We Are Bellingcat is a fascinating account of the history of investigative news site Bellingcat and how they pioneered using open-source intelligence (OSINT) to uncover the truth about crime and conflict.
Higgins explains his research began as a hobby when he decided to put his time spent online and his attention to detail to use. He began gathering evidence about the war in Syria, realising that there was plenty of publicly available information.
He found ways to verify or debunk claims made on social media using techniques such as matching video footage to landmarks on Google Earth, or gauging the timing and location of images using an app which photographers use to measure light levels.
From there, he connected with other people with expertise and the same singleminded focus, and eventually they created Bellingcat through crowdfunding. It has grown to a formidable news site accumulating evidence on everything from the MH17 air crash over Ukraine to the Salisbury Novichok poisonings.
We Are Bellingcat covers the ethos of the organisation, its commitment to evidence and openness and contrasts it with conspiracy theorists who form opinions first and look for evidence later. Higgins highlights what happens when you go up against powerful actors and the steps they will take to discredit or harass the people who expose them.
He also addressed a couple of my questions. First, why the focus on war and conflict? He explains that they are now applying their techniques to environmental issues. Second, why are most of the key players male? He talked about the legacy of online sexism, particularly referencing Gamergate, and said that now Bellingcat has the funding to expand beyond an informal network of likeminded people, they are making conscious efforts to be more representative.
The beauty of open source intelligence is that you can replicate the work and check it for yourself. It is the opposite of the cliquey world of political journalism in particular, when reports are based on anonymous sources.
Higgins shares some of his techniques, so that you (or in my case, my fictional investigative journalist!) could begin your own research. But what the book makes clear is that this isn’t easy. You need skills, commitment, attention to detail — and the willingness to confront powerful interests.
I received a copy of We Are Bellingcat from the publisher via Netgalley.
View We Are Bellingcat on Goodreads
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