Salisbury, September 2018. Six months after the Skripal assassination attempt, there still was no clarity on what had happened exactly. It was a standstill, although the pro-Kremlin media RT and Sputnik published 735 related articles containing disinformation, of which many found their way into our database. Then something happened: the British police released images of two Russian men arriving at Gatwick Airport, just before the poisoning. Within a few days, Bellingcat cracked the case: the two were in fact Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, both GRU employees. In the book ‘We are Bellingcat’, founder Elliot Higgins explains how volunteers spearheaded the investigative group which was able to expose the Russian agents, and apparently at much quicker pace than the intelligence services.
Bellingcat’s story is one of grit and evolution. Its name derives from “belling the cat“, which comes from a medieval story about mice who discuss how to make a cat harmless. One proposes putting a bell around his neck; all the mice support the idea, none dares to do it.
Eliot Higgins, a college dropout, did. He describes how Bellingcat grew out of his blogging activities into “an intelligence agency for the people”. For ten years now, the non-profit has pioneered with detective techniques that integrate social media posts, satellite data and confidential databases. The revenge of the laptop nerds.
It has come with sensational results. Bellingcat confirmed that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its citizens; established that the Russian Federation is responsible for the murder of the people on board Flight MH17 and have exposed the Russian “kill teams” who poisoned Sergei Skripal.
It is not covered by the book, but we could add the joint investigation by Bellingcat, the independent Russian outlet The Insider, which recently revealed a trove of telecom and travel data implicating a team of chemical weapons experts from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Navalny poisoning. In a recorded telephone conversation, an FSB officer confessed to the poisoning of Mr Navalny.
The creation of Bellingcat
Bellingcat came into being gradually. At the time of the Arab spring, Higgins, an office-worker, began posting on the Guardian’s Middle East blog in his free time. Maybe even to his own surprise, he, from his home computer from his home computer in the U.K., saw it was possible to verify what was going on in a distant war zone. YouTube videos, Instagram, Facebook posts, and tweets produced an ocean of information, images and text. By scrutinizing those, essential facts could be gathered. Gradually, Higgins became knowledgeable on weapons, and collaborators hooked up.
In the beginning, Bellingcat did not focus that much on disinformation. This changed in July 2014, when the flight MH17 was downed. Higgins saw a post on YouTube of a Buk missile launcher trundling down a street. He tweeted simply: “Gold star sticker to the first person who geo-locates this video”. Remarkably, only minutes later he received the right answer: the Buk had gone through Snizhne in eastern Ukraine, an area under control of pro-Moscow rebels. However, the Pro-Kremlin side did not wait quietly for the proof piling up. Higgins reports that in the first three days after the disaster, the Internet Research Agency (also known as the St. Petersburg troll factory) had produced more than 111.486 misleading tweets about the disaster. Later, the same thing happened in the Skripal case when, the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem produced tons of alternative explanations for the poisoning, which were debunked again by Bellingcat.
Higgins calls those who spread disinformation part of the “Counterfactual Community” – the ecosystem of conspiracy dealers and state bloggers who trade disinformation: “Their practice is to begin with a conclusion, skip verification, and to shout down contradictory facts.”
What does Higgins book teach us, an audience interested in disinformation?
First, his book is a welcome reminder: debunking is crucial when fighting disinformation. It is hard to imagine how the general public had viewed the Skripal case or MH17, had Bellingcat not quickly and thoroughly disproved the disinformation narratives coming from the pro-Kremlin outlets. It proves that if one debunks well, despite the fact the fake narrative is given more attention, gradually, the debunk overwhelms the fake (a recent report of NATO visualised this process, see below).
Source: NATO Stratcom Centre of Ex, 8 February 2021
Second, the book has something to say on how to communicate intelligence. It seems there is limited value in posting intelligence dossiers, stiffened in bureaucratic prose. The book shows with ample examples that this is not the way to affect the general discussion. Instead, one must communicate in a clear, non-bureaucratic manner, based on open source information.
Optimism in a dark age
The book underscores the importance of open data. In this regard, it is a proclamation for digital optimism, probably one of the few these days. Higgins counters what he calls “cyber-miserabilism”; the pessimist viewpoint that big tech and bad actors have permanently damaged our democracy. In his eyes, the internet still is an “extraordinary gift”. It does not harm the difference between evidence and falsehoods per se. More importantly, according to Higgins, people still care about it.
The meaning of the name of the book, “We are Bellingcat”, is twofold. Obviously, it presents the Bellingcat story. More importantly though, the ‘we’ refers to all who care for the difference between evidence and falsehoods. We all need to become a little bit like Bellingcat. Higgins believes news outlets must create their own open source investigation teams or become obsolete.
This is already happening. Some media have recruited ex-Bellingcat staff. Navalny’s documentaries clearly draw inspiration from Bellingcat. Higgins thinks these are positive developments. He sees competition between media as backwards, cooperation is the future. It needs only a few mice to lead…
 Higgins (2021), We are Bellingcat