Where traditional spy agencies like the CIA, MI6 and Interpol fail to identify and answer global criminal cases, a new independent investigative journalism platform has been created that utilizes crowd-sourcing in order to solve these cases. Sounds almost superhero-like, doesn’t it? Well, Bellingcat might just be the ‘crime-solver’ the world was actually looking for.
The business model
Bellingcat identifies itself as “the home of online investigation”, as it uses open source initiatives and social media in order to investigate criminal activities and conflicts around the world. By bringing together professionals and volunteers, Bellingcat provides a platform where these injustices can be tackled collectively. (Bellingcat, n.a.) The collective approach to problem-solving can be traced back within the name. “Belling the cat” stems from a tale about a group of mice deciding that the best way to protect themselves from a cat is to place a bell around the cat’s neck, but are then unable to find a volunteer to attach the bell. “Therefore, we are the mice”, according to founder and CEO Elliot Higgins. (Doward, 2018)
The concept started out as a hobby by British journalist Eliot Higgins, once a college drop-out from his study Media Technology at Southampton University. Initially, he started writing blogs on conflicts, such as in Libya, under the pseudonym of Brown Moses. He realized that social media content on these conflicts were being largely ignored within investigations. Therefore, he began collecting this content and combining them to make compelling cases. (Doward, 2018) Eventually in 2014, the Bellingcat platform was launched with crowdfunding help from their Kickstarter campaign. As of now, they consist of 11 full-time employees, with their head office located in Leicester. To keep the business running, paid workshops and seminars on online investigative techniques are given to create revenue and motivate individuals to contribute. Increased interest from NGO’s such as the Google Digital News Initiative and charities such as the Dutch Postcodeloterij have also provided Bellingcat with grants in order for them to expand their operations. (Matthews, 2018)
Methods, techniques and contributions
Known as OSINT (open-source intelligence), Bellingcat’s method of journalism collects data from publicly available sources to piece together, debunk or verify a story. The investigative technique involves strolling the internet and then cross-referencing social media posts, tweets, news photographs, databases, Google Street View and maps into a detailed mosaic of apparently undisputable data. (Matthews, 2018) This is done by professionals who work full-time at Bellingcat, leading these investigations and are supported by a larger group of “amateur investigators” who, from the comfort of their own homes, voluntarily perform these methods. They meet and talk in Facebook groups, subreddits and threads of direct messages on Twitter, discussing new tools and techniques and working with any changes to social networks that might help or hinder their work. “A lot of people who are involved with Bellingcat are from those communities, and have a kind of nerdy desire or obsession with problem-solving when it relates to big stories”, says Press Association social media journalist, Alastair Reid. (Chakelian, 2018)
Due to the large pool of volunteering contributors, the ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ phenomenon arises, where input from a larger group results in more trustworthy answers. Bellingcat’s information has been judged watertight enough to be used by the official commission investigating the downing of MH-17 and has been cited in the United Nations as proof of Syrian war crimes (Matthews, 2018). Bellingcat contributors found photos on the internet of fourteen Russian officers posing with the alleged BUK-rocket which shot Malaysian Airline flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur out of the air near Donetsk, Ukraine (Doward, 2018). Next to that, contributors were able to pinpoint the blame for chemical weapon attacks by the Syrian regime. The latest investigation that caught the global news headlines and is still ongoing is about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Together with Russian website The Insider, Bellingcat contributors were able to identify one of the wanted men by downloading passport data of millions of Russian citizens. The suspect was found to be Anatoliy Chepiga, who is an officer from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence, being active behind the alias Ruslan Boshirov. (Doward, 2018)
Allegations, refutations and potential
Although much praise is being given to Bellingcat, also allegations and critic has been given from mainly the Russian government. Allegations vary from being accused as a CIA information warfare department to spreading fake news and illegally retrieving their information (Matthews, 2018). As mentioned, most of these allegations come from the Russian government. This is not that surprising, as many of the investigations led by Bellingcat see Russia playing a large role within the injustices (e.g. MH17, Skripal).
“When Russia started attacking our work I’d already spent two years building up a reputation. All they’ve managed to do since is to prove that whenever they end up attacking our work it’s because we end up being right about something. The more noise they make, the more truthful something appears, basically”, according to Bellingcat director Elliot Higgins (Doward, 2018). Moreover, in many of the investigations, Bellingcat is ahead of Western intelligence agencies when it comes to finding evidence due to Bellingcat’s willingness to buy information on the black market or retrieve it from pirate sites, making them better than governments at gathering information from open sources. (Matthews, 2018) Therefore, they are proving to be a highly efficient independent agency, simply leveraging the power of active member participation of a large and diverse group of contributors.
It is safe to say that Bellingcat’s potential is huge. They are still a relatively young platform, growing every day. As more volunteers join, more information will be found which will also prove to be more trustworthy. This will result in more support from NGO’s, charities and eventually official government systems. Recently, the Dutch Postcodeloterij funded them half a million euros in order to set up a new office in The Hague, the city home to the International Court of Justice (Walker, 2019). Will it just be a matter of time for Bellingcat, an open crowd-sourced investigative platform, to become the global leader in solving worldwide crime and an official authority within the constitutional state? Time will tell, but it is certain that exciting times are ahead.
Bellingcat, (n.a.). “About”. Bellingcat.com.Retrieved from <https://www.bellingcat.com/about/>.
Doward J., (2018).“How a college drop–out became a champion of investigative journalism”. The Guardian. Retrieved from <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/30/bellingcat-eliot-higgins-exposed-novichok-russian-spy-anatoliy-chepiga>.
Matthews, O., (2018). “How Bellingcat outfoxes the world’s spy agencies”. The Spectator. Retrieved from <https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/10/how-bellingcat-outfoxes-the-worlds-spy-agencies/>.
Chakelian A., (2018). “What is Bellingcat? Behind the tactics revealing the Skripal suspect and Cameroon killers”. NewStatesman. Retrieved from <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2018/09/what-bellingcat-behind-tactics-revealing-skripal-suspect-and-cameroon-killers>.
Walker J., (2019). “Bellingcat to establish new office in The Hague after €500,000 funding win through Dutch postcode lottery”. PressGazette. Retrieved from <https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/bellingcat-to-establish-new-office-in-the-hague-after-e500000-funding-win-through-dutch-postcode-lottery/>.