Far from backing off, he formed Bellingcat into a proper organisation, crowd-funded by donations from research institutions and sympathetic supporters. It has a small number of paid staff but a network of volunteers, with no political agenda but bound together by a simple credo. As Higgins puts it: 'Evidence exists and falsehoods exist, and people still care about the difference.' At first, Bellingcat's reach remained fairly limited, but then came its big breakthrough: it outed the Kremlin secret agents who, in 2018, poisoned Russian exile Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok on British soil.
We Are Bellingcat is a thrilling, if demanding, read. Verification of countless videos and posts from crime scenes was their main modus operandi. Bellingcat found itself interested in the big crimes – the Syrian civil war, Russian interference in democratic states, the growth of nationalism on both the far right and far left – because that was where most of the disinformation lay. To say the task was painstaking is an epic understatement.
Higgins is strong on what he calls “the counterfactual community”, Bellingcat’s dark mirror image of trolls and deniers and their dim cheerleaders in the press. Sometimes they are state-sponsored, sometimes they are cheerful amateurs. At his most insightful he notices that many of them simply cannot comprehend why what they do fails to land in the same way as Bellingcat’s work. “After all, they use videos to make points,” he writes. “They cite social media posts. But they are scorned.”
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.... 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.
This is a fascinating, bewildering book. Remarkably, the world’s media failed to spot a gold mine of online information and it took a bored guy working in his spare time to show them the way. In doing so, he created an entirely new way of investigating events. Organisations including the BBC and the New York Times now have open source investigation units modelled on Bellingcat. In some cases, including the downing of MH17, Bellingcat’s findings have proved more revealing than investigations by governments and official bodies. Is its methodology more powerful than that of government agencies?
True, Bellingcat ultimately professionalises to the extent that they find themselves paying Russian bureaucrats for personnel dossiers on suspects – the same covert methods Higgins originally derides. But ultimately, the book consoles, reassuring readers that in a world where everyone has an opinion and objectivity feels extinct, the tools to prove and verify have never been more accessible. Indeed, some might close this book fearing not that nothing is knowable but, as we gorge ourselves on smartphones and CCTV, with ever more satellites staring down upon us, nothing can now be hidden. Welcome to the panopticon planet.
But Higgins makes clear that while there is no substitute for on-the-ground reporting, Bellingcat can enrich it by identifying, verifying and amplifying new evidence. Its credo is that evidence exists and falsehood exists and people still care about the difference...
In this sense, Bellingcat acts as a firewall against disinformation. It is in constant battle with what Higgins calls the “Counterfactual Community”, whose playbook is: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. By contrast, the Bellingcat method is: click the links and check the conclusions for yourself.