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Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins Explains Why Ukraine Is Winning the Information War

12 minute read

The ability of anyone with a phone or laptop to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in almost real time—and to believe what they’re seeing—comes to us thanks to the citizens operating what’s known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). The term is shorthand for the laborious process of verifying video and photographs from Ukraine by checking everything about the images, establishing what they show, and doing all this work out in the open, for all to see.

It’s what Eliot Higgins did at his boring office job in the U.K. when the war was in Syria, but also on YouTube, where videos from phone cameras showcased a chaos that Higgins, with no training as a journalist, set out to decipher. He noted serial numbers on munitions, made innovative use of online tools like Google Maps, constantly compared notes with people trying to do the same and, blogging as Brown Moses, built a reputation as an authority on a war too dangerous to be reported from the ground. (Among his findings: the precise location that ISIS terrorists beheaded the American reporter James Foley.) In 2014 Higgins used Kickstarter to found Bellingcat (the name refers to resourceful mice tying a bell to a cat), a nonprofit, online collective dedicated to “a new field, one that connects journalism and rights advocacy and crime investigation.” Three days after its launch, a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over the part of Ukraine held by Russian troops. Bellingcat proved the culprit was a Russian surface-to-air missile, by using largely the same array of tools—including Google Earth, the social media posts of Russian soldiers, and the passion of Eastern European drivers for posting dashcam videos—that hundreds of volunteer sleuths are now using to document the Russian invasion of Ukraine in granular detail.

Read More: Meet the Foreign Volunteers Risking Their Lives to Defend Ukraine—and Europe

It’s an extraordinary turn of events—and a striking reversal of fortunes for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in the past deployed disinformation so effectively in concert with its military that NATO refers to “hybrid war.” In Ukraine, however, Russia has been outflanked. Its attempts to establish a pretext for invasion by circulating video evidence of purported “atrocities” by Ukraine were exposed as frauds within hours by Bellingcat, fellow OSINT volunteers, and legacy news media outlets that have picked up reporting tools the open-source crowd hands around.

Higgins, who says “the response to disinformation is transparency,” spoke to TIME on March 8 from Leicester, England, about the extraordinary growth and, in Ukraine, the striking success, of a totally new form of reporting. “This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning.” he says.

TIME: How different are things now from Syria?

Eliot Higgins: The open-source side of it has kind of been fully integrated into the information systems that have appeared around the conflict—the traditional systems, like the media, but also the way accountability is being viewed, the way people understand what’s happening in the conflict. Whilst with Syria it took years to get to that point. And by the time it did, most people didn’t really care about Syria anymore.

In your book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, there’s immense attention to the time-consuming detail involved in making an airtight case. Your team took a year to produce the report on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. But in Ukraine, speed seems to be an asset.

The way we’ve set up our process at the moment kind of allows us to do both. We’re doing collection of geolocation and archiving, because one of the lessons we’ve learned through the last decade is that this information might seem like it’s gonna be online forever, but it very often isn’t. So you need to grab as much as you can in the moment, preserve it, and make sure it’s searchable as well. An organization called Mnemonic labs has developed a process specifically for making evidence for future accountability processes.

We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. One is focused on more editorial, journalistic-type investigations, where you can get that stuff out quite quickly after the events have occurred. But another team that runs parallel to that is focused purely on doing investigations for accountability. One conflict incident might take one person five days to investigate and then another person another five days to review, so it’s a longer process.

Describe what you mean by accountability.

We’ve focused in particular on legal accountability. So there’s a universal jurisdiction case that’s being opened by prosecutors in Germany. We have the [U.N.] Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine that looks like it’s going to start activity soon. There’s the work of the International Criminal Court as well. Anything that we preserve is preserved in a way that is actually useful to them. That’s a process that we’ve developed over the past few years in a project that focused on Yemen. But now we’re applying what we’ve learned from that to Ukraine.

I was struck by a CNN report on a pair of videos Russia put out before invading that purported to show Ukrainian attacks. Both were exposed as frauds, but in addition to quoting evidence compiled by the online open-source community, the network cited its own analysis, using online geolocation methods to prove that both videos actually had been filmed behind Russian lines.

It’s really satisfying to see that. Two or three years ago I wouldn’t even imagine “geolocation” being in a headline. It’s caught me by surprise how different it’s been this time around. Even before the conflict started, the online community was digging through these videos of vehicles being transported to the Russian border, and the kind of vehicles gave us the first indications that this wasn’t a training exercise, this is something else. And that caught the interest of journalists, the policymakers, and other organizations who could understand how to trust that information. Whilst in 2014—MH-17 and Syria—that had to be built. Now that kind of understanding and that trust is kind of implicit in all these different areas of work. And that’s just a massive, tremendous change.

Any idea how many people are working in this field now?

Oh, God, honestly, I’ve no idea. A few years ago you could have probably put them on a bus and driven them off a cliff and that’s the whole field gone. Bellingcat is 30 people, which will probably expand to 35. But there’s a network of people now who are nonprofessionals who do this kind of stuff on Twitter; they’re producing valuable work. I still think it’s probably in the hundreds. But compared to where we were a few years ago, when it was probably still in the tens, it’s a big difference.

Is there anything you’ve seen that left you just gobsmacked?

It’s more been the scope of how much is being done. There’s just so much more simple stuff, like geolocation, that saves us hours of work per video, combined with the fact that you have such an interest in this verified content. In terms of the information war that happens around conflict, this is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

Read More: What It’s Like for Ukrainian Journalists Reporting on the War in Their Country

We also have stuff like [Ukranian President] Zelenky’s use of social media that is quite a unique element to this conflict. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. And I think all of these elements combined have completely shifted the way the information system around it has been shaped. Usually we’d be running around wondering what Russian disinformation is coming out now. But each piece of disinformation put out is debunked within an hour by the online community, even before it has a chance to take root. And that’s just something I’ve never seen before. It’s really significant, I think. And if all conflicts are covered in the future like this, it could really have an impact. Because Russia is really suffering because of this kind of open-source community and engagement through social media with what’s happening.

A man walks between houses destroyed during air strikes on the central Ukranian city of Bila Tserkva on March 8, 2022. - Russia stepped up its bombing campaign and missile strikes on Ukraine's cities, destroying two residential buildings in a town west of Kyiv with the city of Bila Tserkva to the south of the capital also hit.Aris Messinis-AFP

Tell me about the social media piece.

Well, there’s a few aspects to this one. There’s so much information being shared from the ground, and there’s a kind of an ad hoc, volunteer network of people who are geolocating stuff. And that is feeding into our work. It’s also feeding into creating credibility around this kind of imagery. From day one in the conflict, we’ve been able to track cluster-munition use in civilian areas, which, you know, is almost certainly a war crime.

The U.S. intelligence that was being released beforehand—a lot of that, I wouldn’t say it was proved by the open-source information, but it was certainly consistent with what was coming out with open sources as the conflict unfolded. We saw the various fakes and fabrications debunked very quickly. It made the U.S. intelligence community’s case even more solid, because people are independently verifying this stuff.

Then we of course have the understanding of the Russian position for this conflict. We all know about the 40-kilometer convoy of death that’s outside of Kyiv, with everyone freezing to death inside it. We’ve seen videos and photographs of endless supply trucks that have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces. And all of that also gives us a more granular understanding of what’s happening on the ground that is very rare to have from a conflict. And then also the fact that the Russians’ information security is terrible. We have unencrypted communications being streamed on the internet. We have satellite imagery that’s revealing all kinds of information about where they are and what they’re up to. There’s one blogger called Oryx who has been collecting visual confirmation of all these vehicle losses, which is a hell of a lot more accurate than we can get from either side of the conflict and reflects very poorly on the Russians’ progress so far.

Going by your feed there, Twitter is pretty useful to your efforts.

For the news stream, Twitter is really dominant with this conflict. Telegram is probably where a lot of the sources of information is coming from and it’s certainly played a very significant role in getting information out there. TikTok’s also been quite significant in the build-up to the war because everyone was filming Russian convoys to get clicks, which is always helpful.

Read More: Meet the Lithuanian ‘Elves’ Fighting Russian Disinformation

How is Telegram useful?

One thing that’s very handy about it is when videos and photos are shared, unlike most social media platforms that strip metadata, the metadata is retained. We’ve used that to show that the Russians were producing disinformation and even false-flag attack videos, because they left the metadata [revealing where the filming actually took place] when they faked the videos, so that’s been incredibly useful. That also means if people are sharing stuff from the ground, we have the metadata in there with things like the coordinates from the camera that we’re using, so we can more quickly geolocate stuff and add it to our verified-information database. And I think a lot of Russians and Ukrainians connect with that platform as well and some other platforms that haven’t been shut down by Russia yet.

One of the striking things about your work is that it grew out of one of the early, primary appeals of the internet—not only the hive mind, but also transparency. Before social came in and started controlling everything with algorithms, people just found each other.

Yeah, I think it might be because I come from maybe the pre-social media forum culture. I started using the Internet back in like 1995, when it was all things like America Online.

Audible handshakes!

Yeah. I kind of graduated from being on Something Awful Forums, which is one of the really big internet forums that spawned a lot of other projects and websites and memes and stuff like that. For me, social media isn’t so much the medium for communication, it’s more of a tool that can be used to gather information and then kind of propagate it. And the idea of being part of a network and connecting to people is very important for me, because even in the early days of the Brown Moses blog, I think I’ve always realized that you can’t know every single thing by yourself. But if you connect to a network of people from all kinds of backgrounds, you can always engage different elements of the network, in different things, and in different ways.

Like even now, in Ukraine, the first thing I did was reach out to several organizations who either we worked with in the past, or we knew people who were involved with projects that were close to what we were doing, and combined our efforts. So the Conflict Intelligence Team in Russia, they’ve worked with us in the past, in Syria and Ukraine, and the Center for Information Resilience, they’ve been mapping out videos and the conflicts, and we’re going to geolocate videos, so we combine their efforts and now that’s all going into one source. But it’s all data we can share. It just makes more sense that everyone works together.

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