The interview: Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat

11 Sep 2014

Eliot Higgins at his home in Leicester, UK

In a truly 21st-century way, Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, has from his home in the UK used the power of the internet to break stories on the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Ukraine.

Starting out with a blog under the pseudonym Brown Moses – named after a Francis Bacon painting – the 34-year-old expectant father of two, from his home in Leicester, is arguably the prime example of how someone can now take an idea, apply ‘the crowd’ to it, and end up with a fantastic idea.

Having been made redundant in his previous job, Higgins began to devote more time to his blog, covering the ongoing crisis in Syria where pro and anti-government forces, with the addition of the Islamic State (IS) organisation, have been tearing the Middle Eastern country apart since 2011.

What differs Higgins’ blog from many others about the conflict is that he wanted to look beyond the major news organisations and see what he could find out about what’s happening on the ground, all through material freely available online.

As far as Higgins is concerned, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are just as powerful a tool of investigative journalism as a flight ticket, bulletproof vest and a TV camera.

Power of the ‘crowd’

In speaking to, Higgins emphasised that this is by no means a solo effort – trying to run what has essentially become a news organisation by yourself is unrealistic.

By trawling through YouTube accounts and Facebook profiles of groups within Syria, Higgins has, among other discoveries, been able to prove the Syrian government has been using cluster bombs against its people, something international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have banned outright.

That is why he decided to seek funding for a new website that will not only bring the various online investigative journalists to one place to share their findings, but also teach those interested in taking part from home on how to contribute.

“I was just seeing the same patterns showing again and again with the same people doing great work but weren’t getting as much recognition as I was,” said Higgins, “and there’s a lot of tools and techniques that were being developed that were useful for this type of work but also weren’t being recognised.”

Of course, funding such a site is no easy feat for a recently unemployed man, which is why he decided to use the power of the cloud to raise money through Kickstarter to create the website Bellingcat.

By comparing background material from images of a camp used by Russian soldiers with Google Earth images, Higgins was able to show they were within Ukraine’s borders. Image via Bellingcat

Gathering information with time for a tea break

To the average person, the process with which Higgins and Bellingcat’s dozens of on-the-ground sources gather and compile stories may seem rather simple, but this is far from the case.

An example Higgins described relates to when he was contacted by a news organisation asking him to verify the direction a missile crater in a Ukrainian field was pointing, to indicate where it came from.

A tall order for someone based thousands of kilometres away, right?

“Once I had the photos and a rough location of where it was,” Higgins said, “I was able to go into Google Earth and look at the satellite maps and see if there was anything in those images which matched up with the photographs which, in this case, was two roads and a break in the tree line which established the position.”

“From that I was able to use a site called Panoramio, which has photographs geotagged to locations in the area which helped me to narrow down the search. All of which took about 20 minutes, including a cup of tea-drinking time.”

Of course, not all investigations are as straightforward as this.

Investigations such as those involving Syrian weapons caches take more time, as Higgins looks through hundreds of different social media accounts with clips and images of weapons and, through the power of Google, can in most cases match a serial number written on the side of, say, an army truck, and pinpoint that to nation or point of origin.

The questions remains, how exactly do you verify that the information you’re receiving is the real deal? How do you know that a source thousands of miles away is actually who he or she reports to be?

Higgins explained: “Very frequently there’s things that can be explained away by miss-remembering stuff but because you’ve got contemporary reports from places like Twitter and Facebook and from people in the areas, you can differentiate from what you’ve been told several months later with this information.”

Footage of the execution video of journalist James Foley has been analysed to find the smallest details which could possibly identify where it took place. Image via Bellingcat

Working with the media, not against

While Higgins spoke of the reason for getting into crowd journalism as a result of the media missing important parts of the overall narrative, he is of the opinion that Bellingcat’s operation is not solely that of a news organisation looking to challenge mainstream news organisations, but rather as one to compliment and help develop their stories.

Citing one example he said: “With (the MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine), we wrote about sites where the missile launcher was spotted and we had journalists going and investigating those sites as a result, acting like our own intelligence agency for those on the ground.

“You can do that a lot with this work and co-ordinate efforts on the ground and you can then morph that into good stories. I’ve always thought about working with people than going against them and I’m always happy to work with the media and see how that’s developed.”

An Instagram post by a member of the Russian special forces appearing to show he was operating in Ukraine

Multiple sources of funding

Higgins also stressed that the crowd journalism and investigative model doesn’t meet the requirements for what would be considered a news site, as the nature of his work means content is not posted within a regular time frame, which makes potential advertisers and revenue streams go running.

He has found other means of keeping things going, however, by applying for grants and continuing to work with organisations to gain funding by providing his techniques and information gathered online.

There are also future projects in the pipeline that will look to expand the method of data mining to determine corruption across the UK through the project known as the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which is receiving funding from Google’s Ideas scheme.

With this funding, Higgins wants to give the training to people to follow his development and join the growing field of crowd journalism. “It’s the kind of funding I’m interest in as it’s work where we’re not just finding stories, but training people to be better journalists and investigators and that’s what I’m keen to promote. The more there are of these people, the better it is for everyone.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic