We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Here are some highlights from this 2021 book:

* When General Michael Flynn ran the Defense Intelligence Agency (before disgracing himself in the Trump administration), he remarked that secret sources used to contribute 90 per cent of valuable intelligence. After the arrival of social media, it was the opposite: 90 per cent of worthy intelligence came from open sources, available to all.
Spy agencies have always gathered open-source intelligence, poring over newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. But they tended to disdain such material, preferring clandestine sources, which justified their immense budgets and influence. For the rest of us, there was a problem with secret intel: we had to trust those who controlled it. Public trust has been brittle since the Iraq War, when the US-led coalition justified invasion with claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that proved unfounded.
Social mistrust today has become a broader problem problem than just the masses doubting the elites. Citizens view other citizens with deep suspicion, each political tribe inside its own information bubble. There is the temptation to consider oneself – readers of books like this, opponents of disinformation – as a different grade of human from those who fall for deception and conspiracy theories. Yet much of what each of us believes is just what someone else once told us. That makes experts vital. But they are not sufficient anymore. Allowing truth to become a matter of group loyalty has been a disaster. Today, claims must be laid out for all to see. The Bellingcat method is that: click the links and check our conclusions for yourself.

* But when 9/11 happened, my interests shifted. News was happening so fast, and papers were so slow. I wanted to know more, and discovered an online message board, Something Awful, that was full of argument and insight on almost any topic imaginable. I gained a new obsession: current affairs. By 2011, the most compelling part of my day came each morning, when I arrived far too early at the office. Alone at my computer, I scoured the internet for the latest updates on the Arab Spring.

* My niche, as it developed in thousands of posts, was the detail. I never attempted to tell a complete story, as a news reporter strives to do. I unearthed nuggets that others might use.
This simple ambition proved more important than I realised. An alternative-media ecosystem was expanding in those days, with plenty of dubious websites misrepresenting videos and images to win political arguments. By contrast, I had no personal connection to the Arab Spring, and no partisan views. I was just fascinated, and I hungered for extra titbits. Plenty circulated but plenty were false. My focus became valid information. I cited all sources, making it clear where information derived from, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge. This approach developed into what would become a guiding principle at Bellingcat: the response to information chaos is transparency.

* The public was beginning to hear of online sleuthing around this time, but what they learned was not always great. Shortly before my trip to Italy, the Boston Bombings took place, when two terrorists detonated explosives near the marathon finishing line on 15 April 2013, killing three people and wounding hundreds. Users of Reddit sought to solve the case and botched it, mistakenly circulating false claims that various dark-skinned men with backpacks were guilty. This was termed ‘ digilantism’, a reckless version of open-source investigation where scaremongering masqueraded as 122 detective work.
Others wondered if open-source investigation was what WikiLeaks did. Absolutely not. WikiLeaks was about leaking classified information, while open-source investigators analyse what sits in public. The secrecy of WikiLeaks placed vast power into its hands, which became problematic when Julian Assange exhibited strong political preferences, timing drops to harm those he despised, notably Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. 123 Another problem with WikiLeaks is that it is hard to verify huge data dumps of shadowy origin. Are the floods of diplomatic cables legitimate? Perhaps, but how can you tell? At best, I consider WikiLeaks a potential source among many that I would need to cross-reference.
By the Tactical Tech retreat in the summer of 2013, the open-source investigative community amounted to a loose grouping that had formed organically, most of us amateurs plus a few pioneering professionals such as Andy Carvin, who had harnessed social media during the Arab Spring; Josh Lyons of Human Rights Watch, a master of satellite-imagery analysis; Christoph Koettl of Amnesty International, who pored over aerial photos of North Korean prison camps; and former computer programmer Malachy Browne of Storyful, a company that was among the first to monitor social-media feeds for facts that had yet to make it into the news. Although few of us had met, a spirit of cooperation ruled, even friendship.

* I never worried that a bad actor could infiltrate this project. If someone materialised with startling claims of new evidence, I would not blindly publish the work. First, I would evaluate the research on its merits, while checking the personal data trail that the individual had left online, to ensure that nothing was awry. The question of who can join touches on a key principle: we care only what you can find, what you can substantiate, what you can lay out for all to see.
The motto of this new platform would be ‘Identify, Verify, Amplify’:
• Identify issues both overlooked and discoverable online.
• Verify all evidence, and never indulge in speculation.
• Amplify what we learn, while amplifying the field as a whole.
In this burgeoning investigative community, I recognised a common personality type. We tended to be detail-oriented obsessives, many of whom had spent our formative years at computers, enthralled by the power of the internet. We were not missionaries out to fix the world, but we had enough of a moral compass to repudiate the other routes to an outsized impact online, such as trolling and hacking. Most of us grew up assuming we would remain peripheral to the issues of the day, that the powers that be could just ignore small people like us. Suddenly, this was not so. It was intoxicating.

* In the past, citizens heard governments lying and had little recourse, knowing there was no way of doing anything about it. Events on the news happened so far outside our control. That is not the case anymore, and nothing stirs the online investigative community like fabrications from the powerful. Moreover, contradictory narratives about an event are useful, providing something concrete to either verify or debunk.

* To us, an online claim is nothing more than a hypothesis, one validated only with backing evidence that others should be able to corroborate themselves. It’s akin to the scientific method applied to journalism.

* Some observers raised doubts about doxxing people who had attended a political rally, no matter how detestable their views. If we had tried, Bellingcat could probably have identified every alt-right protester, but we had no such intention. Our ethics revolve around a core question: does our investigation concern people who may have committed a serious crime, or who hold public positions of power and are threatening criminal acts? In the early days of Brown Moses, when I covered the phone-hacking scandal, disgraceful press practices exemplified what I never wanted to do: bullying and targeting people for being in the wrong place or with the wrong person. …In the Charlottesville case, we had no qualms: the man we sought to identify was a suspect in a violent crime.

* But what had looked like a coming-out for fascists was not quite that, partly because of online investigators like Aric, who showed that extremists could not rampage offline with the same impunity that they enjoyed online. The white nationalist Richard Spencer acknowledged that everything had changed after Charlottesville. ‘Let’s just admit what happened,’ he said. ‘We feared to go out in public.’ 53 The internet helped spread extremism, but was also the tool to expose it.
Aric archived around 300 videos from Charlottesville, many that would have otherwise vanished from the internet. 54 Some day, one of those men may seek elected office, presumably hiding their participation in this event. Thanks to the internet, voters may learn what he did on 12 August 2017.

* A form of ironic nihilism prevails on 4chan, underpinned by the idea that life is ugly and pointless. If you take any matter seriously, you become the butt of the joke – even if someone is threatening to shoot you in the face.
Robert went trawling through leaked posts from a gamers’ chat app, Discord, that had been infiltrated by neo-fascists. After Charlottesville, a fresh branch of the alt-right rose – groups such as the Proud Boys, Pat riot Prayer and Anti-Communist Action, that denied bigotry, characterising themselves as defenders of free speech and old-fashioned values, a bulwark against the radical left. This was not the whole truth.
In leaked private posts, Robert found that some spoke of ‘hiding our power levels’, meaning disguising their true views to avoid alienating the masses. ‘Why not make a nationalist party?’ the founder of Anti-Communist Action wrote in one message exchange. ‘We can promise strong military spending and border security to win over the conservatives, and promise science funding and space exploration to win over the reddit crowd, as well as universal healthcare to get the lefties onboard. … We just hide our power levels.’ 56
Those Discord chat logs – leaked by a left-wing crowdfunded media collective, Unicorn Riot – proved to be a goldmine. Robert analysed how seventy-five people had become radicalised, a topic that the fascists discussed obsessively, with many recounting exactly when and how they had been ‘red-pilled’. This term derives from the 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix , in which the main character must choose whether to take a red pill and see the shocking reality that humans are unknowing slaves, or to take a blue pill and return to blissful ignorance. Supporters of the far right speak of ‘taking the red pill’ to mean abandoning socially acceptable views, even buying into the narrative that Jews are conspiring to bring about white genocide, described in these circles as ‘the Jewish Question’ or ‘JQ’. 57 A typical progression was from interest in Trump, to engagement in The Great Meme War, to 4chan, to neo-fascism.

* ‘Well lads,’ the killer posted on 8chan when announcing his impending attack, ‘it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post.’ This term, ‘shitposting’, referred to the practice of posting content designed to distress and mislead less savvy internet users. His manifesto was full of shitposting. For example, he claimed that the African-American conservative political commentator Candace Owens had inspired him, apparently to draw this prominent voice into the news coverage, although she had no connection to the killer’s beliefs. His manipulative intent was more obvious when he claimed that a videogame, Spyro the Dragon, ‘taught me ethno-nationalism’. This was all bait and intended to make 8chan laugh.
The fact that someone planning mass murder wanted to crack jokes with his online buddies is hard to comprehend. But this brand of ‘humour’ is familiar to those of us who grew up with message-board culture. The motto of Something Awful was ‘The Internet Makes You Stupid’, an ironic tagline that had two effects: mocking fretful critics who bewailed the rotting of young minds online; and declaring that we ourselves were not taking anything too seriously. This made for a liberating environment, permitting outsiders to experiment safely and speak openly. But over the years, as power shifted online, the internet was no longer safe for messing around. Nerd flippancy congealed into sadism by ‘anons’, as users of 4chan and 8chan are known. (All users on the sites are anonymous – a key factor in why people go to extremes there.) For fascists, callous ‘humour’ had a secondary purpose. It was a way to camouflage transgressive ideas, and edge them into the mainstream. Typical was ‘the Happy Merchant’ cartoon of a bearded Jew with demonic eyes, wringing his hands with greed – a caricature similar to those printed in Nazi propaganda but today found in ‘humorous’ far-right memes.

* An element of neo-fascist terrorism that 8chan stirred is what Robert called ‘the gamification’ of mass violence. 71 While billions of people have played videogames, and almost none are moved to harm others, elements of gaming culture have become incorporated into attacks. Livestreaming on a helmet cam showed the Christchurch gunman’s perspective with a weapon in hand – eerily like the view in shoot-em-up videogames. He and the Poway killer carefully chose musical soundtracks to go along with their live streams, as in a videogame. When the Poway synagogue gunman announced on 8chan that he was about to kill innocent people, the first reply was ‘get the high score’ – murder more people than previous mass-shooters. 72 Online, you find ‘high-score’ leader boards, including categories related to different videogames, such as a Microsoft Flight Simulator list for those who have carried out mass killings involving aeroplanes. On the site Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is like Wikipedia for trolls, the ‘high-score’ entry cites ‘difficulty levels’ of various attacks. It deems lone-gunman attacks to be the ‘gold standard of murder’.

* Citizen investigators should investigate themselves now and then. We must pay attention to shifts in our behaviour, if we are sleeping more than normal or less, suffering nightmares, losing our appetite or eating to excess, becoming more isolated and pushing people away, drinking more or using drugs 37 to self-medicate. Taking breaks from the screen makes a difference. And social support – opening up to others who are viewing similar material – builds resilience. Lastly, we must ask ourselves: do we need to see everything that is out there? The internet makes it so easy. That does not mean we should click, as I regrettably did on the Christchurch shooting video.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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