A little over two years ago, the blogger known as Brown Moses was an unemployed father of one, with no journalistic training and no expertise in military weaponry or the Arab world, living in his flat in Leicester, a small town in northern England. Since then, Moses — whose real name is Eliot Higgins — has become a key source of information about the conflict in Syria and elsewhere, information he gathered by spending thousands of hours combing through YouTube videos and social-media accounts. Now he is launching a Kickstarter campaign to jump-start a dedicated website to teach others how to do the same.
The site is called Bellingcat, a name derived from an old fable about a group of mice, and Higgins said the idea behind the venture is twofold: to provide an online home for the work that he does in fact-checking reports about terrorist activity in Syria and elsewhere — as well as the work done by a small team of fellow citizen journalists such as Jonathan Krohn and Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi — and to help provide the resources for others to learn the same kinds of techniques.
The goal of the Kickstarter campaign is to raise 47,000 British pounds (approximately $80,000) within the next 31 days, which Higgins said should allow the new site to operate for about six months. In an interview prior to the launch, he said that he and others involved with the site also have “a number of projects in the works” that will also provide income to keep the site running, including some consulting for media and non-profit entities.
At a journalism conference in Italy earlier this year, Higgins described how he fact-checked reports about the movements and weaponry used by various Syrian paramilitary groups, using Google Earth satellite shots, photographs and YouTube clips — in many cases content that was uploaded to YouTube or Facebook by supporters of the Syrian groups involved. By using these techniques, the British blogger was able to prove that the Syrian army was using cluster bombs, and also that Saudi Arabia was helping to funnel weapons into the area.
A journalistic approach to fact-checking
In many ways, Higgins uses a classic journalistic approach to verifying facts — which wouldn’t be surprising if he had any journalistic training, but he does not. And yet now, Brown Moses spends much of his time teaching professional journalists at a number of mainstream organizations how to do what he does. Part of the idea behind Bellingcat, he said, is to expand his ability to do that:
“It’s my attempt to solve a problem I’ve come across in the last two years. I keep being invited to these various events with journalists, activists, researchers, where there’s always great tools and techniques being demonstrated, but it always seems it’s very difficult to get people to engage with these tools and techniques and get them using them. At the same time, I see all these great writers using open source information, and various organisations creating tools and techniques that could be used to support their work, so I really want to bring all of that together.”
Although he wouldn’t qualify as a journalist according to many official definitions, I think Higgins is one of the leading examples of a new kind of self-taught journalist — one who uses social networks and public data to do the kind of fact-checking and investigative work that was previously only available to large entities like the New York Times. And his work has been recognized by many of those mainstream outlets, including by the NYT’s war correspondent C.J. Chivers, who helped Higgins raise some previous financing on Indiegogo by endorsing his approach.
Bellingcat is an interesting attempt to broaden the practice of journalism, and to appeal to others like Higgins, who might have the ability to do crowdsourced fact-checking but don’t know how to go about it. It’s similar to what Storyful (now a part of News Corp.) has tried to do with its Open Newsroom — a Google Plus page to which anyone can contribute — or to other newer attempts at crowdsourcing journalism, such as Austen Allred’s Grasswire.
As Higgins put it: “It’s very satisfying to be able to do something I love doing and get the sort of recognition I’m getting, and I really want to turn that into something bigger that can benefit more people than just me.”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / 1000 Words