A pioneering quest for the truth

A public-data-based approach to news-gathering is giving rise to a revolution in journalism, including at major international outlets like the BBC.

We look at how the Bellingcat team that pioneered the method went from identifying the would-be killers of a former Russian spy, to educating society about one of the biggest issues in modern reporting -- "fake news."

The Skripal Poisoning

The first-ever nerve agent attack on NATO soil took place in Salisbury, UK. The weapon; Novichok -- a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia.

The target was Sergei Skripal -- a former Russian double agent who had settled in the area. He and his daughter were left in critical condition, but survived.

British authorities used CCTV footage to pinpoint two Russians. They entered the UK under the names Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov.

An image released by the Metropolitan Police showing two men suspected of the Skripal poisoning.

But by the time their faces became front-page news, they were already home. Later, the pair appeared on Russian TV to deny any involvement, saying they were ordinary tourists.

The British government said the pair's names were aliases, but struggled to uncover their real identities.

Eliot Higgins, Founder of Bellingcat

The truth came to light thanks to Bellingcat -- the team of open-source investigators founded by Eliot Higgins.
They started looking into the attack together with Russian news website The Insider.

In Bellingcat's initial hypothesis, the suspects were members of the GRU -- Russia's military intelligence service. Higgins and his team started searching databases for photos.

Bellingcat revealed the real names of the two suspects by searching online databases to find their old passports.

Passport profiles revealed Ruslan Boshirov was actually called Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Petrov was Alexander Mishkin.

A reporter from The Insider visited their hometowns and found the locals extremely willing to talk, especially about the real occupations of the suspects -- an army surgeon and a colonel, respectively.

They told him Chepiga and Petrov were "big heroes" and "in the GRU."

"All of a sudden, there was this new information we could never have got had we not had a Russian-speaking, Russian native going out there and speaking to local people," says Higgins.

The remote hometown of one of the suspects.

Once the BBC had reported the findings, all eyes were suddenly on Bellingcat as more media outlets around the world covered the story and how the truth was revealed.

"With the Skripal case, that first big release was the front page of pretty much every UK newspaper the following day," says Higgins. "It was a massive story for us.”

BBC Africa Eye

The world's major news agencies took note of the methods employed by Higgins and his team. They were of particular interest to the BBC's Africa Eye department -- known for its reporting in hostile environments.

Once social media took hold on the continent, the Africa Eye team struggled to verify the masses of information being posted.

They turned to Bellingcat contributor Benjamin Strick -- a man whose unique skills would make it much easier to confirm the facts remotely.

A video reporting to show the execution of two mothers and their children spread on social media in July 2018.

In July 2018, a video showing a group of soldiers executing two women and their children appeared online. Suspicions grew about the Cameroonian army but the nation's government dismissed the claims using one of the terms of our times -- "fake news."

Africa Eye began investigating the case with Strick's help.

First, they needed to pinpoint the scene of the killings. Google Earth helped locate a mountain with a ridgeline identical to that in the video. Eventually, they determined that the incident took place near the border between Cameroon and Nigeria.

The guns and uniforms in the clip helped confirm that the soldiers belonged to the Cameroonian army, despite the country's repeated denials.

That forced the government's hand -- it announced that it had taken seven soldiers into custody and opened a probe.

"The entire basic investigation took three months," says Strick. "But proving that to the burden of proof that the BBC has, to individually name those people, to take open-source investigation into journalism requires an extra element of proof. And that was difficult, too."

Suzanne Vanhooymissen, the team leader of Digital Video Africa Eye highlights the importance of open-source investigators like Strick.

"To be honest, I don’t understand what these guys are doing," she says. "Most journalists who have come from a traditional journalist background won’t understand the techniques that they use. So I would just hope that the journalists of the future are able to combine the two a bit more.”

High-tech fake news

But for every piece of good work comes another of a quite different nature. The internet is now flooded with disinformation -- much of it, intentionally designed to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

A violent crackdown against a pro-independence movement in West Papua, Indonesia, caught Strick's attention. He took to Twitter to find out more from the public -- only to discover a suspicious amount of praise for the government's drive to improve education and infrastructure.

In West Papua, pro-government content was posted by bots during a period of unrest.

Using analytical software, he concluded the praise was coming from automated accounts known as bots. They were jumping into pro-independence comment threads to drown out people's voices with pro-government stories.

"I think people did know that there was fake news going on," says Strick. "But no one could really identify how it was being shared, where it was being spread, who was actually posting it and the people behind that who were actually running the operation."

Challenge for Bellingcat

Bellingcat's knack for the truth is all thanks to the endless stream of online information. But Higgins knows very well that this also presents opportunities to exploit the masses -- who may not be so adept at knowing what's fake and what's not.

Higgins warns that we should be conscious about the negative side of open-source. "Because everyone's really worried now about deep fakes and those kinds of issues, there's always going to be some new technology that causes problems," he says.
"There are changes that happen that can affect how we can give up a base for people to dig into stuff. Well, there are always going to be negative sides in fields of investigation, especially when it involves things like conflicts and personal information. What we can do is, basically, work with as many people as possible, build a community around them and have a community that engages positively with open-source investigations."

It's one of the reasons Bellingcat has just started teaching its methods to journalism students at three universities in the Netherlands.

For Higgins, the digital realm is an essential tool for holding powerful people and institutions to account. In making others aware of Bellingcat's methods, he hopes society as a whole can one day serve as its own watchdog.