.
I

n as bold a move as imaginable, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, while in a Russian jail, released a video alleging massive corruption on the part of President Vladimir Putin. In a nearly two-hour-long video which, as of this writing, has received 110 million views, Navalny claims that Putin owns a $1.4 billion mansion on the Black Sea, worthy of a Bond villain with an escape hatch, “aquadisco” (whatever that is), and an underground ice skating rink. President Putin, in a highly choreographed interview, denied owning the palace and a childhood friend and judo partner has stepped forward to claim that he was the rightful owner of the compound, which he intends to turn into a luxury resort.

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News | Eliot Higgins | Bloomsbury | 2 March 2021.

Mr. Navalny was arrested on his return to Moscow, following his August 2020 poisoning with the Russian nerve agent, Novichok, and subsequent evacuation to Germany. Mr. Navalny was, however, not dissuaded by the poisoning or his imminent arrest. Whilst in Germany, Mr. Navalny turned the tables on his would-be assassins. In concert with Bellingcat, the open-source investigative organization, CNN, Der Spiegel, and The Insider, Mr. Navalny was able to identify his poisoners, and entertainingly, call one and convince him to explain how the attempted murder was carried out (allegedly involving the application of the poison to Mr. Navalny’s underpants).

Both the video of Mr. Putin’s alleged palace and the attempted poisoning of Mr. Navalny vividly bring to life the power of investigative reporting’s exposés. While the full details of Mr. Navalny’s reporting are not clear, the process by which Bellingcat uncovered the poisoners is transparent, verifiable, and simply incredible.

While the story of Navalny’s poisoning did not make it into Mr. Eliot Higgins’ We Are Bellingcat, nearly every one of the group’s other successes—from Libya to Syria, Salisbury to Charlottesville—are described in riveting detail. Part police procedural (minus the law enforcement), part manifesto, and part call to arms, We Are Bellingcat is a fascinating look at the rise of this open-source investigative organization and its impact in the last decade.

Transparent Society

The sheer volume of information that individuals and groups put out onto the internet is incredible, a gold mine of truth for open-source researchers and analysts like Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat. To them, that firehose of information is a wealth of data points and an opportunity to investigate and expose wrongdoing and falsehoods. As Mr. Higgins notes, when people post a video or photo, “what people mean to show is not all they are revealing”. His team looks beyond the veneer to find the underlying, hidden, or unintentionally on-display information. That the team can uncover so much without the tools and capabilities of a nation-state intelligence agency is all the more impressive.

Reading this book, I was unfortunately reminded of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. In this oft-cited airplane read, the New York Times columnist argues that the barriers to global competitiveness have fallen and now everywhere can compete with everywhere else on a largely level playing field. While Mr. Friedman was fundamentally wrong in terms of global economics, he was perhaps unintentionally right in terms of reporting and investigations, and it is here that Bellingcat proves the point.

With little more than a laptop, an internet connection, and some software, the Bellingcat team has provided scoop after scoop, from weapons trafficking in Libya, chemical weapons use in Syria, the GRU’s poisoners of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and countless other stories. The fact that Mr. Higgins started this effort merely as a hobby in his downtime, on a shoestring budget, makes Bellingcat’s achievements all the more impressive. There were few specialized skills deployed other than attention to detail and sheer dogged persistence. What Mr. Higgins and the Bellingcat team managed to do could have been done by any group—open-source investigation is truly flat.

One suspects, and indeed hopes, that the Intelligence Community here in the United States has as good, if not better, capabilities as Bellingcat and can leverage the community of experts within and across the IC to achieve similar ends. If there was ever a case for dismantling stovepipes of intelligence and cross-pollinating experts from different agencies and with different skillsets, it is what Bellingcat has been able to achieve.

Equally, it raises questions about the future of human intelligence in an era of near-constant surveillance and social media. How long could the cover of a young Operations Officer last in the global panopticon, even without the benefits of nation-state capabilities? How can the military conceal its movements if its soldiers and Marines are either posting on Instagram and Snapchat or tracking their runs via their Fitbit-like devices?

Building a Firewall Against the Counterfactual Community

At the core of the Bellingcat story is a fundamental tension between the truth and disinformation. Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat are central features in this battle as they seek to uncover verifiable facts amidst an onslaught of “alternative facts”, narratives, and outright falsehoods promulgated by the “Counterfactual Community”.

As Mr. Higgins demonstrates in his book, the Bellingcat team systematically dismantles Damascus’ denials that it was using chemical weapons to suppress anti-regime protests in Syria. They track the Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system on its journey from Russia to Ukraine and back, undermining Moscow’s claims that it was not responsible for the downing of MH17. They artfully and incredibly expose the GRU hit team that attempted to murder Sergei Skripal and, in the process, expose some staggeringly poor tradecraft by Russian military intelligence. The Bellingcat team identified several officers who registered their personal vehicles to the GRU headquarters’ address, the fact that the GRU used sequential passport numbers for some of their covert officers, and more.

Mr. Higgins hopes that Bellingcat and others can build a “firewall against falsehoods”, to counter the alternative facts and disinformation narratives by maintaining a verifiable and transparent analytical process that prioritizes demonstrable truths over feelings and innuendos. In a way, the “Counterfactual Community” helps this by throwing continually falsifiable suggestions and conspiracies, allowing the truth to become more resilient and stress-tested—like forging and hammering steel, strengthening it with each strike.

The strength of Bellingcat is in its credibility and verifiability. Its research is open, the methodology transparent, and its conclusions tested and re-tested. This is in stark contrast with the digital vigilantes who pounced in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, misidentifying the perpetrators. This does not rely on “insider” information or confidential sources, though there are times when the group does need to go beyond that which is readily available, such as when it purchased information about the GRU officers’ passports and identity documents. One hopes that its rigorous standards continue—were the group to slip up, one can only imagine the fallout from its detractors and critics alike.

What is perhaps saddening about Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat is that their outstanding work is now rarer than it once was. What was once the province of proper journalism has given way to search-engine-optimization, clickbait, pith, and snark. What Bellingcat does is what proper journalists and newspapers once did—search for facts, verify information, and present the raw story. What we see today in the press and media is decidedly not that—there are no more real “papers of record”. Informing the public gave way to monetization, returns on investment, and a business model that prioritized eyeballs over engagement.

This is, perhaps, too unkind of a take and far too broad of a statement. Some corners of the media do provide exceptional reporting, in-depth analysis, and considered commentary. These are, however, corners, and not in the main of journalism. The quality of reporting from defense reporters like Valerie Insinna, cybersecurity reporters like Nicole Perlroth, and others never ceases to amaze me. These are, however, true experts of their field and craft, and it shows.

Naturally, there are differences, of course. Traditional press and media often rely on confidential sources who, for their safety and careers, cannot be identified. By contrast, Bellingcat relies almost exclusively on open-source information (save for the few databases purchased off the dark web and elsewhere), and has rigorous verifiability requirements and chains of custody.

To Mr. Higgins’ and Bellingcat’s credit, they are aggressively partnering with various newspapers and news magazines. They have prompted many of the leading outlets to form their own “open-source” research outfits to replicate the success that Bellingcat has achieved in so short a time. Many of Bellingcat’s own staff and volunteers have been hired by traditional media outlets to start internal open-source research outfits. Yet even still, what sets Bellingcat apart is the emphasis on facts, not feelings, emotions, or spin. There is much less editorializing than the presentation of raw and verifiable information, and a systematic dismantling of falsehoods. This integrity, transparency, verifiability, and accountability is Bellingcat’s greatest strength.

One of the most striking things in this book is how much Mr. Higgins spreads the credit around to the open-source community, citing the researchers responsible for the breakthroughs, discoveries, and in-depth analysis. Mr. Higgins is remarkably humble despite the influence and impact his organization has had on the public narrative and in uncovering crimes and their perpetrators. It is not a self-aggrandizing biography of himself, but a biography of the movement. Mr. Higgins is Bellingcat’s most public face, shepherd, and driving force, but there is very little of himself on the pages. This stands in stark contrast with some insider accounts, many of which love nothing more than to make the story about themselves, not the actual story being covered. This is particularly refreshing, and evidence that Mr. Higgins lives what he preaches, and what Bellingcat embodies.

Open Sourcing the Future

Mr. Higgins is curiously optimistic about the future. For him, artificial intelligence, deepfakes, and other advanced technology will not undermine or limit the utility of open-source investigations. He believes, with some merit, that for as much as the purveyors of disinformation leverage and use these tools, so too will the open-source investigators deploy these capabilities to counter mis- and disinformation. At a macro-level, I am somewhat sympathetic and supportive of this perspective. Too often the doomsayers of the future of technology only look at one half of the equation—what Russia could do with a deepfake, or what market speculators could do with a manipulated photo, story, or audio recording—and fail to see how that same tool could be used to unpack and discredit that misinformation.

At a tactical or operational level, however, I am somewhat more skeptical. I’m certainly not suffering from “cyber-miserabilism” as Mr. Higgins describes the belief that big tech and disinformation have doomed our democracy. Rather, I’m more pessimistic about the public’s ability to regain a measure of resilience in this post-truth information era. Dis- and misinformation play on raw emotions, apathy, and confusion. It is far easier to incite passions with a false tweet or story than it is to spark rational engagement with a well-thought-out, and well-analyzed piece of reporting.

Taken together with the sheer volume of falsehoods churned out by the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria, or the Kremlin in Moscow (to say nothing of the domestic mis- and dis-information industry in the United States), the public becomes overwhelmed and numbed to the “news” whether it is fake or otherwise. Moreover, it is easier to retreat to algorithmically generated bubbles where one’s preconceived notions are reinforced. How many people will have the time and attention to follow through (and certainly be rewarded by) with Bellingcat’s or any other’s open-source, verifiable, and highly scrutinized research and analysis? How many will find it easier to either tune in to their preferred flavor of news or tune out entirely?

Mr. Higgins does ring the repeatedly rung bell of education and the critical need of developing an informed and educated citizenry. Not in the sense of teaching them what to think, but merely how to think and how to engage with information, news, and the media. Even after the 2020 election and after the inauguration, I still receive demonstrably and verifiably false conspiracy theories from relatives warning me not to update my iPhone as Mr. Tim Cook is taking away the Emergency Broadcast System, or that soon, the former president’s supporters will unveil a mass conspiracy to upend America’s democracy (the date for this suspiciously keeps moving to the right). Spending a few moments thinking these through, let alone doing any research, lays bare the sheer lunacy of these ideas, yet for some portions of the population, there is truth in the madness. Educating the population is a generational challenge and certainly one worth pursuing, but is not an immediate antidote to the “Counterfactual Community”. Mr. Higgins’ Bellingcat is, however, a welcome prescription to the dis- and mis-information illness.

On reflection, Mr. Higgins’ book is an optimistic one and that’s both welcome and refreshing. Bellingcat’s successes have, thus far, helped shine a light on and through mis- and dis-information and expose the abuses of power in places like Syria, Russia, and elsewhere. The tools and techniques Bellingcat uses are being shared and taught to groups around the world in hopes of capturing records of human rights abuses and war crimes, but also to ensure that a true accounting of the facts is preserved. In this post-truth era, such accounting is more critical than ever.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Photo by Josh Rose via Unsplash.

February 27, 2021

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News | Eliot Higgins | Bloomsbury | 2 March 2021.

I

n as bold a move as imaginable, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, while in a Russian jail, released a video alleging massive corruption on the part of President Vladimir Putin. In a nearly two-hour-long video which, as of this writing, has received 110 million views, Navalny claims that Putin owns a $1.4 billion mansion on the Black Sea, worthy of a Bond villain with an escape hatch, “aquadisco” (whatever that is), and an underground ice skating rink. President Putin, in a highly choreographed interview, denied owning the palace and a childhood friend and judo partner has stepped forward to claim that he was the rightful owner of the compound, which he intends to turn into a luxury resort.

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News | Eliot Higgins | Bloomsbury | 2 March 2021.

Mr. Navalny was arrested on his return to Moscow, following his August 2020 poisoning with the Russian nerve agent, Novichok, and subsequent evacuation to Germany. Mr. Navalny was, however, not dissuaded by the poisoning or his imminent arrest. Whilst in Germany, Mr. Navalny turned the tables on his would-be assassins. In concert with Bellingcat, the open-source investigative organization, CNN, Der Spiegel, and The Insider, Mr. Navalny was able to identify his poisoners, and entertainingly, call one and convince him to explain how the attempted murder was carried out (allegedly involving the application of the poison to Mr. Navalny’s underpants).

Both the video of Mr. Putin’s alleged palace and the attempted poisoning of Mr. Navalny vividly bring to life the power of investigative reporting’s exposés. While the full details of Mr. Navalny’s reporting are not clear, the process by which Bellingcat uncovered the poisoners is transparent, verifiable, and simply incredible.

While the story of Navalny’s poisoning did not make it into Mr. Eliot Higgins’ We Are Bellingcat, nearly every one of the group’s other successes—from Libya to Syria, Salisbury to Charlottesville—are described in riveting detail. Part police procedural (minus the law enforcement), part manifesto, and part call to arms, We Are Bellingcat is a fascinating look at the rise of this open-source investigative organization and its impact in the last decade.

Transparent Society

The sheer volume of information that individuals and groups put out onto the internet is incredible, a gold mine of truth for open-source researchers and analysts like Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat. To them, that firehose of information is a wealth of data points and an opportunity to investigate and expose wrongdoing and falsehoods. As Mr. Higgins notes, when people post a video or photo, “what people mean to show is not all they are revealing”. His team looks beyond the veneer to find the underlying, hidden, or unintentionally on-display information. That the team can uncover so much without the tools and capabilities of a nation-state intelligence agency is all the more impressive.

Reading this book, I was unfortunately reminded of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. In this oft-cited airplane read, the New York Times columnist argues that the barriers to global competitiveness have fallen and now everywhere can compete with everywhere else on a largely level playing field. While Mr. Friedman was fundamentally wrong in terms of global economics, he was perhaps unintentionally right in terms of reporting and investigations, and it is here that Bellingcat proves the point.

With little more than a laptop, an internet connection, and some software, the Bellingcat team has provided scoop after scoop, from weapons trafficking in Libya, chemical weapons use in Syria, the GRU’s poisoners of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and countless other stories. The fact that Mr. Higgins started this effort merely as a hobby in his downtime, on a shoestring budget, makes Bellingcat’s achievements all the more impressive. There were few specialized skills deployed other than attention to detail and sheer dogged persistence. What Mr. Higgins and the Bellingcat team managed to do could have been done by any group—open-source investigation is truly flat.

One suspects, and indeed hopes, that the Intelligence Community here in the United States has as good, if not better, capabilities as Bellingcat and can leverage the community of experts within and across the IC to achieve similar ends. If there was ever a case for dismantling stovepipes of intelligence and cross-pollinating experts from different agencies and with different skillsets, it is what Bellingcat has been able to achieve.

Equally, it raises questions about the future of human intelligence in an era of near-constant surveillance and social media. How long could the cover of a young Operations Officer last in the global panopticon, even without the benefits of nation-state capabilities? How can the military conceal its movements if its soldiers and Marines are either posting on Instagram and Snapchat or tracking their runs via their Fitbit-like devices?

Building a Firewall Against the Counterfactual Community

At the core of the Bellingcat story is a fundamental tension between the truth and disinformation. Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat are central features in this battle as they seek to uncover verifiable facts amidst an onslaught of “alternative facts”, narratives, and outright falsehoods promulgated by the “Counterfactual Community”.

As Mr. Higgins demonstrates in his book, the Bellingcat team systematically dismantles Damascus’ denials that it was using chemical weapons to suppress anti-regime protests in Syria. They track the Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system on its journey from Russia to Ukraine and back, undermining Moscow’s claims that it was not responsible for the downing of MH17. They artfully and incredibly expose the GRU hit team that attempted to murder Sergei Skripal and, in the process, expose some staggeringly poor tradecraft by Russian military intelligence. The Bellingcat team identified several officers who registered their personal vehicles to the GRU headquarters’ address, the fact that the GRU used sequential passport numbers for some of their covert officers, and more.

Mr. Higgins hopes that Bellingcat and others can build a “firewall against falsehoods”, to counter the alternative facts and disinformation narratives by maintaining a verifiable and transparent analytical process that prioritizes demonstrable truths over feelings and innuendos. In a way, the “Counterfactual Community” helps this by throwing continually falsifiable suggestions and conspiracies, allowing the truth to become more resilient and stress-tested—like forging and hammering steel, strengthening it with each strike.

The strength of Bellingcat is in its credibility and verifiability. Its research is open, the methodology transparent, and its conclusions tested and re-tested. This is in stark contrast with the digital vigilantes who pounced in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, misidentifying the perpetrators. This does not rely on “insider” information or confidential sources, though there are times when the group does need to go beyond that which is readily available, such as when it purchased information about the GRU officers’ passports and identity documents. One hopes that its rigorous standards continue—were the group to slip up, one can only imagine the fallout from its detractors and critics alike.

What is perhaps saddening about Mr. Higgins and Bellingcat is that their outstanding work is now rarer than it once was. What was once the province of proper journalism has given way to search-engine-optimization, clickbait, pith, and snark. What Bellingcat does is what proper journalists and newspapers once did—search for facts, verify information, and present the raw story. What we see today in the press and media is decidedly not that—there are no more real “papers of record”. Informing the public gave way to monetization, returns on investment, and a business model that prioritized eyeballs over engagement.

This is, perhaps, too unkind of a take and far too broad of a statement. Some corners of the media do provide exceptional reporting, in-depth analysis, and considered commentary. These are, however, corners, and not in the main of journalism. The quality of reporting from defense reporters like Valerie Insinna, cybersecurity reporters like Nicole Perlroth, and others never ceases to amaze me. These are, however, true experts of their field and craft, and it shows.

Naturally, there are differences, of course. Traditional press and media often rely on confidential sources who, for their safety and careers, cannot be identified. By contrast, Bellingcat relies almost exclusively on open-source information (save for the few databases purchased off the dark web and elsewhere), and has rigorous verifiability requirements and chains of custody.

To Mr. Higgins’ and Bellingcat’s credit, they are aggressively partnering with various newspapers and news magazines. They have prompted many of the leading outlets to form their own “open-source” research outfits to replicate the success that Bellingcat has achieved in so short a time. Many of Bellingcat’s own staff and volunteers have been hired by traditional media outlets to start internal open-source research outfits. Yet even still, what sets Bellingcat apart is the emphasis on facts, not feelings, emotions, or spin. There is much less editorializing than the presentation of raw and verifiable information, and a systematic dismantling of falsehoods. This integrity, transparency, verifiability, and accountability is Bellingcat’s greatest strength.

One of the most striking things in this book is how much Mr. Higgins spreads the credit around to the open-source community, citing the researchers responsible for the breakthroughs, discoveries, and in-depth analysis. Mr. Higgins is remarkably humble despite the influence and impact his organization has had on the public narrative and in uncovering crimes and their perpetrators. It is not a self-aggrandizing biography of himself, but a biography of the movement. Mr. Higgins is Bellingcat’s most public face, shepherd, and driving force, but there is very little of himself on the pages. This stands in stark contrast with some insider accounts, many of which love nothing more than to make the story about themselves, not the actual story being covered. This is particularly refreshing, and evidence that Mr. Higgins lives what he preaches, and what Bellingcat embodies.

Open Sourcing the Future

Mr. Higgins is curiously optimistic about the future. For him, artificial intelligence, deepfakes, and other advanced technology will not undermine or limit the utility of open-source investigations. He believes, with some merit, that for as much as the purveyors of disinformation leverage and use these tools, so too will the open-source investigators deploy these capabilities to counter mis- and disinformation. At a macro-level, I am somewhat sympathetic and supportive of this perspective. Too often the doomsayers of the future of technology only look at one half of the equation—what Russia could do with a deepfake, or what market speculators could do with a manipulated photo, story, or audio recording—and fail to see how that same tool could be used to unpack and discredit that misinformation.

At a tactical or operational level, however, I am somewhat more skeptical. I’m certainly not suffering from “cyber-miserabilism” as Mr. Higgins describes the belief that big tech and disinformation have doomed our democracy. Rather, I’m more pessimistic about the public’s ability to regain a measure of resilience in this post-truth information era. Dis- and misinformation play on raw emotions, apathy, and confusion. It is far easier to incite passions with a false tweet or story than it is to spark rational engagement with a well-thought-out, and well-analyzed piece of reporting.

Taken together with the sheer volume of falsehoods churned out by the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria, or the Kremlin in Moscow (to say nothing of the domestic mis- and dis-information industry in the United States), the public becomes overwhelmed and numbed to the “news” whether it is fake or otherwise. Moreover, it is easier to retreat to algorithmically generated bubbles where one’s preconceived notions are reinforced. How many people will have the time and attention to follow through (and certainly be rewarded by) with Bellingcat’s or any other’s open-source, verifiable, and highly scrutinized research and analysis? How many will find it easier to either tune in to their preferred flavor of news or tune out entirely?

Mr. Higgins does ring the repeatedly rung bell of education and the critical need of developing an informed and educated citizenry. Not in the sense of teaching them what to think, but merely how to think and how to engage with information, news, and the media. Even after the 2020 election and after the inauguration, I still receive demonstrably and verifiably false conspiracy theories from relatives warning me not to update my iPhone as Mr. Tim Cook is taking away the Emergency Broadcast System, or that soon, the former president’s supporters will unveil a mass conspiracy to upend America’s democracy (the date for this suspiciously keeps moving to the right). Spending a few moments thinking these through, let alone doing any research, lays bare the sheer lunacy of these ideas, yet for some portions of the population, there is truth in the madness. Educating the population is a generational challenge and certainly one worth pursuing, but is not an immediate antidote to the “Counterfactual Community”. Mr. Higgins’ Bellingcat is, however, a welcome prescription to the dis- and mis-information illness.

On reflection, Mr. Higgins’ book is an optimistic one and that’s both welcome and refreshing. Bellingcat’s successes have, thus far, helped shine a light on and through mis- and dis-information and expose the abuses of power in places like Syria, Russia, and elsewhere. The tools and techniques Bellingcat uses are being shared and taught to groups around the world in hopes of capturing records of human rights abuses and war crimes, but also to ensure that a true accounting of the facts is preserved. In this post-truth era, such accounting is more critical than ever.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.