Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (centre) marches in Moscow on February 29, 2020. Bellingcat was part of a joint investigation into Navalny’s poisoning. Photo: AFP
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

In battle against fake news, Bellingcat shows how the internet can be a force for good

  • Using only internet sources available to everyone, Bellingcat’s investigators uncovered the truth behind the Ukraine MH17 shooting and Syrian chemical killings
  • Amid deepening angst over the internet’s dark forces, Bellingcat’s relentless reliance on facts will help foster a culture of verification and transparency

I may be a digital dinosaur, but I think I am not alone in harbouring a deep angst over the irresistible force for change that is the internet. For every moment of marvel at the knowledge and global connectivity it has brought to my fingertips, there is a sometimes-crushing anxiety about the darkness it has empowered and the privacy it has erased.

We woke up on March 2 to news that Microsoft Exchange’s servers had been hacked, with perhaps 250,000 victims. In contrast to the Russian hackers that fed corrupted software from SolarWinds into hundreds of US government websites, these hackers are allegedly Chinese. Microsoft has named them Hafnium – don’t ask me why. In the real world, hafnium is a grey, toxic metal with the atomic number 72, similar to zirconium.
After my own encounter with hackers demanding ransom back in September, I have excruciating first-hand experience of the internet’s pervasive “dark side”, and often succumb to “cyber-miserabilist” nightmares of an internet future that descends into a completely unfixable mess.
Are we not already on a slippery slope, descending from the information age into a dis- or misinformation age? Are we not already infested with crazy dystopian cults that thrive in the murky depths of social media, plotting attacks on Washington’s Capitol building, coordinating racist rallies, even paving the way for the return of the messiah that is Donald Trump?
Over the past week I have been imbibing what may be one of the best antidotes around to this cyber-miserabilism – Eliot Higgins and his new book We Are Bellingcat, describing his astonishing last six years waging war against the world’s bad guys, as a nerdy Robin Hood exploiting the amazing potential of the internet as a force for good – an “ intelligence agency for the people”.

Higgins starts out as an absolutely improbable hero, a computer-gaming nerd with no degree and a drab job, who as a blogger laid the foundations for Bellingcat from a laptop on his kitchen table in Leicester which, like my hometown Grantham, is among Britain’s least charismatic communities.

Since transforming his Brown Moses blog into Bellingcat early in 2014, his cyber-sleuthing talents have put to shame some of the world’s best investigative journalists, left police investigators and spy agencies in the dust, and exposed the cynical dissembling of autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Without formal journalism qualifications, without high-level connections, and with access only to open internet sources, Higgins has built a formidable reputation simply on his results. As the Financial Times’ Henry Mance noted: “Once people were amazed that he could investigate anything. Now some want to know why he is not investigating everything.” He calls Higgins “a champion of truth in a post-truth world”.

Exclusive | Meet the man fighting the Chinese internet’s fake news epidemic

From his kitchen table, Higgins and a small group of unpaid news addicts used the power of open-source internet to prove Russia’s role in shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, prove the use of chemical weapons by Assad forces in Syria, and identify the Russian spies who travelled secretly to Salisbury in March 2018 with the aim of killing Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the Novichok nerve agent.
Higgins tracked Islamic State supporters in Europe and neo-Nazis in the United States, and most recently exposed disinformation on the Covid-19 virus, and on the attempted assassination of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.


US and EU sanction seven Russian officials over Alexei Navalny poisoning

US and EU sanction seven Russian officials over Alexei Navalny poisoning

In times of rising angst over “fake news” – indeed the trustworthiness of all news – Bellingcat’s fact-based mantra of “identify, verify, amplify” at the heart of open-source intelligence has provided a safe haven: “Evidence exists and falsehoods exist, and people still care about the difference,” Higgins writes. “The internet has helped spread extremism, but has also been the tool to expose it … When citizens can see evidence for themselves, lying becomes a fool’s mission.”

Investigators like Higgins may not have managed to overthrow the likes of Putin or Assad, but he has made them and their acolytes look foolish, which is no small achievement.

In building a firewall against misinformation and fake news, the “Bellingcat method” has relied on two unshakable foundations: crowdsourced verification and transparency. And by relying on open sources to underpin the facts of Bellingcat’s investigations, he has massively democratised the information-gathering process.

A fake news law is not the answer to misinformation

Higgins notes that in pre-internet times, 90 per cent of valuable intelligence came from secret sources – either investigative journalists’ confidential sources, or the clandestine antics of espionage agencies – whereas today, 90 per cent of valuable intelligence comes from open sources that can be checked and verified by anyone, from their own kitchen table.

He contrasts his search for facts with the search for confirmation at the heart of so much disinformation generated and shared by the “counterfactual community”, which is populated by “passionate amateurs, optimistic grifters and violent extremists”. In contrast with “identify, verify, amplify”, he says the counterfactual community has its own mantra: believe, insist, ignore. “Their practice is to begin with a conclusion, skip verification, and shout down contradictory facts,” he said.


Trump supporters protest election results as US Congress certifies Biden’s win

Trump supporters protest election results as US Congress certifies Biden’s win

This reminds me of my own gloomy realisation as a young journalist back in the 1980s that many people reading my articles were not seeking to be informed, but instead were seeking anecdotes that supported their prejudices. If my reports confirmed that prejudice, they were affectionately remembered. If they did not, they were simply ignored and forgotten.

As a well-rooted realist, Higgins recognises that “nobody will ever ‘fix’ the internet, just as nobody will ever fix the world”. Prejudice and extremism may never be rooted out, but with a relentless reliance on facts, and a culture of verification and transparency, much prejudice will be laid bare.

Even the most experienced of journalists, police officials or James Bonds have much to learn from what happened on that Leicester kitchen table. We may only be in the nursery slopes of our battle with the internet’s dark forces, but with the creative energy and innovation of the likes of Bellingcat on our side, it is premature yet to succumb to cyber-miserabilism.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view