Citizen journalism at work: Unemployed British man becomes Syrian weapons expert

Citizen journalism

While some traditional journalists may not like the term, we’ve seen a growing number of examples of “citizen journalism” emerge that make it obvious how powerful that phenomenon has become — from the Pakistani programmer who live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid and the network of Twitter followers Andy Carvin of NPR used as a real-time newsroom to Reddit’s reporting on a mass shooting in Colorado. Now we have another to add to the list: a British blogger who goes by the name Brown Moses, who has quickly become the go-to source for information on weapons being used by terrorists in Syria.

A recent piece in The Guardian describes how the blogger — whose real name is Eliot Higgins — is able to quickly identify different forms of rockets and bombs, and how this encyclopedic knowledge has made him a crucial source not just for those who are following the news but for human-rights agencies that are documenting the strife in Syria, and even for traditional journalists like C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, a former Marine who is now an investigative reporter.

In fact, Chivers based an article he wrote for the Times earlier this year on information that was originally uncovered by Brown Moses, and gave him credit both in the NYT piece and on his own blog, saying:

“For weeks we had been watching the spread through the civil war in Syria of weapons made in the former Yugoslavia, and been admiring the work of Eliot Higgins (a.ka. Brown Moses) as he tried mapping their appearances in the videos of varied and far-flung armed groups. Thank you, Eliot, for your patience, and your fine eye, and for creating an opportunity for merging new and old forms of reporting.”

Unlike Chivers, the British blogger has no background in the military, nor did he have any expertise in munitions or military weaponry before he started following what was happening during the Arab Spring. He’s actually a 34-year-old father of one who lives in a suburb of Leicester, and was laid off from his job with a financial company in October (his wife works at the local post office).

Much like NPR’s Carvin, Higgins has spent hours building a network of bloggers and social-media users in the region, and essentially acts as a filter or curator of the content they produce — mostly YouTube videos of exploded munitions, which he then identifies using the knowledge he has built up himself as well as that of his social network. Every night, he combs through more than 450 YouTube channels.

Higgins’ obvious commitment to this task, even though he isn’t being paid, and his commitment to being as accurate as possible (“You have to be first and you have to be right,” he tells the Guardian) makes him a good example of citizen journalism at work. And his partnership with Chivers shows that this kind of journalism can be a great supplement to — not necessarily a replacement for — traditional reporting.

Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

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