Netherlands, 2018. 1h 28min
Eliot Higgins was a 36-year-old who’d been laid off from his office job when, in 2014, he became influential in shaping some of the biggest stories in the global news. Self-described as «terribly nerdy» and shy around people, he was into online gaming and was spending most of his time on his computer when he wasn’t taking care of his child as a stay-at-home dad. In other words, he had a lifestyle and demeanour that were the antithesis of the stereotype of macho daredevilry we would normally associate with war reporting. But his sudden emergence as a journalistic force reflects much about the transformed nature of modern conflict and information warfare.
In our heavily mediated and footage-saturated world, we’re now just as likely to source evidence of what is going on in crisis zones from what is posted on the internet as we are from first-hand eyes on the ground. Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat, a website for open-source citizen investigation that aims to determine the truth of events in areas a reliable media source is not present, and to rigorously fact-check the claims of politicians by reading the vast digital trail of visual cues on the internet.
Sardonic criticisms of Eliot can easily tap into the unease surrounding the decline of professional journalistic authority in order to discredit his work.
The independent organisation, named after the fable about mice that plot to place a bell around a cat’s neck to render it harmless, now operates with a collective of ten core members who communicate online between their homes in Syria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. It’s the subject of Dutch filmmaker Hans Pool’s documentary Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World, a straightforward yet eye-opening run-down of the group and their activities.
Bellingcat has made headlines with its revelations on a number of high-profile stories, relying on sites Google Earth, YouTube, and Facebook as essential tools. It was instrumental in proving that the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was carried out by the Russian military (who blamed Ukraine) through exposing falsified images, then identifying the specific Buk rocket launcher used with its unique markings and tracking its movements. It identified American white nationalists carrying out violence in Charlottesville through their social media activity. And it revealed, with the help of passport data, the true identities of the culprits who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, pinning them down not as tourists on a sightseeing trip to the English cathedral town as they had claimed, but as high-up Russian military intelligence personnel.
In a world post-truth
The ascendancy of the Bellingcat method is alarming because it brings home the extent to which we are now down the rabbit hole in regard to the difficulty of determining which facts are real and which have been manufactured – the slippery terrain of a world post-truth. Sardonic criticisms of Eliot by presenters on Russian channels like NTV – who jibe that, though covering Syria, he doesn’t speak Arabic and works from an armchair, a «kitchen expert on everything» – can easily tap into the unease surrounding the decline of professional journalistic authority in order to discredit his work.
Training workshops for fellow citizens are also a core part of Bellingcat’s work.
However, independent collectives like Bellingcat are our greatest hope for fact-checking amid an information onslaught that is overwhelming in terms of the sheer amount of time it would take to sort – time that traditional journalists simply are no longer paid to have. «I have never known journalism to be in such a perilous state,» Ethical Journalism Network head Aidan White says in the film, pointing to the rise of precarious freelancing and the lack of money spent on thorough investigative journalism by big media organisations these days.
Differentiating themselves from accidental journalists who simply catch footage by chance, Bellingcat’s citizen journalists are experts who have taken up the slack missing from newsrooms in terms of rigorous factual analysis in an accelerated climate of information saturation. They endeavour to deliver the transparency of evidence that can generate trust in the absence of a brand (and in the absence of a hefty legal team, which adds the risk of litigation to the real threat of physical harm they place themselves under).
The supremacy of emotive spectacle
Ultimately, the film leaves us with a sense that the most pressing battle journalism faces is whether our evolving methods in sorting truth from lies within a deluge of information can keep pace with the increased sophistication and speed of manufactured misinformation (even as I write this Russia has announced a military ban on smartphones to hide the digital trails that soldiers have been leaving that unwittingly confirm Russian interventions).
Even when the facts have been determined, citizens are too disoriented and fatigued to take note.
Training workshops for fellow citizens are also a core part of Bellingcat’s work, increasing hope that communities will be better equipped to combat propaganda assaults. But most sobering of all is the observation that since fact checking is struggling to gain traction with the public, politicians are resorting to increasingly extreme messaging just to make an impact. In other words, even when the facts have been determined, citizens are too disoriented and fatigued to take note – they are weighted down by a climate of supremacy of emotive spectacle.
«The truth will out» has been a popular proverb for centuries, but could Shakespeare have foreseen that we’d enter a world of hyper-simulation in which the truth is losing all ethical, privileged distinction as a different category of reality?