Bellingcat: Homo Digitalis in The Age of Falsehood
04 November 2018 08:30
It all started with the dwarves. The dragons and elves were a handful, too. But Eliot Higgins was determined that nothing would stop him – he would do whatever it took. All that mattered to him was the greater goal: to press on, puzzle it all out and, above all, win.
Higgins was an obsessive player of the ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’ (MMORPG) World of Warcraft. It infuriated his wife and bemused his family; it made his workmates titter. But Higgins was learning that he was a natural leader and that he had a gift for strategy. Most of all, he was learning how to manage multiple people online to ensure they could complete a near never-ending array of tasks.
He thought he was whiling away the hours doing something unimportant, if enthralling. He was wrong. He didn’t know it then, but he was in fact training himself to become the foremost amateur sleuth of the digital revolution. He was to become one of the earliest examples of Homo Digitalis, and the effect he, as well as others like him, are having on the world is now indisputable.
It has been a dramatic few months for international politics, even by our era’s feverish and fetid standards. On 4 March 2018, Sergei Skripal a former Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer and British agent was poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok in Salisbury, along with his daughter. The British authorities suspected the Russian government of ordering the attempted assassination (both Sergei and his daughter Yulia ultimately survived), and Russian diplomats were expelled. Then, on 5 September, the British authorities released video footage of the two Russian nationals – who had entered the country as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – believed to be responsible for the act. The British government had finally, following various other Russian acts of aggression on its soil (including the poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006), decided to take a stand.
The Kremlin’s response was to interview the two men on TV, who then claimed that they were businessmen who had come to Salisbury to see its cathedral, but the slushy ground, alas, had rendered them unable to actually visit it. The ludicrousness of the excuse was a clear message from Moscow to the UK. This was a statement about power: ‘we tried to kill your agent on your own soil – and we don’t care who knows it’.
But the UK was about to fight back again. This time, however, it wasn’t the government, but Eliot Higgins who, along with his team of fellow investigators, collectively known as Bellingcat, would dramatically change the narrative – and therefore the political context – around the poisoning.
On 8 October, the team publicly announced that Boshirov, the ‘businessman’, was in fact GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga – a recipient of the Hero of the Russian Federation Award, handed out by Russian President Putin himself. Then, on 8 October the online sleuths named his accomplice: Alexander Petrov was actually Dr Alexander Mishkin. They even found his original passport – of, most likely, a GRU Colonel no less – and all without access to classified information or high-level government sources. This is a feat that would have been impossible a mere ten years ago.
They didn’t stop there. On 2 October, Washington Post journalist and Saudi Arabian national Jamal Khashogghi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came back out. Rumours swirled. Hysteria ensued. It soon became clear that the Saudis had murdered him – almost certainly at the behest of the country’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman (known colloquially as MBS), and almost certainly in the most gruesome fashion. Again, Eliot and his fellow sleuths were able to shed light on the murder, helping to hold the Saudi government to account through the identification of a Saudi van in the area, that was most likely used in his murder.
Then came last week’s horrific assassination attempts, as mail bombs were sent to various high-profile figures seen as hostile to US President Donald Trump, including former President Barack Obama. The so-called MAGA Bomber, Cesar Sayoc Jr., was swiftly apprehended and, again, amidst the online furor of political partisanship, Higgins was able to verify – publicly (and this is crucial) – that the police had the right man. Just this Tuesday, Higgins was back at the centre of American public life, helping to expose the cracks in a cheap smear campaign to accuse the FBI prosecutor Robert Mueller of sexual misconduct. The question is: how?
I first met Higgins in 2015 to interview him for my book, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (2017). To my mind, Eliot embodied a new phenomenon made possible by the digital revolution that I had witnessed first emerge, fully formed, during the Arab spring: a new type of hyper-empowered individual. Networked, globally connected and more potent than ever before: a uniquely twenty first century figure I term Homo Digitalis.
Without social media, the 2011 Arab Spring simply could not have happened. But with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the images of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire, in response to harassment from Tunisian police, were able to spread virally, first across Tunisia and then to neighbouring Arab states. The result was a mass protest driven by social media’s two primary abilities: first to amplify content – which it did as the images sparked mass outrage from the people; second to mobilize – which it did as the people, suitably enraged, subsequently went into the streets in the hundreds of thousands. Ten days later, Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abine Ben Ali fled. A short while after, mass unrest in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad continues to fight against his own people to this day.
Given access to newfound digital technology, ordinary people have become endowed with what were once extraordinary abilities held primarily, if not exclusively, by the state. The twentieth century nation state traditionally derived much of its ability to coerce and control from two areas: a near monopoly on the use of force and almost total control of the spread of information. By creating new forms of communication that exist outside traditional state-owned or sanctioned newspapers, TV and radio, social media has created new avenues of power that directly challenge the state. As a result, the world today is witnessing a mass transfer of power, from hierarchies (governments and large organizations like global media companies) to individuals and, crucially, networks of individuals.
Looking across the globe, the power of Homo Digitalis is plain to see. In 2014, during the 51-day war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, a 16-year old Gazan girl called Farah Baker was able to become a global star – and change the narrative surrounding the conflict – merely through the power of her tweets. She became a face of Palestinian suffering and helped to further demonise Israel in the eyes of the watching world.
People like Farah, who tweet personal stories of their suffering, combined with visceral images of the destruction being wrought on Gaza, can help stoke international outrage, which can in turn translate into political pressure on Israel, potentially forcing it to change its military calculations. This is an avenue of power that, again, would have simply been unthinkable a mere decade ago.
Does someone like Farah have the ability to become a crucial actor in war? It is an extraordinary possibility to consider. During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Farah was three things: a child; a civilian in a time of war; and a female in a deeply patriarchal society. She should have been the least powerful person in wartime. Instead, armed only with a smart phone, she was able to affect the debate to the degree that US magazine Foreign Policy listed her as one of 2014’s 100 most influential people. She is the perfect embodiment of Homo Digitalis.
And when Homo Digitalis collaborate, the results can have global ramifications. The Islamic State (ISIS) exploded onto the scene with its capture of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, also in 2014. At its peak, thousands of recruits were joining the group from across the world – attracted by videos that went viral through the premier social media platforms of our age. It is important to understand the degree to which ISIS, more than a traditional terror group, was a network of hyper-empowered networked individuals. It was Homo digitalis collectivised. ISIS was young, connected and agile. Its opponents in Western governments were old, bureaucratic and slow – and they paid the price accordingly.
Homo Digitalis is then both a force for good and bad, used by both good and bad actors. Eliot Higgins is one of the good guys, because what he does offers us a way into understanding how best to combat the fakery, lies and manipulation that now flood our contemporary information ecosystem. And he simply fell into it all.
As well as gaming, Higgins was also involved in online discussion boards from their beginnings. He spent a lot of time on the Something Awful comedy website, which also had threads on politics. It was 2011 and the company he worked for, dealing with housing asylum seekers, had lost a contract, so he only had about two days’ worth of work over a five-day week. With time on his hands, he began to contribute to the Guardian newspaper’s Liveblog site. The Libyan civil war was at its peak and he found himself involved in endless arguments about what was really happening on the ground. Every time he made a particular claim – that, for example, the rebels had captured a particular town – the riposte was always same: how can you be sure? Prove it!
So, he decided to try. Using Google maps and basic social media tools, he began to verify information and the germ of a new career was born – all from the simple desire to win arguments online. Higgins is the definition of the ordinary man made extraordinary through the tools made available by web 2.0 – the websites, like social media platforms, that are based on user-generated content, as opposed to the first generation of web 1.0-era websites, where Internet users were largely relegated to mere passive viewers of content.
Indeed, his most striking previous employment was arguably as a payments officer at a ladies’ lingerie company. And when we compare him to Farah, we see how the emerging variations of Homo Digitalis contrast. Farah is a digital native who grew up in the age of politicised Twitter, her natural medium. Around 20 years older, Higgins began with online gaming before the mass expansion of social media platforms, to which he eventually gravitated. But in the end, both are the new being that the digital revolution has brought forth: Homo Digitalis incarnate.
Higgins made an international name for himself when Russian separatists shot Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 down over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. It was a global tragedy: 298 people were killed – all of them civilians. Higgins, without ever leaving his house and with only a few fellow unpaid volunteers, was able to prove, and critically, show how the Russian army had provided pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile that shot down the plane. He did this without any background in intelligence or the military, and any hacking or coding skills. He did this using exclusively open source applications. That is to say, social media platforms and apps available to everyone.
At the centre of all Higgins’s work is geolocation – the technique of identifying the geographical location of a person or thing, through the use of digital information available on the Internet. For Eliot, the MH17 investigation started when he tweeted asking if anyone was able to geolocate the video of what appeared to be a missile launcher driving out of a Ukrainian town around the time the plane was shot down. The answer came in: an area south of the centre of the Ukrainian town of Snizhne. It was a major dual carriageway, which ran through the entire town, so people recognized it. Then, Higgins was able to verify the location by matching the trees in the image to Google street view.
And that was just the beginning. With the help of others, more videos of a truck carrying a Buk missile were geolocated using the most incredible and painstaking work – telegraph poles in photos were identified to track the truck’s progress. At one point, Higgins even used an app called Sun Mapper, that tracks the shadows on a photo to determine the approximate time of day it has been taken. In the end, Higgins managed to map the journey of the truck, from its beginnings on an army base in Russia to the launch site in Ukraine. He was even eventually able to identify the soldiers in the unit that had transported the Buk, thanks to their Vkontakte (the Russian Facebook) profiles.
His findings caused an international storm; Higgins gave evidence to the official investigation into the tragedy; the Ukrainian government repeatedly shared his findings. Most incredibly of all, the Russian government was forced to call press conferences specifically to rebut his work. On 6 April 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, gave a public briefing in Moscow, in which she declared that, ‘Acting jointly with the current Ukrainian authorities, [Bellingcat] continue to use all possible “fakes”, to create quasi-evidence to blame Russia [for the downing of MH17].’
To put this in perspective: the government of the largest country on earth was forced to publicly respond to the research of Higgins and a few other people sitting around on the Internet at home. The flow of power from hierarchies to networks of individuals has never been starker.
Higgins has continued his work and Bellingcat is now more professional and well-funded than ever. And rightly so. When the British government released the footage of the Skripal poisoners there were many – notably the ludicrous former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, as well as alt-left and Corbynite figures – who were only too happy to believe the Kremlin’s version of events. When Bellingcat produced their GRU identities, these people were made to look ridiculous. Bellingcat performed a public service.
As Higgins told me, ‘It wasn’t like we were already working on this. We just thought we’d have a go. It was quite hard compared to a lot of our usual stuff – we had to connect a lot of databases, sources of information and then, finally, get that image [Mishkin’s real passport photo].’
Aric Toler, another member of Bellingcat, expanded on his Higgins’s comments: ‘We found, downloaded and ultilized leaked databases of personal information of Russians,’ he told me. ‘Particularly some Moscow databases showing telephone, address and vehicle registration data, which we cross-referenced against some “closed data” we received on the true identities of the Skripal poisoners.’
In this sense, as Toler acknowledges, the Skripal case was something of an anomaly for the team, as they used traditional open sources (which are available to everyone) in combination with ‘closed’ sources, such as Russian passport and migration services, which they accessed through Russian contacts. But, as ever, Higgins told me that once the scanned copy of Mishkin’s actual passport was obtained, Bellingcat confirmed its details with people who knew him and used open source information to further back up their claims. It was difficult: ‘We work a lot with social media – and these people had no social media presence, so it was definitely more tricky than usual.’
With the Khashoggi murder, open source investigation was once again used to verify the leaked CCTV footage of the exiled journalist entering the Saudi consulate, where he was so brutally killed. Notably, a consular van that seemed to be following him (and in which his body was probably transported) was identified at the scene. It was one more nail in the coffin of Saudi denials of responsibility.
The Maga bomber was, thankfully, unable to kill anyone, but with Democrats keen to blame Cesar Sayoc Jr.’s heinous acts on Donald Trump, and Republicans furiously casting doubt on his real intentions, Higgins was once again able to bring sober proof to the debate, showing that stickers on Sayoc’s van, depicting Trump as a hero and targets on prominent Democrats (including several who received explosive devices in the post), matched almost perfectly with alt-right content on his Twitter account. It was, he tweeted, ‘a really nice example of open source verification.’
Higgins was once again at the centre of breaking global events earlier this week, proving that attempts to smear Robert Mueller with allegations of sexual misconduct by the Special Council investigating President Trump were totally false. At the centre of the attempt was a supposed security firm named Sure Fire Intelligence, that consisted, Bellingcat proved, of a fake site that had plagiarised its content from another company’s website (the private intelligence firm, Black Cube), and that the LinkedIn photos of Sure Fire employees were all of famous people, including Israeli model Bar Refeali. It was both another classic example of the power of using open sources like LinkedIn and company websites available to anyone, and a severe blow to the alt-right desperate to protect Trump and discredit Mueller.
In the end, the work Higgins and his colleagues do at Bellingcat is far more than just solving individual crimes and acts of aggression. When MH17 was shot down the intelligence services almost certainly knew it was because of a Russian-supplied Buk missile, but Higgins showed how it was done. The British government knew that the Skripal poisoners were GRU; Higgins showed the world the evidence.
The importance of this ability cannot be underestimated. We live in an age where the foundational institutions of the West – from the political to the financial sectors, to the press and the intelligence services – have been beset with scandal and discredited. We live in an age where Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, can stand up in the House of Commons and brazenly cast doubt on Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning. His spokesperson can then follow up by declaring, ‘There is a history between weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic, to put it mildly.’
The word of society’s leaders is no longer enough. Experts are out; hysteria is in. Higgins’s findings, based on the principle of ‘show not tell’, become much more difficult to refute, and therefore much more important. In an age increasingly defined by falsehood, and in which social media turbo-charges conspiracy theories, his forensic methodology is needed like never before. Higgins stands as both a practitioner of analysis and a symbol of truth. He is Homo Digitalis fully realized for the common good. We need more like him – and fast.