Residentie Eliot Higgins (Bellingcat)

  • DateFri. 26 Oct - Sun. 28 Oct. 2018
  • WithCentre for the Humanities, DUIC, Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek, Het Huis Utrecht, HKU, Hogeschool Utrecht, IMC Weekend School, Impakt festival

Eliot Higgins:

‘I’m really looking forward to the future collaborations we’ve planned, the idea with workshops for local people from a variety of backgrounds leading to investigations is very exciting for me.’

In collaboration with ImpaktEliot Higgins is coming to Utrecht. Eliot is the founder of online open source investigative collective Bellingcat, a network that practices citizen journalism, fact-checking and online research. Through the use of online techniques such as geolocation, Higgins proved the use of chemical weapons in Syria. With Bellingcat, which he founded in 2014, he became well-know for research on MH17, showing the exact route of the BUK missile system that brought down the airplane. Through that and other investigations, Bellingcat showed that every citizen can contribute to truth-finding and fact-checking with simple software and freely available sources.

Higgins visit to the Netherlands has as a purpose to spread the news of open source investigation, in particular to apply the method to local issues. Also, with several educational organizations, opportunities are being explored to implement the Bellingcat Method in their curricula. Higgins also asks the Utrecht network to help him with ethical questions. If you can find out exactly who are behind actions in the war in Syria, what the exact route was of the missile that took down MH17 and who are the soldiers that drove that installation, should you make that information public? Even when it will influence world conflicts? How does that impact a person? And should younger children come into contact with this method? These are the ethical decisions that the Utrecht partners want to think about and discuss with Eliot Higgins. Artists will be linked to Higgins and his method. What will they do with his method and its results? And how can the Bellingcat Method be used to investigate local issues? With several educational organizations, opportunities will be explored to implement the Bellingcat Method in their curricula.

Eliot Higgins was in Utrecht from October 26 until October 28. On Saturday October 27, he gave an introduction to the Bellingcat method during the Impakt Festival in Het Huis Utrecht. He gave examples of cases in which Bellingcat was able to unearth important information through geolocation and,analysing videos and social media. As such, he did not only give insight in the determination which drives Bellingcat, but he also showed that it is possible for every citizen to help with thruth-finding and fact-checking. You can watch his lecture here:

November 13-15, 2018

Later, in a three-day workshop organised by Residenties in Utrecht in collaboration with Impakt, professionals and students learned the skills required to verify videos and images, investigate social media, and perform their own investigations. Day one of the course involved hands on exercises and case studies focused on growing the participants understanding of a range of open source investigation tools and techniques. On day two, they applied the acquired skills on complex group projects, and learned more about Bellingcat’s MH17 investigation. Day three focused on investigating social media, including various techniques to investigate individuals on a range of social media platforms, and methods for extracting additional information from those platforms beyond what is immediately apparent.

Impakt presents critical and creative views on contemporary media culture and on innovative audio-visual arts in an interdisciplinary context. Yearly, they organise the Impakt Festival, a five-day multimedia event that includes exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, panels, performances, presentations, and artist talks at locations in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Ook gedurende de rest van het jaar organiseert Impakt activiteiten. Furthermore, Impakt organises activities throughout the year.

Around twenty participants from various background attended the workshop. Drom journalists to students, from documentary makers to activists. Here is an impression of their experiences:

Sander van de Poel (Student Mediaredactie ROC Midden-Nederland Media, ICT & Design College):

“I think that the Bellingcat Method can be relevant for anyone, even when you’re not active in journalism. Nowadays, there is a lot of discussion about fake news. There are quite a few tools available to uncover the truth and subsequently form your own opinion, and to be critical towards media where necessary. It is valuable for everybody, that is also the point of these workhshops. You can accomplish a lot by yourself!”

Robert Oosterbroek (Journalist DUIC (De Utrechtse Internet Courant))

“The translation to local journalism is not made by applying the Bellingcat Method letter for letter. In Utrecht, you are much closer to your subject. For instance, I don’t work with satellite images, because I know Utrecht by heart. But Eliot showed how you can go back in time with satellite images. In that way, you can see how the city changes. In Utrecht, illegal tree felling is an important subject. On a satellite photo you can see if trees have been cut down, and when. So that’s a tool I can use well in Utrecht.”

Stern de Pagter (Freelance journalist/factcheckdesk FACTORY of Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek)

“I am convinced that these research techniques are necessary. The internet and with it data and other tools journalists can use continues to grow. Education can not stay behind, and I see an interest for integrating this in educational programs.”

‘There are similarities between FACTORY and Bellingcat. However, until now we have been really textual: we check if statements in articles are true. Bellingcat does a lot with visual verification. That can be valuable for us as well.”

Ernst-Jan Hamel (Docent School voor Journalistiek Utrecht)

“This workshop changes your thinking about journalism and fact checking.  I don’t think everybody has to become as smart as Eliot Higgins, but I do think that a few of these techniques can be implemented in everyone’s standard tool box. It’s very interesting for media, for instance in reconstructing a story. This is something you could also do with a class.” 

Ivanne Santing (Student Mediaredactie ROC Midden-Nederland Media, ICT & Design College):

“I think that this method makes you dive into your subject much deeper than when you’re just looking some stuff up. The collaboration is on an equal level, because everyone provides a piece of information in the field they are good at.”

Paul Schmidt (Student Media, Arts & Performance Studies/Coordinator of volunteers at Impakt Festival/activist)

“Many developments in areas of IT and privacy are depressing. Bellingcat provides an antidote. They show how  you can push back, in spite of the power of big corporations.”


The Bellingcat Method Belongs in Everyone’s Tool Box, says Eliot Higgins

While an increasing number of people becomes acquainted with the Bellingcat Method, online open source investigation still is not commonplace everywhere. What does its future look like, and how can journalists, educators and civilians in Utrecht help it move forward? Eliot Higgins explains.

It is the morning of the last day of the three-day workshop that takes place under Eliots guidance at Impakt, center for media culture. Eliot is pleased. “They are working on some good subjects. It’s not so much about finding a huge story, it’s about applying processes you have learned. It’s teaching them how to not only identify a problem, but also understand why it would be good using open source investigation to investigate it.”

Different backgrounds
During the workshop, journalists, activists, students and educators worked together on a case, learning in the process to combine online available tools such as maps, videos and social media to discover information. For the future of the method, it is important to have this diversity of specialisations, Eliot says. “It’s not so much about their experience in a professional background, but more about their life experiences.” The bigger the variety in people associated with the community, the bigger the chance Bellingcat can find someone with just the right knowledge needed for a particular investigation.

If it were up to Eliot, the Bellingcat Method would become a part of journalists’ toolboxes worldwide. Not only for investigating world level issues, such as the downing of MH17 and the war in Syria, but also for local issues. “Every investigation starts with a question: is this true? Did this happen? You could look into relations between local politicians with other groups and individuals. Big and small questions can be explored in similar ways: by looking at satellite images, YouTube videos. The toolbox is really what you are learning about, and that can be used on a whole range of problems. The more experience you have and the wider range of tools you learned to use, the more options you have to approach a case.”

Including educators
Eliot is now thinking about ways to systematically disperse his method. “We are building a community in The Netherlands, with a focus on local issues,” he says. For example, Bellingcat wants to open an office in The Hague, where they want to help the International Criminal Court with open source research. In Utrecht, possibilities are explored to make the Bellingcat Method part of local journalism and education.

“There are different levels on which you can do this,” Eliot says. “By doing presentations, you can tell people what open source investigation is and why they should be aware of it. But when you then want people to actually do it, you have to give workshops led by people who are experienced investigators themselves.”

Photo: Pieter Kers

Eliot stresses it is crucial to get future educators actively involved with Bellingcat and to let them do investigations themselves. “Otherwise, they will not be teaching the full range of what is possible.” Eliot envisions a situation in which Bellingcat first works together intensively with a teacher and subsequently keeps supporting them remotely. “We’d have to make it something that’s part of their work, not separate. Eventually we could have an actual course designed around it.”

Expanding the community
The growing community can offer support, Eliot hopes. “From these groups of students, over time we could build a community of individuals from different backgrounds. If then something develops within of these university research groups which we think could be a news story, we can get a news organisation involved. Or you could give the information to media design students and ask them: how do you turn this into something that people can consume in different ways?” Eventually, more and more people that are schooled in the Bellingcat Method can find a place in media organisations, Eliot thinks. “It already happened with the BBC and the New York Times.”

There is still a mindset change that needs to be made, Eliot says. “At the moment, journalism students really aren’t learning about this. Many media organisations still do not understand any of this at all. So they still have a very traditional approach to social media, seeing it as a way to communicate what they are doing, but not as a way to actually engage with their audiences and having a conversation.”

When more and more people educated by Bellingcat start to produce newsworthy stories, that can also be a way to convince traditional media organisations of the value of open source investigation. “And that might result in some of the people involved even gettting jobs with those news organsisations, because they recognize it’s producing good quality work. So there’s a potential benefit for everyone involved.”