Brown Moses, the self-taught British journalist who has become an expert at using YouTube, Facebook and other social media to verify information about the ongoing war in Syria, has been talking for some time about his plans to launch a site that would help expand what he does and teach others to do the same. On Tuesday, Moses — whose real name is Eliot Higgins — provided a few more details about what he has planned, as well as a name for the new venture: Bellingcat.
Although Higgins doesn’t mention the derivation of the name in his blog post, “belling the cat” is an old English phrase that refers to an impossibly dangerous task, taken from an ancient fable about a group of mice who decide to hang a bell around the neck of their enemy the cat.
The British blogger says his site will be formally launched later this month with a Kickstarter campaign to raise operating funds, and that it will include some of the collaborators he has come to rely on, including Jonathan Krohn, Phillip Smyth, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi and an anonymous contributor who investigated the British phone-hacking scandal. The site will also have tools and features for helping others engage in the same kind of reporting, he said:
“It will bring together a group of writers and activists who through using open source tools have transformed journalism and solidified themselves as experts in their fields [and] it will be a place that will attract others to come and learn how to use these same tools, techniques, and processes. Bellingcat will include how-to guides, case studies, articles, and other media such as webinars on the latest tools and technologies, which will aid others in becoming citizen open source investigators.”
Higgins said in an email that the site is about giving other people like him, those with an interest in doing crowdsourced verification and reporting, “a chance to learn what I’ve learnt over the last two years by trial and error.” And he said it’s also about helping to support those who are already doing that kind of work, and helping them to get involved with the kinds of opportunities that he has been presented with, including advising companies and non-profit agencies on new technology projects and how to do crowdsourcing properly.
The rise of the self-taught reporter
The British blogger’s rise from unemployed accountant to citizen-journalism celebrity is an incredible story, one which has been told in profiles by media outlets like The New Yorker: how he became fascinated by the Syrian war in 2012, and started watching up to 150 YouTube videos a night that were posted by various factions in that country so that he could catalogue the weaponry they were using — and by last year, experts like New York Times war reporter C.J. Chivers was citing Brown Moses in his news stories, because his information was so reliable.
At a panel in Italy as part of the International Festival of Journalism (video embedded below), I talked with Higgins about how he approaches crowdsourced verification, and the process was fascinating: how he uses YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth and other tools to prove or disprove mainstream media reports, and makes all of his information as open and transparent as possible. It’s not unlike what Andy Carvin did during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, or what the BBC’s user-generated content desk does, except Higgins is entirely self-taught.
Thanks to Higgins, we now know that self-trained “citizen” or amateur journalists can become experts in a particular field of information or method of reporting. With the launch of Bellingcat, we will find out whether those kinds of skills can be transferred to others and/or open-sourced in some way. It should be interesting to watch.