In July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine. Why? In pre-digital times it would have taken weeks or months to get an answer. These days, the truth can be found at warp speed. A former office worker, Eliot Higgins, saw a post on YouTube of a Buk missile launcher trundling down a street. “Gold star sticker to the first person who geo-locates this video,” he tweeted.
Seven minutes later one of Higgins’s followers solved the mystery. They suggested the Buk had gone through Snizhne in eastern Ukraine, a town under the control of pro-Moscow rebels. Higgins looked at the clues – a two-lane road, three distinct trees, red roof. He pulled up Google Earth. It matched. The launcher was going south. The question now was where had the Buk come from, and which state had fired it at MH17?
What followed was a 21st-century sleuth drama. It pitted Higgins’s newbie investigative outfit, Bellingcat, against the mighty Kremlin and its spy agencies. There wasn’t much of a contest. Higgins’s army of online amateur detectives tracked the Buk to the 53rd brigade, a military unit based in the Russian city of Kursk. It had travelled into Ukraine in a convoy. It left in the dead of night, minus one missile.
We Are Bellingcat is Higgins’s gripping account of how he reinvented reporting for the internet age. The book was finished before his latest scoop. In December, Bellingcat outed the kill-team behind the novichok poisoning last summer of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s number one critic. The investigation helped galvanise street protests on 23 January across Russia, following Navalny’s courageous return to Moscow and inevitable arrest.
Higgins’s own story is an improbable one, shaped by good timing and grit. A media studies dropout and avid gamer, he found he had time on his hands as the Arab spring kicked off, and after the birth of his baby daughter. Higgins began posting on the Guardian’s Middle East blog, as “Brown Moses”. He realised it was possible to establish from your sofa what was going on in a faraway war zone, in Libya or Syria. The material was out there: YouTube videos, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram – a galaxy of images and text tossed out via social media. By sifting, discoveries could be made. Higgins became an expert on weapons. He found collaborators. Bellingcat developed a credo: look for public evidence, cite sources, collaborate. An open model, in contrast to tabloid chicanery.
This transparent method has had remarkable success. Bellingcat has uncovered war crimes in Syria and unmasked neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. In 2018 it winkled out the real identities of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the two GRU assassins who went to Salisbury to snuff out Sergei Skripal. (The pair claimed they were merely sightseers who had come to see the Cathedral spire.)
Bellingcat’s rise reveals something new about our digitally mediated times: spying is no longer the preserve of nation states – anyone with an internet connection can do it. The balance between open and secret intelligence is shifting. The most useful stuff is often public. Bellingcat, you suspect, knows more than the suits of MI6; certainly, it’s nimbler. “An intelligence agency for the people,” as Higgins’s subtitle puts it.
The book – written with the novelist and journalist Tom Rachman – is also a manifesto for optimism in a dark age. It argues that “cyber-miserabilism” – the doomy belief that big tech and bad actors have permanently screwed our democracy – is wrong. Instead, Higgins hails the internet as an “extraordinary gift”. In his view, facts still matter, accountability is possible, and people still care about the difference between truth and lies.
In a recent BBC interview Barack Obama complained that conspiracy theories turbocharged by social media had fuelled America’s bitter political divisions. The era was suffering from a bad case of what Obama called “truth decay”. After Trump and Brexit, We Are Bellingcat offers a route out of our current epistemological crisis. Higgins’s answer: a bracing restatement of empirical values and good method.
The book blasts what Higgins calls the “Counterfactual Community” – the leaderless network of conspiracy mongers and state bloggers who swap disinformation. Favourite topics are the White Helmets – the group of volunteer rescuers in Syria – and the “dangers” of the Covid-19 vaccine. “Their practice is to begin with a conclusion, skip verification, and to shout down contradictory facts,” Higgins observes.
This evidence-denying community has some strange ideological allies. There is the far left: tough on imperialism, so long as the west and the US is the aggressor. Aligned with it is the “alt-right”, Higgins says. Both groups are pro-Assad and pro-Putin. Their views are expressed on alternative media outlets and via government propaganda channels such as RT, the Kremlin’s TV wing – and Bellingcat’s most vocal critic.
Higgins devotes several pages to the chemical weapons strike in 2013 on the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Geolocation tools showed a Syrian military base had fired the rocket. The veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, however, blamed the poison gas on jihadi rebels. Higgins describes Hersh’s piece for the London Review of Books as an “embarrassing muddle”. It “posed questions I’d already answered”, he writes.
The Bellingcat approach goes well beyond traditional journalism. Its volunteers have compiled an archive from the decade-long war in Syria, featuring 3.5m pieces of digital content. This has been preserved to assist future war crimes prosecutions. Dates and metadata are carefully recorded. Bellingcat has assisted Dutch prosecutors, who have charged several Russians with murdering those on board MH17.
Higgins thinks traditional news outlets need to establish their own open source investigation teams or miss out. He’s right. Several have done so. The New York Times has recruited ex-Bellingcat staff. Higgins approves of this. In his view, rivalry between media titles is a thing of the past. The future is collaboration, the hunt for evidence a shared endeavour, the truth out there if we wish to discover it.
Luke Harding’s latest book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, is published by Guardian Faber
• We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People by Eliot Higgins is published by Bloomsbury (£20).
• Eliot Higgins will talk about the founding of Bellingcat Source: The Guardian