Bellingcat: the community of Open Source Investigation for transparency

We talk with one of the collaborators of BellingcatChristiaan Triebert. This international organization uses open source and social media investigation to investigate a variety of subjects, from Mexican drug lords to conflicts being fought across the world. Bellingcat brings together contributors who specialise in open source and social media investigation, and creates guides and case studies so others may learn to do the same. Christiaan introduces himself:

“Hi 🙂 I’m Christiaan Triebert, a 26-year old member of the international investigative collective Bellingcat. I obtained two Bachelor degrees from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) in International Relations and Political Philosophy respectively. I followed my Master’s degree at King’s College London (United Kingdom) in Conflict, Security & Development. At both academic institutions, I took classes in Modern Standard Arabic too, which has proven useful now as I am doing a lot of research regarding countries where Arabic spoken, like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. You can find me on Twitter under @trbrtc. For the monitoring organisation Airwars, I also geolocate locations of civilian casualties due to international airstrikes.

Besides my digital investigative work, I have also worked as a freelance journalist in a variety of conflict areas, including Iraq and Ukraine. I combine this with photography, and you can see a selection of my work on my website: christiaantriebert.com. In the past year, I have also travelled a lot on a shoestring, mostly hitchhiking, including a trip from Netherlands to South Africa (see, e.g., my TEDx Talk about hitchhiking).”

Christiaan has been recognized with the European Press Prize Innovation Award

1 Can you tell us how was born and what is the idea behind Bellingcat and the age of eyewitness media?

Bellingcat was founded in July 2014 by Eliot Higgins, who previously used the pseudonym Brown Moses, to unify those working on online open source investigation. Eliot became known for using open source and social media – and thus a lot of eyewitness media and user-generated content – to investigative the Syrian war, the 2014-15 Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). He first gained worldwide mainstream media attention by identifying weapons in uploaded YouTube videos from the Syrian conflict.

Now, three years after Bellingcat was founded, we have had two successful crowdfunding campaigns and funding applications, 5 paid staff, a core investigative team of around 20 volunteers, and another dozen contributors.

The name Bellingcat comes from the fable “Belling the Cat”, which is about a group of mice who want to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One mouse suggests that a bell should be placed around the neck of the cat, so that they know when it is approaching. At Bellingcat, we try to learn how we can bell the cat (and we need to cooperate for that!), and we want to teach others to do the same. That cat can by anyone: over the past years we have investigated corruption in Ukraine, statements of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the press releases from the Pentagon. We have recently also cooperated with journalists in Colombia and have published on the Central African Republic, to name a few examples.

The Netherlands Amsterdam 20 april 2017. European Press Prize. Photo: Jan Boeve

2 Bellingcat is made by citizen journalists. How can governments lies and secrets can come to and end using open source information?

A simple start is just fact-checking what government institutions claim, let me give two examples. Firstly, there was the Russian Ministry of Defence which published satellite photos of a Ukrainian military base after MH17 was shot down. By simply comparing their satellite imagery with historical imagery, Bellingcat could determine that the dates of the Russian imagery was not correct.

Secondly, we fact-checked the United States whether or not they bombed a mosque. The Pentagon was claiming they didn’t, while locals on the ground said they were. Based on open source information, we could establish that the targeted building was indeed a mosque. We exchanged information with Human Rights Watch and Forensic Archicterure, and all published a report. The US still denied it struck a mosque, but a few weeks back, the Pentagon admitted it was indeed a mosque complex. You can read the full transcript at Airwars.

I suggest to read the full reports on it, if you’re interested: Russian satellite imagery and American bombing of the Jinah mosque.

3 How the platform works, from data collection to finally publish the stories? How difficult is it to verify videos especially from conflict zone?

We are a collective, and we often help each other with investigations. Besides, we crowdsource a lot of investigations. Crowdsourcing is fascinating, and extremely powerful. Examples include the geolocation of airstrikes by, for example, Russia and the US-led Coalition. Verifying videos from conflict zones can sometimes be really easy, sometimes really hard. My colleague Aric Toler just wrote about it: Advanced Guide on Verifying Video Content.

We’d like to think that citizen journalism is working with the media, not against. What kind of feedback do you receive from traditional media, is it positive?

I tend to agree. However, it is worth noting that Bellingcat also includes professional journalist and analysts. If we look at Syria, for example, I think the people making and uploading videos are ‘citizen journalists’ — we use that information, amongst all other information we can find, to get a better picture what may be going on.

5 What are the biggest challenges to the future of Citizen Journalism?

Governments or armed groups are aware they are being watched by regular citizens. So they may adapt to it, for example releasing less information. Therefore it is important, in my opinion, that more people start investigating.

6 How do you train others via Bellingcat? What advice would you give to someone who would like to became a citizen journalist?

We provide digital forensics trainings and workshops, and over the past years we have done so in a double dozen of countries, including Colombia, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Iraq, the Netherlands, Germany, and Ukraine. For those that cannot attend such trainings, we also provide guides to open source investigation on our website and there is this list of tools we use.

7 What are currently the projects you are more excited about?

We as a collective are currently working on a lot of projects, some of which have been ongoing for years, like MH17 and international airstrikes in the Middle East. Personally, I am currently looking at those international airstrikes, the unrest in Venezuela, human smugglers and the migration from Northern Africa to Europe, and arms trade via mobile messenger applications in Syria – to name a few topics.


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