literally within days I started seeing certain people who were on Twitter and finding good stuff and actually doing some of their own analysis, using the kind of things I've been doing, figuring out where these missile launches that were filmed and photographed were in Ukraine. And we kind of formed a group around that just kind of an informal working group, just all interested in the same subject. And over the next weeks, we'd form like a team basically just looking at the videos and stuff that were coming from eastern Ukraine then that just, led us to more and more discoveries about what was happening, not only with MH 17, you know, the fact that the missile launcher came from Russia. And we all went into this, just wanting to know what happened.. if the missile launcher was Ukrainian, that shot down MH 17, we'd have written about that. But, you know, that wasn't the case. So we worked on that for a while and we discovered more then about Russia's involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine itself. So that expanded our kind of understanding of the conflict and again, focused on Russia just because that was kind of the natural kind of movement of the community. Then with Russia started bombing Syria in 2015 and that kind of brought everyone from the kind of Syrian Ukraine open-source community kind of together. So it's kind of just the natural evolution of what was happening and then it was almost by accident we discovered the stuff about the Skripal poisoning because one of our colleagues, Christo Grozev had an idea that you could kind..he had these leaked Russian databases that been floating around, looked at the two suspects and discovered they didn't exist in 2012, but they did exist in 2013. And seeing they were clearly not five years old, there was something suspicious. And then that kind of led to that. Of course, throughout this, Russia has been really annoyed with us so they're constantly kind of pushing back against us and attacking us. We're constantly in a position where we have to, you know, they say, well, this is completely untrue and we have to prove, no, actually, we've done the research and we've verified the evidence. So that's kind of why the focus on Russia.
Ian Williams: You've have the ultimate accolade - that you've just become a non-person in Russia.
Eliot Higgins: Yeah,in Russian state media. There was an article last week where they wrote that Higgins didn't exist and there's no evidence that my wife or children exist. My children were very surprised about that when I told them. I told them I couldn't homeschool them anymore because they didn't exist. Russia said so. But that's kind of I mean, they've called us the CIA, MI6, MI5. They've called us amateurs, but now they've kind of unpersoned me. So there's been a kind of escalation there all the way through.
Ian Williams: Were you sort of involved tangentially involved in a campaign of vilification against the White Helmets in Syria? I mean,the Russians really were focused and their allies across the world went full court on presenting the White Helmets in Syria - the people who tried to rescue Assad's victims from the rubble as the CIA and MI5, MI6.. could you care to comment on that or give some background?
Eliot Higgins: Yeah, it depends how deep you want to go in the subject. So there has you know, Russia obviously doesn't like the White Helmets because they're presenting evidence of war crimes and other information. But often we kind of.. when we talk about this information, it's so often framed as Russia doing something to us, but really with the kind of anti white helmet stuff they were amplifying, a pre-existing community that had existed for a long time which is made up of many people who had a distrust of the West, in particular because of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. They found basically an extension of what happened in 2003, if the West was interested in the Middle East, it's because they wanted to invade and take all the oil again. So you find this with all sorts of communities online on a whole range of different subjects. Really, at the core of it is a fundamental distrust in traditional sources of authority by the government or media based off kind of often valid kind of betrayals of trust, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the UK and US and the media and the government lied and basically brought us into a conflict that had devastating consequences to the whole region. But these people really see their entire worldview through that entire perspective. And it's not just unique to the invasion of Iraq. It can be stuff, you know, related to kind of coronavirus. You find a lot of the coronavirus conspiracies are coming from people through the kind of alternative health community who have a distrust in kind of mainstream kind of medical authority. And often those people or some of those people in those communities are then drawn into kind of vaccine conspiracy theories. And it's not like you distrust doctors, therefore you're a vaccine conspiracy theorist. There is always a process of radicalization in these kind of counterfactual communities that start forming online. It's the the same as well for things like the flat Earth movement.. You might click on a video link thinking that flat Earthers are funny but one in 10000 people will watch the video and say, actually, that's interesting and keep clicking on another and another that's helpfully served to them by Google or, you know, whichever social media platform thanks to the algorithm deciding they want to know about the Earth being flat and you end up with this kind of process of online radicalization around the whole range of different topics. And I think really those communities see themselves in opposition to these traditional sources of authority that they see as the enemy. They see I've been let down by the media, the government they've betrayed you know, what I believe, and therefore they're bad and should be destroyed and anyone who doesn't agree with me is either a dupe or proactively part of that deception. And the White Helmets thing is really something that has taken hold within a certain kind of community. And that then was really amplified by the Russian Federation - certain personalities within that kind of counterfactual community - there's alternative media ecosystem were kind of taking to the U.N. to talk about how awful the White Helmets were, or constantly appearing on things like Russia today or cited by Russian officials, a whole range of different bodies. So, you know, I do get frustrated when there is this discussion about this information that is so often focused on what someone is doing to us rather than what we're doing to ourselves as a society.
Ian Williams: Well, somebody here raised the question, Eric Bergen, how would you go about verifying the findings from researchers on the network? Eric admits it's often hard to get things confirmed from official sources. I mean, you operate on a sort of distributed peer review system, really, you don't have a jury or a voter, you don't have you know, OK, ladies and gentlemen, the electronic jury. Is this story true or false?
Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I mean, the thing is its kind of different levels of engagement. But say someone comes to us with an article saying, oh, I've done this investigation, will you publish it? We'll go through that and we'll look at it.. the thing with open-source evidence is you should be able to link to the evidence you're using. If you've got a YouTube video you link to it, it's simple. And then if you're saying, oh I've geolocated it to this location that process is also transparent so we can check it that way. So, the thing that makes this work quite unique and it's really comes from the you know, when I started doing this, I knew that there was no reason anyone should trust anything I was saying because I was just an idiot on the Internet.So I was always very transparent about the sources and the processes that I used for my investigations. So, even if, you know, anytime someone comes to us with a claim or they want something published or they think they found something, there's a transparent process they can go through to prove it to us. And if they haven't done that, then we tell them to go and do that. And if they don't do it, then we know not to trust what they're doing. And then we can double check stuff quite easily. If it's so, it makes it difficult for bad information to put into that network. Even when we were working on the recent stuff, examining the assassinations, Skripals and the Navalny's and all the other assassinations that's been going on, that was using information that was basically coming from sources in Russia, this kind of Russian information market, and there this wasn't open-source material in the traditional sense. But it was so endemic that we actually wrote an article explaining how we did our investigations. And then whilst the Russian government was saying we got it from the CIA, Russian media went out and used the same data markets and found the same data from different sources as well. That was matched exactly to what we had been saying. So even though it wasn't like a YouTube video or something that anyone could find in two seconds, it was still so open that people could still go buy the same information and confirm our findings. So we always trying to have, as if possible, a way to be as transparent as possible about our sources who aren't saying this person has told us this thing where even when we're buying this kind of data from these Russian data markets, we buy, for example, someone's phone records. And there's a phone number on there they've called that's of interest, we'll actually go and buy from a separate source the phone records for that person and then make sure they match correctly. So we usually try and have two or three kind of separate sources for each kind of claim that we're making in these articles, rather than just saying we've got this one source that tells us this thing, because we know in this, especially in the case with the Russia stuff, the Russian government is going and changing data specifically in reaction to the work that we're doing. So we do have to make sure everything is verified and fact checked.
Ian Williams: You're treading on what for some traditional journalists will be a thin line here.. buying private telephone data is considered to be unethical no matter what the end result is. We accept that government's do it all the time and probably don't pay for it. But you're doing it for many journalists would strike, you know, just just a little over the top. You've had this debate with them. How would you answer them?
Eliot Higgins: So, I mean, this is a debate we had internally when we first started doing this. It really started with the Skripal investigation where one of our colleagues, Christo Grozev.. among information he'd been gathering over the years, he had these leaked databases, you know, you could go to a market in Russia ten years ago and buy them on a DVD and they were turning up on torrents and stuff like that on the Internet. So he had some and he looked at the two suspects who were presenting themselves as being huge sports nutrition salesman who came to Salisbury to see the one hundred and twenty three metre spire on Russia today and discovered that in the 2013 databases he had, they looked like house registrations, they existed. But in the 2012 database, they didn't exist at all. They'd just come into life from nowhere in 2013 and that was really suspicious. And, you know, we're talking about nerve agent being used in a British town to assassinate people. And, you know, this looked like Charlie Rowly, who was the partner of Dawn Sturgess who died from being exposed to Novacek after he found a sealed perfume bottle inside a bin and gave it to her thinking was a perfume. And it was actually filled with Novichock, that if he'd been walking down the street and dropped it on the floor, he could have poisoned half the town with that Novichock. Irresponsible is light word to say what was happening there. So the other thing we thought as well was well if we expose who these people are it would make it impossible for them to fly around Europe poisoning people. So for us, there was also on the flip side of the ethical coin, the fact that we knew we could get this data but by not doing it, that could actually result in more people being assassinated with nerve agents. But then that just got turned into like this endless I mean.. the Navalny thing we did recently was basically just an extension of what we started in 2018 because that research on the Skripals led us to another assassination attempt in Bulgaria in 2015, linked to more of these GRU officers. That then took us to a nerve agent lab, the secret nerve agent program in Russia that we identified, The scientists who had been working on the old Novichock program basically went on to work in these other places, one of which supposedly made sports nutrition, just like the Skripal assassins that they were doing. So I don't know if that was an in-joke but it was like a weird moment. So when Navalny was poisoned, we just checked these people's phone records and they've been phoning, calling an FSB team who we then discovered had been following him 40 times. And now we discovered have followed numerous Russian opposition figures and also non-political figures who died under mysterious circumstances or felt extremely ill under mysterious circumstances. And we're still finding more of these cases. And it's like, OK, where do we draw the line where it says, OK, this isn't ethical to do anymore? Because we are revealing a massive Russian state sponsored assassination program using an illegal nerve agent program, which seems to us like it's significant enough that it's justified. But, you know, we've had a kind of ethical debate because with Bellingcat, well, we're a bit unusual in that we're a charitable foundation. So we have a supervisory board.We have to kind of justify our acts to and, you know, have these ethical discussions with as well. So, you know, top to bottom, we're having these discussions. This isn't kind of like, you know, an organization where I'm the king of Bellingcat and I get to decide what we do. We have to justify it like our board of directors and our supervisory boards. So it's something we have a lot of debate about in the organization.
Ian Williams: You can almost see why Putin is nostalgic for the good old days of Stalin.. this information would not have been leaked in the good old days. I mean, the fact that the Russians are so incompetent in protecting their sources and the system is so permeable and transparent to you, it must be extremely galling to the old style apparatchiks in Moscow.
Eliot Higgins: I mean, it really must be. But it's always been interesting for me how I mean, Russia really does genuinely seem to think that we are part of the MI6 or the CIA. I mean, I've spoken to people from a variety of bodies at the U.N. and other places where they said they've spoken to Russian officials who've seriously told them that Bellingcat is working for the intelligence services, Where I'm MI6? We had the Russian ambassador to the UK to a room full of journalists that we are working for the British establishment and working with the intelligence services. And I think they genuinely believe this now. And that worries me a bit, because when we're publishing about all these Russian assassinations and the secret nerve agent program, it kind of logically follows that they must think that if we're publishing it, then it must be MI6 or the CIA telling us to publish it and therefore the governments must know. But then when the governments only dispel a few diplomats and do a few lame sanctions, do they then think, well, the governments mustn't really care because their intelligence agencies have been instructed to reveal this information to the public and now they're just doing a few lame sanctions so let's keep murdering people because obviously they're not that bothered about it. So that kind of really worries me about this kind of the international reaction.
Ian Williams: You certainly get that impression with Syria, because this week its been in the Security Council and the Irish ambassador, amongst many others, was saying, what type of body is this? They've been killing people in Syria for ten years, you've been observing it, you've been finding nerve gas and chemical weapons in there, and you're doing absolutely nothing about it. That question was asked this very week, I believe, by that by several ambassadors in the Security Council.So you can quite understand why, you know, if nothing happens, did the tree really fall?
Eliot Higgins: Well, yeah, this is the thing. I mean, I think personally, for me, if. I mean, Syria in particular, chemical weapons is something I've worked on for a long time and I'm very much part of the community now that's involved with the justice and accountability efforts, like the recent stuff that's happening in France about the August sarin attacks in Damascus. But the way that's being reported, I think the average person would probably think there's been three or four chemical attacks in Syria, but the reality is close to three or four hundred. And these are very, very well documented. I mean, not just from open-sources, but there's a lot of information that's been gathered around these attacks that is really quite detailed. Yet it's being done on such a massive scale. And you wonder that if there's a perception from the Syrian government and the Russian government that our intelligence services are so great that we they know everything and they know there's all these attacks going on, then the fact there's been no real reaction against, you know, 99 percent of the attacks seems to create this kind of permission structure and that really worries me, because if that happens in Syria, then other countries might be seeing it the same way that there's this massive amount of chemical weapon use that is acceptable as long as you're only killing a few people with it every time you're using it. But you can do it as much as you want.
Ian Williams: Well, you've seen we've seen them. I mean, sadly, you came along too late to deal with the Balkans, but the same type of misinformation was being used in the Balkans. That flat out denial, you know, 6000 corpses at Srebrenica. Oh, you know, you're inventing it. They're made up. They just grew overnight. You know, the type of complete, utter denial by governments, but. Are you tempted to redeem yourself by doing a sort of blockbuster style Julian Assange jump on the Pentagon or Washington?
Eliot Higgins: The thing is, a lot of people say, why don't you do the same thing you're doing with Russia, with these spies, with the U.S. and you can't because the US doesn't have all its data being leaked online. You know, it's easy, you know, popping down the shop to buy a bag of chips. It's kind of, you know, it's so available. There's so much leaking of information going on that the circumstances that allows to do these kind of investigations are actually quite unique to Russia. And we have investigated stuff that focuses on the U.S. We did a really big investigation into violence against black life matters. Protesters, for example. We've investigated a really horrific airstrike in Syria by US forces on a mosque that was filled with civilians, which the US claimed wasn't really a mosque. It was an al-Qaida meeting location. Yet there were women and children being pulled out of the building. And, you know, we've done a lot of work actually investigating, for example, Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. Bellingcat although we're kind of considered as a journalism organization often by many journalists, we actually do a kind of a range of activities. So we do a lot actually with justice and accountability.So I've been working with the International Criminal Courts Technology Advisory Board on looking at the issue of using open-source evidence in courts. And what's very unusual about this field is it doesn't, hasn't emerged from a field of experts. It's a emerged from a field of amateurs. And because this information is so valuable in accountability, there's questions about how you can actually use this evidence in courts. And so that's meant as almost like a front line responder to the kind of incidents that are happening using open-source information. Bellingcat has kind of found this, the kind of leading efforts to turn what we do, investigations into a process that can be used for court. So we focused on that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen to begin with. We've done a couple of dozen investigations in Saudi airstrikes using a new process for archiving and investigation. And actually, recently we had a mock trial with real lawyers and a real judge who'll be joining the ICC to test if this evidence can actually be used in court using the process we've developed. And once we kind of hone that process, the idea is that we'll document it and distribute it to other organizations who are working with open-source evidence and any kind of future Bellingcat like organizations that pop up, because there are a lot of questions about how you use open-source evidence in trials and there's been some movement towards it. But we found ourselves in this very strange position of being the ones who are actually gathering and analyzing it and with bodies like the ICC where, you know, they have been very slow to start an investigation and now Facebook and YouTube takes this sort of content offline very, very quickly. In a way, the only way to capture an archive, that content is by having groups, you know, like Bellingcat collecting it first, but they have to collect it that in a way that's actually useful for courts. So, you know, it's a challenge then, you know, as a small organization, I mean, we're 20 people. We have a budget of less than two million euros a year. And we're trying to figure out this massive, complicated problem. But we do that through engaging on a wide range of topics and a wide range of subjects. And, you know, it might seem that we write about Russia a lot, but we actually don't actually write about Russia as much as possible. It's just those individual Russia stories are so big that it kind of blots out all the other stuff that we're doing.
Ian Williams: A question from Brazil. Roberto Pierto. Do you think Bellingcat is a blueprint for digital investigative journalism and which agencies, organizations do you think are using open-source techniques shrewdly besides Bellingcat? I'd like to add to that. the sort of shadow areas on the Internet, are their resources available..take the Congo this week, the UN has consistently been sending officials to be killed on a road which everybody apparently locally knows is unsafe and they're being assured it's safe. They've since had investigators killed, they've had judges killed and investigators into the investigations have being killed. Is the net pervasive enough there for the same techniques to be used?
Eliot Higgins: It could be, I mean, it can be used in a whole range of different subjects and all sorts of different areas. And also it's all kinds of different levels as well. It doesn't always have to be about kind of massive war crimes all over the place. One thing we try and do with Bellingcat is try to engage with a whole range of different types of organizations who might be able to apply open-source investigation in their own work. Often that's kind of media organizations or kind of NGOs and activists. But, you know, we've been engaging with organizations in Latin America to, you know, working on projects in the killing of journalists in Mexico, for example, the Oscar Perez shooting that happened as well. That was in the very big investigation we did. And we're also looking now as well, not just looking at these kind of journalists and NGO trainings, but looking at younger people as well. There's a really interesting project in the U.K. called Student View, where they've been creating Pop-Up newsrooms for 16 to 18 year olds in schools, in deprived areas, teaching them how to do investigative journalism, to look into their local area. And, you know, this is exactly the perfect thing for Bellingcat, it's open-source investigation because that's something that's very teachable. And you're not only showing them how to do investigations, you're showing them how they can actually have an impact in their own area and also connecting them to a network of people who can kind of promote their work in different ways and show them how to engage with that. And that's the kind of thing that I'm really interested in. It's not just about helping another organization. It's about connecting them to a network that allows them to work with different people in different ways. A lot of our work now is based of collaborative projects. We've just done one, for example, on Frontex border pushbacks. The Frontex is basically the EU agency that's supposed to protect our borders and they've been doing these border pushbacks in the Mediterranean. What they'll do is they'll have migrant boats coming from Turkey to Greece. They'll disable the engine and then use the wake of their boats to push them back into Turkish waters and hope they float back to Turkish shores and kind of just leave them there. And if they don't float back and they instead drown. And we did an investigation, which was a combination between a Japanese TV company, a German newspaper, Dutch journalism NGOs and volunteers who were just really interested in the topic. And because we have that kind of multipronged approach it led to the EU starting an investigation into Frontex because of their activity and a lot of criticism of their organization. But by doing the collaborative projects and working across not just different countries but also different fields, you can actually have a lot more impact than just say knocking something out on the Bellingcatwebsite. So I always try and really encourage people to collaborate in a kind of wide a range as possible because I feel that really has a lot more impact.
Eliot Higgins: Obviously your work is murder and poison gas and assassinations are the sexy subjects, you might say. And in one of the biggest threats to the world economy today from some points of view, is massive corruption and black money movements. Is this something you dare to delve into yet? Because they're probably more ruthless than the Russians if you start poking..
Eliot Higgins: Yeah, we've done some work. I mean, we did a really intense data project on the use of Scottish limited partnerships in the UK for suspicious financial activities, which is probably not worth explaining to an American audience. It's one of these things that, you know, the data's there. Just no one ever is looking at it. And we just put someone on to look at it. And there was a lot of interesting stuff going on there. Apparently, lots of Russians and Ukrainians own companies in Scotland for some reason. You can use open-source to investigate corruption in politicians by finding out, you know, often you'll find the in certain parts of the world where there is a lot of corruption you'll find the wives and girlfriends and children of these politicians are, you know on Instagram taking photographs of all their expensive kinds of jewelry and cars and holidays they're going whilst the person's earning like ten thousand dollars a year officially. So you can use kind of open-source investigation to do that as well. And we do have some of the big projects in the works on corruptions. But I mean, you have groups like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project who do really amazing work on that. We did a piece recently where we collaborated with a group focused on Kyrgyzstan and corruption there, the customs officials, which led to protests and some quite strong public reaction to that. So, yeah, we do kind of work on all kinds of areas. And open-source investigation really is applicable to all kinds of things we've been doing recently, conservation issues, looking at groups who are involved with illegal wildlife trade. So we've done something more recently where we looked at how inDubai there's a community of people who buy and sell basically baby wild animals like tiger cubs so they can be used in Instagram photographs and there's like a whole trade in it. And it's like really it's absolutely disgusting. And it's for people just so they can kind of look cool on Instagram for the followers. But it happens a lot in Dubai. And even though it's supposedly illegal, they get away with it because it seems like some of the senior people involved with policing the wildlife trade are also involved with breaking the laws around the wildlife trade. So, yeah, there's a whole range of things you can do. In fact, I don't get much chance to investigate at the moment. I mean, last year I was working on my book and running Bellingcat but one investigation I did do last year, which was very successful, was I was contacted by LostDog.co.uk, which is a group that looks for dogs that have been stolen. And they came to me saying, we've got the CCTV footage of a car that has a stolen dog in it can you look at it and figure out what it is? And there was a very blurry piece of footage we couldn't read the number plate, but one of my colleagues, Timmi Allen, he had developed a process to use machine learning to decipher blurry numberplates. It developed this to investigate murders of police officers and journalists. But we applied it to this car that had this stolen dog in it and found they got the number plate, the police used and went to the person's house who owned the car and the dog was in the garden barking away and they rescued the dog. And that was like ten minutes work, but reunited a family who had had their animal stolen.
Ian Williams: And I hope leads to a lot of donations from dog lovers for Bellingcats charitable work.
Eliot Higgins: So these techniques, we developed these techniques and they can be applied to all kinds of different subjects, from selling dogs to, you know, the murder of journalists. So by sharing it and propagating those ideas through a network as well, that's kind of, you know, it makes it easier for other people to kind of achieve, you know, interesting findings in their own work.
Ian Williams: Our colleague Frank Gomez's question - with a limitless number of possible areas of focus how do you narrow the and select the ones you want to explore? Is it just an element of serendipity like, you know, passing dog lover calls you up?
Eliot Higgins: I mean,it varies quite a bit. I mean, generally, my rule is that if people are interested in doing stuff as researchers, they can go off and do it because they're the ones who are going to spend hours and hours looking at 10000 Facebook pages to figure out, you know, the clue. And if they don't care about it now, we're going to really enjoy that process. But within Bellingcat, we do have a kind of long term strategy that is around developing ideas around justice and accountability. So, we're looking for projects where we have an opportunity to do investigations that we can then use in your work with legal organizations to see if we can use them in court. So that's why we're focusing on Yemen, because those investigations are actually used to challenge U.K. arms exports to Yemen, to Saudi Arabia, Arabia, rather. I mean, the U.K. just moved the goalposts of what they thought was acceptable when they saw evidence. But, you know, the whole point was that we are trying to make this and this is why we're testing it in court. So really now our staff know that we have these kind of broad goals, but even within that, they can have a huge scope of what they can do. I mean, it is frustrating, though, because we are a small organization and even with volunteers, when you're looking at stuff like war crimes, you do need quite a small group working on that, not least because there's issues of like vicarious trauma. But you also have to have a systematic evidence collection process which makes it more work intensive and not something you can just kind of crowd source online. And it's very frustrating when, you know, there's stuff that could be investigated in Sudan and my mind all over that we just don't have the resources to do, even though we're sure we could do huge amounts of work on those areas. But that's, again, while we try and train people to do open source-investigations. So there's a chance that even if we are able to do it, someone else has the skills to actually do that.
Ian Williams: Part of it is, I mean I see a pattern developing as well because you're finding information, but you're not able to get it out in a way that has an effect. I mean, you mentioned the multiple chemical warfare attacks in Syria. You've mentioned some of the other incidents. What I don't remember is the headlines about them. Well, the questions asked in Parliament or Congress or, you know, the various legislative bodies, what are you doing about this to the governments? You discuss the stuff in Yemen and the Saudis are still dropping high explosives on Yemen, even if the British have now decided that they're not the defensive high explosives, big drop.
Eliot Higgins: I mean, one sense. I mean, Syria's a kind of weird one because although there's not been a kind of direct impact, like, you know, an investigation has led to, you know, the UN doing something. There has actually been this in the justice and accountability community.. Syria has kind of set the example of what you can potentially do with this kind of work. And it's sad that we can't do a lot of the work in Syria. But for example, the Open Society Justice Initiative has just worked together with various organisations to put together a case in France against Syrian officials on August 5th and August 20th Sarin attacks in Damascus in 2013 and that started to then talk to me about the open-source evidence of these attacks, and they're doing more and more around these kind of attacks. And sometimes when, you know, accountability doesn't come fast sometimes but other times though.It can be surprisingly fast. A few years ago, there was a video shared online from somewhere in Africa. It showed somewhere..tt could have been anywhere you know, you had no idea where it was. It was kind of in the countryside. There were a few kind of small structures, a dusty path.. two women carrying two very young children on their back.. marched down the road by a group of soldiers and then executed on the roadside. It was a really horrific video that was being shown on social media. At that time we were doing a workshop with journalists in London, and we usually do three days of training of open-source investigations and then two days of investigating stuff that they're interested in. And this video was what they were interested in. So in those two days, we managed to identify the weapons and uniforms matching to those being used by a specific part of the Cameroonian army. And one of the journalist's went on and did a piece on ITV News in the UK and then some journalists on BBC picked it up and started asking questions of the Cameroonian government who responded by giving a lengthy press conference where they had the video still with 'fake news' written underneath it and explained step by step, how could it be Cameroonian? The guns aren't right. The soldiers, everyone was wrong. That was like a red rag to a bull to us. So we kind of formed a group that was people from Amnesty, BellingCats, Conflict Armament Searc, some people from Twitter who were just really keen on looking at this video and then a lot of work on it. And we figured out exactly where it was filmed, who the people are in the videos and that led to the Cameroonians having to put them on trial for murder. And a couple of months ago, they were convicted for those murders. So it is possible to have impact. And the sad thing is that only got looked at in that way because we were running a workshop where a bunch of people kind of came together and started looking at it. If it really hadn't been for that, there's a good chance that wouldn't have been looked at and those people wouldn't have found accountability for their actions. And for me, it kind of shows the potential of what you can do with this, but it also frustrates me that we can only do it in a really small way because we're a tiny organization and that's a game where we try and spread the word about open-source investigation as much as possible.
Ian Williams: Well as we at the FPA have discovered ourselves is, if you have a good organzation people immitate you and dont the job properly. How do you make sure that as organizations emulate you, they operate on the same ethical standards?
Eliot Higgins: It's difficult, I mean, we don't have that as too much of a problem at the moment because it tends to be quite small scale and the thing is you know you do have to make a real time commitment to do this work, it has to be all you do. So within the media, for example, is being done most effectively by The New York Times and the BBC Africa i Team team who are actually involved with the Cameroonian case where they've had a team dedicated to this kind of investigation, although their outcome is purely kind of journalistic, was we have outcomes that are kind of multi kind of haddadi. We have journalistic types, accountability types. You know, we have a range of kind of goals of what we're doing, our investigation work. So it makes it quite difficult, actually, to have a an organization starting to do this, because they do have to have that commitment and they need resources. So what we do more and more is partnered with other organizations who are kind of more traditional organizations, and they chose their field of human rights or, you know, journalists or whoever and give them are kind of open source investigation experience as part of an investigation that allows them to do that kind of more traditional investigative work alongside what we're doing, combining our efforts and then having multiple outcomes, you know, that allow us to kind of approach that problem, you know, from different angles when we kind of come to the impact side of it. So it's difficult, but I think in the open-source community, we're quite happy to call out other people who are getting stuff wrong with open-source investigation. So in a sense, we're self policing because I think a lot of open-source investigators, especially the ambitious ones, if you are a professional organization and you mess up an open-source investigation by the transparent nature of it, the way in which stuff is geolocated and sources are shared, you will get called out on that by plenty of people on the Internet. And because the open-source investigation community is..it's growing, but it's still kind of like everyone knows each other. So if you mess up in a really big way and publish something that's not true using open-source investigation, you do get called out on it and you will get called out on it publicly. So you have to be really careful about what you're doing as an open-source investigator. Plus, you have a whole community of people in these counterfactual communities just waiting to tear you apart for the slightest mistake. So in a way that kind of polices those organizations who might kind of make, you know, do it the wrong way, because if they're publishing stuff..
Ian Williams: I love your coinage - the counterfactual community, and you're sort of really belling the cat here. You've been looking at Black Lives Matter and presumably January the 6th. But with Black Lives Matter, there were accusations and counteraccusations. There were people who have now been revealed on Capitol Hill who seem to have been involved in provoking some of the violence, which was alleged at the time, but denied. Where did you work go from there? How far has that gone?
Eliot Higgins: January 6th, I swear to God, I've watched about a thousand videos from start to finish on January 6th, since January 6th, because we're working at the moment and putting together a lot of information about it I can't go into details at the moment, but it has involved me systematically watching every single video. So all the leaks, Parler videos, all the ones that people shared on YouTube. What we actually did is as soon as we saw it happening, we basically put out a call to our followers on social media to send us any links they had with videos. And we collected a selection of about I think we ended up about 500 or 600 video links from a whole range of different sources. Then there were the Parler leaks, which were all the videos that were kind of geotagged to Washington, D.C from Parler, which there were five or six hundred videos, so about a thousand videos in total showing all kinds of things that were happening, all kinds of perspectives. And then I've been working to put those into a timeline and figure out that kind of progression of events that were happening. What's been very interesting for me is the way in which the violence kind of escalated really first coming from the police. The crowd almost was almost festive. And then the police were firing flash bangs at head height into the densest parts of the crowd, which really upset people in the crowd. But even then, this kind of escalation was quite gradual. And that doesn't really come across in a lot of the way that this has been reported like that suddenly they descended on the Capitol, broke in and smashed everything up. But there was kind of more progression there.So it's kind of been very interesting for me to kind of look at that. On the other side as well, we do occasionally help law enforcement, like with the MH 17 case where we found a lot of open-source evidence we shared with the joint investigation team. We didn't do this in this case because, you know, it's not our job to identify suspects involved with or, you know, comparatively low level crimes. I mean, it's one thing to shoot down an airliner with 298 people in it but it's another to kind of, you know, assault a police officer, which is still bad, but not one where.. we aren't the police, it's not our job to do the job of the FBI and, you know, find the identities of people. And also, we kind of knew that these people would have their identities found anyway because there were so many people looking at it. So we thought we'd focus on the more difficult task of kind of untangling all this imagery to figure out much more clearly how the day progressed.
Ian Williams: The narrative timeline. Most of your work necessarily is involved in scrutiny of governments and their nefarious actions. Have you done much on corporations? Can you get access to their databases? There are major corporations we know have been trying to buy journalists, for example, to protect themselves in litigation about toxic substances. We've been victims ourselves of that.
Eliot Higgins: We've done a bit of work.One thing we did was to expose the illegal sale of chemicals to Syria. I think it was from Belgium that was happening. And then also in the Netherlands and we worked with Syrian Archives and a Belgium newspaper to help expose that. And that led to the kind of managing directors getting jailed and fined because it was quite a serious violation. So, sometimes it pops up in the kind of investigations that we're doing, but it's not been really something we've done a lot of focus on because we know there's other organizations out there who do really good work on that anyway. Sometimes people come with us, come to us saying, I've got this about this, and then because we're kind of networked to all these different organizations we're saying, well, they're actually probably going to be better at doing the investigation than we would be, and sometimes stuff like that isn't very good when it could good to investigate when it comes to kind of the open-source work that we do, because partly it's because so often it's been focused on conflict in the past, we have a kind of.. we're good at doing stuff related to conflict zones but when it comes to that more document focused work, we don't have the same experience as groups like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, for example. So we kind of point them in that direction rather than trying to do it.. to basically end up doing a bad job with the thing that they care about.
Ian Williams: We're coming towards the end, so I suppose the pertinent question would be how do you fund yourself?
Eliot Higgins: Initially I launched Bellingcat with a Kickstarter and I was always looking foe grants, but they would never give you any grants if you didn't have any money, so it's this kind of chicken and egg thing. But crowdfunding, it's kind of solved that. We kind of doubled our turnover every year since we've launched. So, now we've got 20 staff members, we're a foundation in the Netherlands, we're a charitable foundation as well. Our income, thirty percent comes from workshops that we offer now online rather than in person. We probably get ten to fifteen percent from individual donations. And that's through Patreon and just, you know, directly through our website. And the rest of it is made up with various organizations who sponsor us. This is all listed on our website. If you go to Bellingcat.com/about we have all our funders listed because we audited every year we have the results of our yearly audit as well. And that was actually intentional because, as you know, we get accused of being the CIA and MI6 all the time and, you know, taking money from these people and that people. But we have it all on our website who we're funded by, how our funding is broken down in quite detailed matter and how that's actually spent as well, because we have to be transparent as part of the regulations in the Netherlands for a foundation. But we kind of purposely chose that to be that structure because we'd be forced not only to have that, but also the governance structure. That means that I am part of a board of directors, not the boss of Bellingcat, and we have a supervisory board that makes sure that what we say we're doing as an organization that we're sticking to, and that we have to constantly be reporting up to them about stuff that's happening, like questions of the ethical issues, for example, that we brought up earlier. So we were always very keen on having a very clear governance structure and being as transparent, and reasonable to about who funds us and how our money is actually spent and what our activities are.
Ian Williams: Well, we're coming to the end. Thank you very much from the Foreign Press Association. We hope that we can arrange some workshops, particularly for U.S Journalists and for foreign journalists here and abroad. We can try to we can work together on this and do the Lord's work, as it were. On Friday in a sort of related zone at 11AM EST we have Dr Frank Romano speaking to us about the ICC case on the Middle East. As you know, it's controversially just been accepted by the ICC that they're going to investigate this and whether or not the state of Palestine is recognized or not. And then a week on Thursday on the 18th, we have. Christopher Gunness and Brad Adams,the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, speaking about what's happening in Myanmar, which is obviously a suitable case for treatment by Bellingcat. Thank you very much indeed to Elliot Higgins for joining us. So, once again, on behalf of the Foreign Press Association in New York, thank you all for coming.