Residenties komt met Reflecties

Bellingcat: Efforts to create an online global community of investigators happen offline

As the home of online investigations one of the first assumptions about our work is that it is not affected by the current crisis, and that we are able to continue as usual, because our research is based on sources that can be retrieved online.

However, as the current crisis forces people into their homes, we have been asked to review the impact of isolation on the world in which we operate and the questions that arise from it.

Firstly, without the ability to go out into the world and in our attempt to grasp what’s going on around us we are completely reliant on information we receive from others. But who are these others? Do we only listen to the government, or do we trust information shared by people close to us? The spread of the virus has been paralleled with a spread of mis- and disinformation surrounding it. Not all of this information is spread intentionally, or with the aim of causing harm or generating profit. A large part of this information is actually spread by benevolent actors, in an attempt to inform the people around them. We see this in groups of friends, family or colleagues trying to keep each other safe, healthy and informed.

How will this influence the way we look at information shared by traditional media, (so-called) experts on social media, the government, or our own network? Will we become more critical, and learn to verify content before sharing it? Or, will we become distrustful and as a result close ourselves off also to credible sources and information?

Another problem we see regarding information is the enormous amount of coverage about Covid-19. Our entire newspapers are filled with articles about the crisis, leading to a Corona coverage overdoses. Seemingly, all pressing issues that were dominating newspapers before this crisis hit are no longer existent. Does that mean these issues were never important to begin with and it took a crisis to put things in perspective? Or does this mean we are closing our eyes to other (pressing) issues that remain out there? We need to be careful and remain dedicated to shedding light on human rights issues, corruption, poverty, climate change and the many others topics of interest to all of us.

Besides changes in our intake of information, another area of change is the way we communicate with one another.

Within the first month of the current crisis it has become clear that the net-beneficiaries of our new remote society are online meeting services such as Google Hangouts, Zoom or apps like Houseparty. With people transferring their physical contact to these platforms en masse, the first glitches are becoming visible. Questions arise about the type of meta data these platforms collect, whether conversations are end-to-end encrypted, and if these services are sufficiently protected against malevolent actors. With an inability to meet each other physically, will our lives move more and more online? And if so, what does that mean for our privacy?

To close off we would like to come back to our first point, the way in which Bellingcat is affected by the current situation. Bellingcat is not only digital and online. While our community exists online, we extend it in person, through training, workshops and bootcamps. This means we also find ourselves exploring new ways of teaching, and new ways of interacting with people in our workshops.

Paradoxically, a big part of our efforts to create an online global community of investigators happens offline. Will this still be the case in the future?

14 April 2020, Bellingcat