Conspiracy theorists have at least two positive qualities: They are sceptical of authority, and they are willing to challenge the status quo. Unfortunately they stop there and don’t apply the same scepticism to the information that affirms their world view. Information is not subjected to rigorous analysis and instead they revert to lazily accepting generalised theories that often emerge from highly compromised sources. To move from conspiracy theory to informed knowledge requires effort, and the ability to acknowledge that until we are able to gather the facts, and check them, we simply do not know. Living with ambiguity requires intellectual flexibility, which again, is hard work.
We Are Bellingcat makes this clear without having to draw such distinctions. The story of how this fact-checking site came into being, and how it developed into a publication that has exposed the lies and disinformation peddled by state authorities, reveals just how important it is to apply detailed analysis to every single claimed fact in order to build a watertight case. The book by Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins is a masterclass in fact checking and the use of free digital tools.
While the internet has enabled state (and corporate) authorities to spread disinformation around the world at the speed of light, it also provides the tools for any concerned citizen to hold them up to the light. Having its genesis in Higgins’s desire to understand the Libyan civil war that erupted following the Arab Spring, he found himself threading through the disinformation peddled by propagandists on both sides. In doing so he refined the use of free tools such as Google Earth, reverse image searching, weather recording apps, and the like in order to ascertain what was really happening in social media photos and videos broadcast by keyboard warriors.
Joined by online volunteers equally obsessed with discovering the truth, Bellingcat is now an organisation that pulls the wool from our eyes. Its dedication to proving, in exhaustive detail, what actually happened in conflicts such as Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and incidents such as the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 in January last year, is astounding.
Using nothing but freely available tools on the internet, rigour, creative thinking, and an unsatiable desire for the truth, they have embarrassed states and secret services around the world. This is not only a fascinating story, it is a must-read for anyone who wants to try understand modern geo-politics and journalism in the internet age.