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BELLINGCAT, OPEN SOURCE INVESTIGATIONS, AND THE TRUTH ABOUT MH17
2nd July 2018 @ 6:00 pm - 7:30 pmFree
SPEAKER: Eliot Higgins, Founder of Bellingcat
The destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 shocked the world. Russia quickly unleashed a disinformation campaign on a scale not seen in the post-Cold War years. In response, the West announced a number of multi-national and national investigations into the downing. When Russia’s lies were exposed and the truth uncovered, an online collective called Bellingcat was largely responsible.
Using open-source information, Bellingcat identified the movements in Ukraine of the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17, the missile launcher’s origin from Russia’s 53rd Air Defence Brigade in Kursk, and the serving senior Russian intelligence officer who was responsible for firing the missile.
By kind invitation of Bob Seely MP, Eliot Higgins will discuss Bellingcat’s work uncovering the truth about MH17. He will also speak about Bellingcat’s efforts to verify and debunk lies, from Ukraine to Russia and Syria, and highlight how Bellingcat’s work has contributed to criminal investigations, many of which have confirmed Bellingcat’s findings often years after Bellingcat’s initial reporting.
Eliot Higgins is an award winning investigative journalist and the founder of the Bellingcat investigative collective. Through the use of open-source and social media investigations, Eliot has been able to shed light on some of the most pressing issues of our time.
On the 2nd of July the Henry Jackson Society were pleased to host Eliot Higgins, award winning investigative journalist and founder of Bellingcat. He sat alongside Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at HJS. By kind invitation of Bob Seely MP, Mr Higgins led an insightful discussion about how open source data can be useful in determining truth from falsehood.
Mr Higgins opened the discussion by defining the three stages Bellingcat uses in open source identification: identify, verify, and amplify. The identify stage is collecting initial open-source intelligence in an attempt to find where the scene occurred. The verify process took up a large part of Higgins’ presentation: this stage includes a mixture of geolocation, crowdsourcing, social media, government-released information, and other techniques. The amplify stage is how Bellingcat ensures that their findings are heard by the right audience.
Bellingcat ensures that they can verify their sources mainly through geolocation. Mr Higgins gave numerous case studies of how geolocation alone can determine where a scene occurred. For example, in Libya, Bellingcat was able to determine that the rebels had taken over a town by collecting a video the rebels had filmed, after which they were able to verify that the video was legitimate by using Google Maps to make out the same landmarks in the video.
Crowdsourcing can also be a useful technique, as was demonstrated when Bellingcat was able to determine the identity of a neo-Nazi who assaulted a man. Once Bellingcat collected multiple pictures of who this person was they were then able to verify that it was the same person by the markings on his neck. They then released this information to the public who then confirmed who this person was on social media. At the end of the investigation authorities were able to obtain enough information to arrest the neo-Nazi who assaulted a man.
Bellingcat is even able to distinguish truth from falsehood as demonstrated by the MH17 case, the Russian cluster bomb case, and the Russian attack on a Syrian hospital. In the MH17 case Mr Higgins and his team were able to determine where the Buk missile launcher was by information filmed by Ukrainian people and Russian released pictures; what brigade it was fired by, through social media; and from there the team was able to map out who were members of the brigade through additional social media.
When Russian cluster bombs were used in Syria, President Putin denied their use. Mr Higgins was able to determine that the Russians were lying because pictures of Russian soldiers on social media showed them launching cluster bombs from airplanes and Russian soldiers posted pictures of stockpiles of these bombs of social media.
When a hospital was destroyed via an airstrike in Syria the Russians quickly claimed they were not at fault. The Russians provided a side-by-side aerial comparisons of the hospital before and after the attack, seemingly showing no change. But Bellingcat was able to determine that these low resolution documents released by the Russians compared with those of Google Earth do show change. In addition, they were able to determine that the Russians were targeting the hospital by bombing the area around the hospital. All of this was done through open source information.