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On an afternoon in London, twelve people gathered in a conference room to find out where actress Sharon Stone stood in front of the Taj Mahal. Among them were two journalists, a human rights lawyer, researchers and analysts in the areas of international conflict, forensics, online extremism and computer security. They each paid four hundred and five hundred dollars for a five-day workshop led by Eliot Higgins, founder of the open source Bellingcat website. Higgins chose this photo of Sharon Stone because the photographer was on a raised deck that mistook angles and used a lens that made Stone appear closer to the Taj than it actually was. Participants working on laptops compared trees and photo-visible paths with their correlates in Google Earth.
Stone’s location that day – the northwest corner of the Great Gate – was perhaps not historic, but the participants used the same techniques that undermined Bellingcats research on such issues. such as the launch of Flight 17 of Malaysian Airlines Ukraine and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army. When Higgins was portrayed in the New Yorker in 2013, he was still a lonely blogger calling himself Brown Moses and the field of open source investigation – the microscopic examination of publicly available material such as satellite imagery, social media posts, and YouTube. videos. Online truth-clarification databases about controversial events were still in their infancy. Today he is firmly established. For the first time last year, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant based solely on video and social media. The latest report on chemical attack by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Syria relies heavily on Google Earth images published on the Bellingcat. The styles are commented. The open source poll reached a new audience this spring when the Forensic Architecture research agency, which often collaborated with Bellingcat, was presented at the London Institute for Contemporary Art. (Since then he has been nominated for the Turner Prize.)
Higgins, who lives in Leicester with his wife and two young children, is growing in popularity with journalists, NGOs, businesses, universities and government agencies eager to share his expertise. Christoph Reuter, one of the participants in the London workshop I attended, is mirror correspondent for the Middle East in Beirut and a journalist for three decades; When I told him about Higgins, he made a gesture and bowed respectfully. Higgins launched Bellingcat in 2014 with a Kickstarter campaign, but today nearly half of its funding comes from these paid workshops since last spring, including the first in the United States – in Washington, New York and San Francisco. planned for later this year. Higgins also works in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Human Rights, and hopes to hire enough staff to expand Bellingcat’s coverage of Latin America.
Higgins’ work is inspired by his anti-authoritarian left politics. One of the participants in the workshop, a Middle East analyst named Robert, did not want his full name to be used in this article because some factions in the region might regard the suspect as belonging to Bellingcat. But the open source survey is a tool everyone can use. When it spreads, it will inevitably mingle with the kind of deception and propaganda that Higgins always wanted to break. Redd’s research on Crowdsource in Pizzagate or QAnon does not seem to be a Bellingcat report full of Google Maps or Facebook screenshots at first glance. On the side of the traditional liberals, too, a new conspiracy culture is taking place on which Anti-Trump celebrates on Twitter every amateur detective who can find a suspicious detail about Jared Kushner in a PDF file.
Meanwhile, the Russian government, which has in the past ridiculed Bellingcats open source research, is now releasing satellite images of the Syrian bombings, inviting the public to look closely and look for themselves; RT, the state-sponsored Russian news channel, has launched its own Digital Verification blog, apparently based on Bellingcat. By developing Bellingcat in a combination of newsmagazine and academy, Higgins is working on “formalizing and structuring much of our work” while developing his methods “formalized and structured.” because it never threatens distortions and abuse.
I asked Higgins if he had expelled anyone from these workshops. “We’ll start saying that intelligence agencies can not compete,” he said. “They are demanding more and more, but we do not really want to train them, and it’s uncomfortable for anyone in the room if there’s a MI5 employee.” I asked how he would feel if a citizen journalist accepted the intention. Explain that many refugee children in the United States are actually gray adults. He said he would let that person do it. “If you want to use these techniques for this reporting, and it’s an honest investigation, then the answers must be honest in every way, they need to find out they can not prove their ideas, and maybe not.” You’ll learn that his ideas are not as strong as they thought. “In the end, Higgins respects the good work of a detective, no matter where he comes from. At one point in the workshop, he showed the group a video about 4chan users who only needed thirty-seven hours to get one Flag to say and say, “He will not share with us,” Shia LaBeouf said in front of an internet connection, had the camera in a secret location as a political art project. “4chan is awful,” Higgins said, “but sometimes they do really amazing Open source searches, just to annoy people. ”
Following Sharon Stone, several additional geolocalization exercises were performed on the second day, with several dozen photos of the M2 hospital assembled in Aleppo after being bombed by government forces. The challenge was to determine exactly how closely they are connected in a three-dimensional space: for example, when two photos with very similar link barriers actually look at different angles of the same chain link barrier. “Most of my pictures are from rubble, which is very useful.” Diane Cooke, Ph.D. student at King’s College London, Center for Science and Security Studies, said.
Higgins mentioned that he left out all the damn photos, but still, this exercise was a war crime turned into a puzzle. Previously, he had paused in a video projection on the frame of a hyperinfluential Syrian child with a limited student staring at us for an uncomfortably long time. “I’m careful with it,” he told me when I asked him how he approaches such horror. The most troubling example is Bellingcat’s investigation into a massive execution of the Libyan National Army in 2017: on a satellite image taken on the same day, there are fifteen black spots on the sand. “It’s awful, but it’s such a good example,” said Higgins. “And if you have bloodstains, you have to show the bloodstains.”
After that, it was time to have lunch in the sun. Robert, the analyst from the Middle East, complained about a “geolocation vision”: after a few hours of these exercises, it’s impossible to look around without the tiny textures of the built environment, cracks on the sidewalk, and soot on the floor. Walls.
Days four and five of a Bellingcat workshop give participants the opportunity to practice their skills by doing their own research. When Christiaan Triebert, a Bellingcat investigator, was attacked by two moped men in London this year to run a Bellingcat workshop, he recruited workshop participants to help him investigate. on moped gangs. To help the city. (“My adrenaline has turned into an energy:” That’s pretty interesting! “, He remembers.” Basically, we’ve analyzed the mapping networks of Instagram profiles who are friends with whom and where? “) Triebert led He has also been training workshops in several countries where death threatens journalists, and in Iraq, for example, he trained journalists from al-Ghad, a radio station stationed in Isul’s Mosul. “Some of her friends and colleagues were butchered by activist Isis and it They gave videos of them, they were drowned in a cage in a pool and they said, “We really want to know where that happened … If Mosul is caught again, we can visit him, but also see where she murders our friends We have started to map the Mosul pools and in an hour they have found it.
In the London workshop, the participants split into three teams: One attempted to geolocate a US Army bombing video somewhere in Damascus; another analyzed the relationship between water scarcity in Iraq and the filling of Ilisu Dam in Turkey; A third one looks at the leaders of a recent rally in London to protest the imprisonment of far-right activist Tommy Robinson. The room took on the atmosphere of a press room. In the afternoon, the Damascus team reported on his work: Higgins and Reuter were tracking an electric pylon in the background of the dark and green night-vision images that they thought were sufficient to bombard; Marwan El Khoury, Doctor of Medicine at the University of Leicester, is trying to extract Polaris from the constellations that are briefly visible in the sky, in the hope of determining the orientation of the camera. and Beii Ye, an attorney for the Open Society Justice Initiative, has read the news. “No one has ever been able to geotag this video, so it’s a matter of pride,” said Higgins.
The pizza was ordered on the last day so all three teams could work during lunch. Robert met at 2 pm and he represented Team Ilisu, the first one. “Again, we have not found anything spectacular,” he said, “but we have found that a statement from the Iraqi Ministry of Water is more or less correct.” It sounds really boring, but I think it’s important. ”
Tommy Robinson’s team was the next. He had discovered that “Danny Tommo,” one of the pseudonym organizers of the pro-Tommy-Robinson demonstration, was already known to the police under his real name. With laughter, they jailed the headlines of a newspaper in Portsmouth with the inscription “Kidnappers armed indeed for” stupid “attempts.
Five minutes before the deadline, the team in Damascus had caused a stir: Higgins had recalled that a Russian intelligence service had put GoPro cameras on the front of tanks in 2015 after being integrated into the Syrian armed forces. In a YouTube video After shooting with his gun, the tank jumped back and for a moment it was possible to see a pylon on the horizon – which was helpful, Higgins explained, but not enough. This did not mean, however, that the crucial pylon would never be found: it took up to two years for some of Bellingcat’s photos to be geolocalized. “It’s nice that it’s really difficult,” Higgins told me later. “You need to rethink how people think images, so they really become aware of building the world.”