How Bellingcat's Online Sleuths Solve Global Crimes Using Open Source Info
How Bellingcat's Online Sleuths Solve Global Crimes Using Open Source Info
Eliot Higgins is the founder of an online collective that picks apart conspiracy theories and investigates war crimes and hate crimes using clues from the Internet. His new book is We Are Bellingcat.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Crowdsourcing has created a new form of online open-source investigation, as epitomized by the group Bellingcat that was founded by my guest, Eliot Higgins, in 2014. Higgins and people affiliated with Bellingcat, while at their computers, have uncovered evidence that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad fired chemical weapons at his own people, figured out who controlled territory during the Libyan civil war, identified the Russian intelligence agents alleged to have poisoned MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia and found evidence that the 22-year-old woman alleged to have stolen Nancy Pelosi's laptop on January 6 was a neo-Nazi sympathizer who used coded neo-Nazi language in a video and in that video gave the Heil Hitler salute.
Bellingcat has identified the perpetrators of hate crimes and how extremists use mainstream websites to divert people to extremist sites that sell neo-Nazi merchandise and ask for donations to continue doing their work. The clues used by Bellingcat come from openly available sources on the Internet, like social media posts, leaked databases and free satellite maps.
Bellingcat has a core team of 18 staffers that works with scores of volunteers around the globe. The group has worked on investigations with media organizations, including The New York Times, NBC News and the BBC, as well as human rights groups. Eliot Higgins has written a new book called "We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, And The Bold Future Of News."
Eliot Higgins, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a recent discovery by Bellingcat that the 22-year-old woman who allegedly stole Nancy Pelosi's laptop made a video using neo-Nazi coded words and giving the Heil Hitler salute. But in the video, the woman is disguised by a full face mask, so her face couldn't be identified. Bellingcat got a tip that this video was hers. This was a tip from an anti-fascist activist. But Bellingcat had to confirm that this really was hers. And without a face to confirm it, that was a tricky thing to do.
And I should mention, if you look for this video online - the last time I saw it was last night. And as of then, the audio was unavailable because there's techno music underneath her, and the publisher - I think it's the publisher of that music had the audio removed, I think for copyright reasons, or maybe just 'cause they didn't want that music associated with a neo-Nazi.
ELIOT HIGGINS: Indeed, yes.
GROSS: Yes, OK. So describe how you were able to verify that the disguised woman in this video was the same woman alleged to have stolen Nancy Pelosi's computer on January 6.
HIGGINS: So it was really a case of piecing together a variety of clues that were available online. There was a original video that showed her doing the salute. There was also then another photograph that was shared with us by these researchers. It shows a woman wearing a skull face mask that is identical to the one that's in the video, wearing the same dress as well. And we saw in that picture, she's wearing a pair of glasses that match exactly to the glasses that she wears in other photographs where her face is fully visible, which is one of the clues that we were using.
But we started looking at other details as well. Even though her whole face is covered, there are some things that are actually visible. For example, a tattoo is visible. And that tattoo actually turns up in another video she did for a forum called Kiwi Farms, where it was adult material, basically, so it was possible to see tattoos and other parts of her body, including the one that matched. And also, to be 100% sure, there's actually a couple of features visible in that Kiwi Farms video that's visible in the video we were looking into, including, for example, very unique light fixtures and other details that allowed us to match the room she was in in the Kiwi Farms video, where she's clearly identifiable, to the room she's in in the original video, where she's making neo-Nazi-related statements.
So by kind of piecing together all these really minor clues, it's actually possible to establish her identity, even though in the original video, her face is covered and her eyes are covered.
GROSS: And there's several neo-Nazi symbols in this video, in addition to her giving the Heil Hitler salute. So what are some of the symbols? Like, interpret them for us.
HIGGINS: In the background, there's actually a book about the SS that is displayed, clearly on purpose, to be visible on camera. She's wearing a hat as well that has a symbol that's associated with neo-Nazi groups as well. Some of the stuff she's actually purchased is from people who associate themselves with the far-right and neo-Nazis. So there's kind of a whole range of different objects in there that are identifiable beyond just what she's saying and the salute that she's giving.
GROSS: And a narrator in the video says, Hammer was right all along. There is no political solution. All that is left is acceleration.
HIGGINS: That's right. And the Hammer is a neo-Nazi figure who advocates followers to partake in things like things called banner drops and spraying graffiti to spread their message. So a lot of what she's kind of - the language she's using is very specific to a very specific kind of subset of the alt-right, kind of far-right and neo-Nazis. So it probably, you know, wouldn't make much context to, you know, the average person. But because our researchers have spent a lot of time in these communities understanding the kind of language of these communities, the kind of key figures in these communities and how they're spoken about, it allows us to kind of draw these conclusions about what was visible in these videos.
GROSS: And doesn't acceleration also refer to accelerating the U.S. becoming a white nation?
HIGGINS: Yeah. I mean, for many of the people who kind of use that terminology, that's what they're moving towards. Weirdly, there are some groups who kind of actually don't want that but still have that same idea that what they want can be achieved through another civil war. So there's kind of all these kind of weird little groups online that really would like another civil war. And, unfortunately, quite a few of them are quite keen to make that happen by, you know, having real-world activity that will lead to violence and what they hope will be even more violence.
GROSS: So in the case of the 22-year-old woman who is alleged to have stolen Nancy Pelosi's computer, and now you've shown that she made a video with all kinds of coded neo-Nazi language, and she gave the Heil Hitler salute, what is the significance of unmasking her in that video?
HIGGINS: Well, it shows that there's kind of more to these people, you know, who made up this group at the Capitol than, you know, just what can be discovered through kind of normal investigation. And, you know, what they, you know, are seeking in the future kind of informs their - you know, what they were doing on the ground on that day.
You know, there was a whole range of different groups that made up the crowd on January 6. You know, some were fairly innocuous who were just kind of caught up in the violence. But some of them went there with long histories of political violence with the intention of targeting not only the building, but the people inside that building. And I think, you know, by looking at these individuals, it does give you a real sense of the sort of people who were involved with this. You can't just dismiss them as one big group of Trump supporters because there was a whole range of different people within those groups who were, you know, mad about, you know, one thing or another, and they had all been brought together in one space.
And in many senses, this is what's happening in the online spaces as well. You're seeing these kind of very fairly disparate groups that are united under one issue. And in the case of what was happening on January 6, that was the count of the votes and, you know, Trump. But they're coming from kind of different perspectives on it, but they're kind of all coming together under these single ideas. And that's where we're starting to see more and more violence.
And, unfortunately, there are politicians who don't recognize that, or if they do recognize it, they still try to use these people to build their own base of power. And until politicians stop doing that, that is going to lead to more and more violence in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eliot Higgins, founder of the online investigative group Bellingcat. His new book is called "We Are Bellingcat." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eliot Higgins, founder of the group Bellingcat, which conducts investigative journalism, relying on open-source media on the Internet, like social media posts, leak databases and free satellite maps. Bellingcat has a team of about 18 staffers that works with scores of volunteers around the globe. He's written a new book called "We Are Bellingcat."
So let's talk about one of the first things that you uncovered as a digital investigator back in 2011, before you even founded Bellingcat. This was three years before you founded it. And it has to do with disputed territory during the Libyan Civil War. What was the question that you wanted to be able to answer?
HIGGINS: So I think called me additional investigator. I think that's a nice title for someone who was basically just spending their time online, arguing with people on the Internet because I was just, like, your average Internet user back in 2011. But I was very interested in what was happening in the conflict in Libya. Spent my time on forums and websites like The Guardian newspaper's Middle East live blog, arguing with people about what was happening there. You know, stuff was being posted online, and some people say, no, that's fake; it can't be true. And you have people say, well, there's this that shows it's true. But there's no really kind of approach to verifying this kind of stuff, and I found that very frustrating because I was interested in what was actually happening, rather than having kind of politically biased arguments around, you know, different aspects of, you know, what was happening in the conflict.
So one day, this video was shared online, and it showed rebels in Libya claiming to be in this town called Teji. And Teji was interesting because it was beyond the front-line positions that people knew they were already fighting in. So it kind of represents, you know, progression in the conflict. So there's lots of kind of arguments and debates about what had actually happened. You know, some people said, well, how do you know where this was filmed? If this isn't Teji, how do you know where this is filmed?
And I had the idea of, why don't I go to satellite imagery and see if I can find Teji on the satellite image and then watch the video and look for features that might be visible. And in that video, there was a tank rolling down these two lanes of a road next to a mosque with a dome and a minaret. So I look for that on satellite imagery, and I found the road and followed it along, and there was a mosque with a dome and a minaret. And I watched the video again, and this time I looked for smaller features, like the walls and the way the pavement curved. And that was visible on the satellite imagery, too. And then I looked for utility poles, and those utility poles were there as well. And I realized I could confirm exactly where this had been filmed and then kind of share that rather smugly on the comments of the live blogs - say, ha, I found it.
HIGGINS: But that was kind of my first realization that you can actually look at these videos and figure out exactly where they were filmed and get a much more accurate and verifiable view on the conflict. And that really set me off doing what I now do, you know, as my career.
GROSS: So it must have been remarkable to you that being at your office job in England, you were able to solve a question, to factually answer a question about what was happening in a conflict zone in Libya.
HIGGINS: Yeah, and there was kind of more stuff I started noticing as well. I became very frustrated by the fact that there would be journalists on the ground in Libya and they'd go somewhere and, like, tweet about it, but they wouldn't do a story on it because it wasn't the story that they were looking to file that day. But when you started looking at, you know, those tweets and posts and bits of information from different journalists and people on the ground, you started seeing patterns. And you could start saying, OK, there's something going on in this location. You know, can I piece together what it is?
And one of those cases was when the rebels in a place called Misrata, pushed south out of the town towards Gadhafi's hometown, along a coastal route. There was one town that was just off the coastal route. And the journalists who were going, you know, with the rebels back and forth to Gadhafi's hometown, hoping they'd, you know, get to interview Gadhafi, were driving past this town every day. And one of them, you know, one day would tweet, all the rebels are firing artillery into this town. It was called Tawergha. And then someone else would say, oh, Tawergha is on fire tonight. But they wouldn't write a story about it because the story was Gadhafi, not this town that was off the road they were driving by.
But by kind of looking at all these individual kind of comments that were coming up, it seemed very clear something bad was happening in that town because it was a pro-Gadhafi town. And, you know, the rebels had been stuck in Misrata for a long time. And eventually, when Gadhafi was killed and journalists went to that town, they discovered that, in fact, the town had effectively been ethnically cleansed. And they had to observe that from a distance, but because they had that kind of single point of view on what was happening and this other focus, it was basically lost. And I realized then you could kind of combine all these different sources and actually start getting a real impression of what was happening in these conflict zones, along with this verified video and photographic content.
GROSS: So you were basically almost like a war correspondent sitting at your computer in England.
HIGGINS: That's right. And it was - it still as well was just, really, you know, about, you know, talking to people on the Internet and arguing with them and, you know, debating the facts of what was going on. But then in early 2012, I decided as a hobby to start a blog, which I called the Brown Moses Blog after a Frank Zappa song I'd been listening to when I started using that name as my kind of online pseudonym. And that was basically my style of writing about the conflict in Syria, which really started leading me into kind of becoming more professional about the kind of work I was doing.
GROSS: What do you think your best scoop, so to speak, was on the Syrian Civil War?
HIGGINS: There were a few, but the first really big one was - I basically couldn't speak any Arabic, so I was watching all these videos from Syria. I realized they were being shared on the same thousand or so YouTube channels every day that belonged to Syrian opposition groups, you know, media centers, those kind of things. It wasn't like an open Internet; it was, like, very restricted. But there were still lots of videos coming through of the conflict. And by doing that, I started to learn what the weapons were being used in the conflicts and writing about that. And I kind of taught myself what they were, started having arms experts approaching me, asking me questions about these videos and being part of these communities where these questions were discussed.
So I was the first person, I think, to find the videos of cluster bombs being used, which I shared with Human Rights Watch, who did a piece on it. I was the first person to find, I think, a video of a barrel bomb, as they became known, these improvised explosive devices. And then in early 2013, I started seeing new weapons coming into the conflict from - I didn't recognize them. I knew all the weapons in this conflict. I just, like, every day watched videos and figured out what they were by using various online sources. But these were brand new and really weird looking. And eventually, I discovered they were from the former Yugoslavia. And by that point, I knew a journalist at The New York Times, and I kind of show this to him, and he went off and came back and said, actually, this is the Saudi's secret smuggling operation to the rebels in the south of Syria. And I had managed to discover this secret operation by watching YouTube videos intensively.
And that ended up being on the front page of The New York Times, and that was kind of the first moment when I started getting, like, a really big amount of media attention. I had, like, Channel 4 News in the U.K., Germany ARD Television, CNN - every day a different news organization would come to my house and film me (laughter). You know, this kind of - CNN said I was a stay-at-home Mr. Mom who found chemical weapons from his sofa and stuff like that. So it was a very weird experience for me, going from this kind of unknown person to suddenly someone who was on kind of CNN, talking about their work as this kind of - almost like a novelty act. But it was - it really then kind of took off from there.
And then in August 2013, I did a lot of work on the chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, figured out a whole bunch of stuff about that and ended up kind of quite publicly contradicting the work of Seymour Hersh after he tried to say it was Turkey providing sarin to the rebels, when the content I found pointed to that being completely ridiculous, and that kind of then gave me another really big boost towards the eventual launch of Bellingcat in 2014.
GROSS: And you found that it was the Assad regime that was responsible for the sarin gas attacks?
HIGGINS: Yes, because I had been - you know, by that point, spent the last 18 months watching every video and looking at every region I could find from Syria. And there were these really weird munitions that had been turning up in some occasional attacks that seemed like chemical attacks. There was a video posted in early August where there was one of these weird tubular rocket things next to a dog that was kind of twitching and foaming from the mouth, a cat that also had been foaming from the mouth. And these same rockets turned up on August 21, loaded with sarin.
And because I kind of had this knowledge of these videos, I could show videos of not only these rockets being used in previous attacks that had kind of missed the attention of the world's media, but also explosive variants of these same rockets that were very unique being used by Syrian government forces in videos posted online by pro-Syrian government accounts. So it was undeniable that these rockets were connected to the Syrian government. That kind of really put me up then at odds with reporting done by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, where he claims that these were basically munitions, you know, and Turkey was involved, and it was effectively a false flag to draw the U.S. into the war.
And I think a lot of journalists who had been following my work at that time saw it as a kind of case of kind of my new journalism versus Seymour Hersh's old journalism. But I've always said that it's never about one thing being versus another thing; it's about using this new form of investigation to enhance traditional sources of investigation, be they journalism or in other fields.
GROSS: You know, you've said that in the past you'd used soldier selfies as part of your work and that soldier selfies had basically become a genre. How did you find them? How did you use them? And do soldiers do it anymore, or have they been warned not to in part because of people like you?
HIGGINS: So this really started when I - after I launched Bellingcat in 2014. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down just three days later, and that became, like, the first big Bellingcat investigation. And keep in mind, this was still myself, about 60,000 pounds in crowdfunding - which I think is about $80,000 - a website and some volunteers. And very quickly around that instant, there formed a group of volunteers who were looking into what happened using open-source investigation.
And we started identifying soldiers who were in Russia who were part of a convoy where the missile launcher that shot down MH17 was transported in. We knew that convoy existed because a bunch of Russians along the route filmed it and posted it on social media, so we could reconstruct the route of the convoy, which led us back to their air defense base, the 53rd air defense base in Kursk, in Russia. And they had a page on VKontakte, which is, like, Russia's Facebook, where all the soldiers followed their own brigades. And we could then look at those soldiers' profiles and start finding photographs of them inside this convoy that transported this missile launcher.
And we were able to basically reconstruct the entire brigade structure based off their own social media posts. And that led us to finding more and more soldiers who were involved with the conflict in Ukraine, coming from Russia and actually fighting in Ukraine, even though they were serving Russian soldiers. And that was because they were posting stuff about it on their own social media profiles. So we could find photographs of them in Ukraine, use geolocation to figure out exactly where that was and then say, this is a Russian soldier from this brigade, this unit, inside Ukraine. And that extended not just to soldiers but tanks and armored vehicles and other equipment that had been sent from Russia to Ukraine, but because of the amount of kind of video documentation, you could find the same, you know, tank in Russia and then find a photograph of it a few weeks later in Ukraine with the same markings, numbering, down to the smallest scratches and dents and prove that these were Russian tanks inside Ukraine.
And this was all stuff that was just on the Internet. And as a reaction to that, the Russian government passed a law saying it was now illegal for soldiers to share those kind of images from their service online. So Russia did take notice, and they did take steps to stop us, although that was rather late by that point.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eliot Higgins, founder of the group of online investigators and crime-solvers known as Bellingcat. His new book is called "We Are Bellingcat." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, a group of digital investigative journalists and crime solvers that relies on access to open source information and crowdsourcing to solve crimes, including war crimes, hate crimes and crimes perpetrated by extremists, and to investigate what's happening in war zones too dangerous for journalists to enter and to act as a firewall against disinformation. Higgins describes what Bellingcat does as a new field that connects journalism, human rights advocacy and criminal investigations.
One of the early discoveries you made was who shot down the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. It was shot down over Ukraine. What are some of the tools you used from a distance sitting at your computer in England to figure out who shot down that plane?
HIGGINS: So I had just launched Bellingcat in July 2014, and a few days later, MH17 was shot down. And it was, you know, the biggest news event in the world just as we had launched Bellingcat. It was still basically just me by myself working full time on the website. But very quickly, this kind of crowd of volunteers appeared online who just wanted to know as much as possible and started digging through every single link they could think of, every website, every weird Russian or Ukrainian social media platform that I'd never heard of and sharing it on Twitter and, you know, on other platforms.
And around kind of Bellingcat there formed a small group of people who I recognized as being quite talented in digging through this material and analyzing it. And the first thing we did there is start looking at the videos and photographs of a Buk missile launcher traveling through eastern Ukraine on July 17 or supposedly traveling through there because, of course, these were videos and photographs on the Internet. And we had to verify they were actually where they claimed to be.
So we started using this process of geolocation. And to give you a sense of the tools that we used in one example is - there was one photograph that showed this missile launcher on a back of this low loaded truck, and it was taken from a gas station. And in the background there's a shop. And it was possible to Google the name of the shop, even though it was in Russian. That gave a result. And it wasn't that many results - only covered, like, three or four towns.
So we Googled the name of the shop of each of those towns, one of which gave a results that showed a - basically a legal document about a fight that had taken place in the shop, which gave the shop's full address. We then searched that, and that gave us the exact location on Google Maps but also a video or two videos, in fact. Someone had filmed from the dashboard camera of them just driving around the streets of Ukraine, including the streets that we were looking for. And we could use that video footage and match it exactly to what was visible in this photograph, confirming the precise location.
And then what happened with that - for further confirmation, journalists on the ground who were reading Bellingcat's work at that point actually went to that place and spoke to the local people, who confirmed not only that this missile launch had traveled through the area at that day but the time it happened. And we were able then to cross-reference that time against social media posts made by people as the missile launcher was traveling through the area saying things like, gosh, I've just seen a big missile launcher drive past my house.
So combining all those different sources allowed us to kind of verify that one moment in time when that missile launcher came by. And when you do that with multiple videos and photographs, you can actually create a route and a timeline of when this missile launcher was moving. And we could show it had moved towards what we eventually discovered to be the launch site of the missile that shot down MH17. So we could connect it to the downing of MH17 using publicly available information.
GROSS: So you were able to trace the missile and the missile launcher from Russian territory into Ukrainian territory and prove that that was the missile launcher that attacked the flight that was shot down.
HIGGINS: Yes, because we were not only able to track it in Ukraine, but as people online were searching for all the videos that were available, you know, digging through YouTube and Facebook and all these weird Russian sites you would have never heard of before, they found more and more videos of a convoy in Russia a few weeks earlier with the same types of Buk missile launchers. There were, you know, like, a dozen missile launchers in there and support vehicles, trucks, lots of equipment, a huge convoy. And again, we geolocated those videos. We figured out exactly where they were filmed. And it showed a very clear route from Kursk all the way down to the border with Ukraine.
And within that, we found one missile launcher that had some very interesting markings on it - paint marks, damage to it, scratches that matched perfectly with the one that was in Ukraine. And we checked all the other missile launchers we could find, tried to compare all of them together. And we discovered that these matches were unique, so it had to be the same missile launcher. So we established that this missile launcher had actually come from Russia in this convoy that had gone to the Ukrainian border and, at some point, had been transported over the border and sent on to the location where MH17 was eventually shot down.
GROSS: How long did that process take?
HIGGINS: The initial route - I think that only took us probably about a week. It was probably before the end of 2015 where we could show that the missile launcher had come from Russia, and then we just kind of continued to build and build and build on that investigation. So by the end of 2015, we could actually name all the individuals who were in that convoy along with names, photographs, ranks because they had posted so much on social media.
GROSS: The soldiers posted a lot. The soldiers posted selfies.
HIGGINS: Yeah, just all these selfie soldiers posting like maniacs about their service in the Russian military. And we also discovered, as we were looking into MH17, other evidence of Russia's involvement in the conflict - you know, entire tank brigades that went over the border and were identifiable because of photographs the soldiers took in Russia and then photographs that were taken of the tanks by other people in Ukraine that we were then able to compare to each other and show they had the same markings on them.
I mean, one case in Russia, they photographed themselves, after taking - painting on the tanks kind of separatist slogans, drove them over the border, had their kind of involvement in the war, drove them back, painted over the markings. But then the markings were still visible through the paint because they did a really bad job of it. So you could actually just match them to what was filmed and photographed in Ukraine showing these same tanks then turning back up in Russia again.
And this happened time and time again. Russian soldiers would take photographs of themselves in Ukraine, which we geolocate and say, there's another Russian soldier in Ukraine. And Russia tried to say, oh, these were volunteers. These are people that - you know, on their holidays going over and fighting in a war. But they went there with their tanks, which - I'm pretty sure the Russian government, as lax as it may be, wouldn't allow their soldiers to go on holiday with tanks.
GROSS: Got it. It's incredible work and incredibly detailed work. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eliot Higgins, founder of the online investigative group Bellingcat that relies on open source information and crowdsourcing to solve war crimes and hate crimes and investigate what's happening in war zones too dangerous for journalists to enter. His new book is called "We Are Bellingcat." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eliot Higgins, founder of the group Bellingcat, which conducts investigative journalism, relying on open source media on the Internet like social media posts, leaked databases and free satellite maps. Bellingcat has a core team of about 18 staffers that work with scores of volunteers around the globe. Higgins has written a new book called "We Are Bellingcat."
So in a way, you're a journalist. In a way, you're something a little different than a journalist. How would you describe your ethics in terms of what you publish and who you tell before publishing?
HIGGINS: So because we're often involved in investigations where there might have been a crime committed and that there might be an ongoing police investigation, we have to be quite careful about what we publish, because when you publish open source information as part of an investigation, you're linking to the original sources. So they may be YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and other kind of links online. And often, when people get wind of what you're doing, they'll delete all that information. So by publishing something that's part of an ongoing police investigation, we can effectively destroy evidence that the police might find useful.
So in the case of MH17, early on, I was contacted by the joint investigation team, who is the official criminal investigation, and interviewed as a witness. And they sat down with me for several hours as I went through kind of posts about MH17 line by line, kind of piece of evidence by piece of evidence. And they went away. And they seemed quite impressed by it. And they stayed in touch. And they asked if we found stuff that we would talk to them about it because they saw the value of, you know, preserving this evidence. So we started then - if we were finding information online and about to post an article, we would let them know that we're going to post this and that they needed to preserve anything that was interesting to them. Otherwise, it would be deleted forever.
And because we kind of find ourselves in a - primarily as investigators rather than being a type of investigator, like an investigative journalist, we kind of find ourselves now more and more involved with criminal cases, especially international crimes such as, you know, war crimes and crimes against humanity, where we've kind of almost become the first line of response when stuff is shared online that shows these kind of crimes. So over the years, we've started to develop a process for investigation and archiving that allows us to preserve material, unless we're investigating it, in a way that it could be used by courts in the future, because more and more, there's this realization in bodies like the International Criminal Court, who I've worked with, that this open source evidence can be extremely valuable in locations where war crimes are happening.
And they are often the only way these crimes are documented, sometimes in the moment they are being documented and they're occurring. So that's why they see more value in engaging with groups like Bellingcat and understanding how this kind of stuff is used, because when I first started doing this, I assumed, well, all these big bodies must understand what this stuff is because it's so useful. But as I've discovered over the last decade or so that these - that they - this was new to them. This was a completely new way of approaching this kind of information. And they didn't know how to use it themselves. So we've kind of ended up leading the way in the development of the use of open source evidence with bodies like the International Criminal Court.
GROSS: What kind of work has Belingcat been doing about COVID? - because there's been a lot of misinformation about that and a whole campaign not to do the things that we're supposed to do to prevent the spread of COVID like wearing masks.
HIGGINS: Yeah. We were involved with a project that looked into how COVID kind of conspiracy theories and misinformation were being generated. It was interesting there. You'd see Trump give his kind of nightly press conferences of - nightly for us in the U.K., anyway - about coronavirus, these briefings. And then you'd see the kind of alt-right media kind of saying, this - actually, this is what Trump actually meant to say when he says something ridiculous or, you know, ah, but those libs have been owned by Trump being a genius again - you know, that kind of stuff. And then that would kind of get laundered through to kind of Fox News and the kind of more, you know, mainstream Republican kind of media. And then Donald Trump would watch it.
And then it would create this kind of cycle of nonsense that was coming from Trump and going back to Trump and just go round and round again. And you could see this happening. You could see how the news sites would always report it in that kind of process. And it was really plain to see. And unfortunately, when you have people in positions of authority who are kind of spreading misinformation and disinformation, and you have a media system that is open to spreading that information for purely political purposes, then you're going to have a massive amount of misinformation being spread because it's happening at the very top levels of, you know, mainstream society.
GROSS: Donald Trump was de-platformed from Facebook and Twitter. How have the groups that you followed that are more on the dark web, how have they been reacting to that?
HIGGINS: I think, really - I mean, at the time, there was, you know, (laughter) rage. But at the same time, those Q supporters got knocked off Twitter. And, you know, it was, you know, a real massacre in many sense of all these social media accounts. And then Parler went offline. And there was kind of all these groups that were kind of splitting off. And, like, thedonald.win, which was the kind of big, pro-Trump message board that spawned off Reddit, that kind of collapsed and got relaunched. And basically, there was just a huge amount of drama with all these groups kind of, you know, reforming and collapsing again. And in a sense, I think they were so panicked about, you know, being kind of scattered to the winds that they didn't really have much more chance to think about anything else. But, you know, they're still out there. It's just they're kind of more on the obscure platforms now that most people, you know, never have heard about. But those communities are still out there. They still exist. And they're still waiting for Trump to return and for Q to post his next message.
GROSS: Talk a little bit about the impact of this work on you personally because, like, when you're investigating war crimes and, you know, massacres, you end up looking at a lot of videos of victims. You've seen a lot of severed limbs. You've seen a lot of bloody bodies. You know, you write about how you try to disconnect yourself emotionally from what you're seeing, but really, that's easier said than done. So what has the impact of the work been on you emotionally?
HIGGINS: I mean, the whole kind of - that period of starting the blog and, you know, going on was kind of strange for me because when I started doing this, I was someone who was, you know, very - had lots of anxiety. And, you know, I prefer to be at home. I didn't kind of like going out. But because of the work I was doing with the blog, I was kind of forced to, like, go on stage and speak in front of lots of important people. And it was terrifying. The first few times I did it, I can barely remember because I was just so out of my mind because of the anxiety about something going wrong. But it went well. I kept doing it and doing it and, over the years, built my confidence tremendously. It's had a really positive impact on me, along with the success of kind of my job at the moment, you know, with how Bellingcat's going.
So at the same time, of course, I'm watching, like, really horrific conflict footage. And you can't disassociate it, you know, to a certain extent. But it still can be very difficult when you're looking at footage that's - it's not so much the horror of it. You can prepare yourself for the visceral horror of what you're seeing. But it's when you see something that gives you a kind of connection to something in your personal life. Like, I remember watching a video from Syria of a child dying from sarin, and that wasn't what was - brought me into the moment. It was that they were wearing the same nappy as I'd been using with my children.
There's another time when I was looking at wreckage from MH17, looking for signs of impact from shrapnel. So I had to look at everything really close up. So I was kind of ignoring the blood and, you know, some of the bodies that were visible and focusing on the damage to the metal. But within that metal, there was this little toy rabbit doll, and it was exactly the same toy rabbit doll my sister-in-law gave my daughter when she was born. And that brings you right into that moment and what's happened there.
So you have to kind of police yourself. You have to realize what those kind of trigger points are for yourself. And most important at Bellingcat is that we - you know, we talk to people about this. We engage with our staff about that. We, you know, make sure this is an environment where they can talk about those kind of, you know, moments and feelings and understand that it's not always the same for every single person. But I think myself, I was kind of - because I had that kind of weird positive development going alongside what was happening with my work, I think that may have offered me some kind of, you know, protection from it.
But now, you know, I really dislike watching things like horror films now because I've seen injuries for real that - you know, when you see it in a horror film, it just, like, reminds you of seeing that stuff. And it's just - I don't get any enjoyment from, you know, being scared like that anymore.
GROSS: Eliot Higgins, thank you so much for your work, and thank you so much for doing this interview.
HIGGINS: Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and author of the new book "We Are Bellingcat." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will tell us why he recommends the new Netflix miniseries "Behind Her Eyes." This is FRESH AIR.
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