Eliot Higgins On Citizen Journalists' New Form of Intelligence Gathering

Season 3 Episode 13
Eliot Higgins on Citizen Journalists' New Form of Intelligence Gathering

Using the vast volumes of publicly available data from videos, satellite imagery and social media posts, online open-source investigators are able to verify or debunk state-led propaganda and expose atrocities.

S3E13 / May 13, 2021

BT S3E13 Guest-Headshot-1200-v3.png

Episode Description

In this episode of Big Tech, Taylor Owen speaks with Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat.com, an open-source intelligence and investigative journalism website. Higgins’s site uses publicly accessible online data to investigate and fact-check human rights abuses, war zone atrocities and other criminal activities. Bellingcat’s reporting on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine gained the site wide attention, including from the Kremlin, whose public statements on their role in the incident were being refuted by the site.

The online open-source intelligence and investigation community operates adjacent to state-run intelligence gathering and journalism. As Higgins explains, Bellingcat can be an interface between the person on the ground and justice and journalism institutions: “The person on the ground who’s filming these things, you know, they film it because they want there to be accountability. It’s not just [about] raising awareness of it.” Bellingcat is now doing mock trials to show how these open-sourced investigatory efforts could lead to justice for victims.

Additionally, Higgins sees the work of online investigations as a counter movement to the increasing polarization of media and the distrust in institutions that are leading people into online conspiracy communities and fringe thinking. “What I think we need to do is start teaching people actually to, you know, use things like … open-source investigation in their own lives,” says Higgins. He sees this as an opportunity to teach the younger generation how to engage positively online: “Rather than them going off [and] just being mad about something in the world and then finding some community of people that are going to kind of draw them into conspiracy theories, they actually are able to find communities that can actually help them positively contribute to these issues.”

Transcript

This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.

 

Eliot Higgins: What I think we need to do is start teaching people actually to use things like open-source investigation in their own lives, not just looking at conflicts in Syria and Russian assassinations, but looking at issues that affect them directly.

Taylor Owen: Hi. I'm Taylor Owen, and this is Big Tech.

When people have downtime at work, they might chat with a colleague or scroll through Twitter, but Eliot Higgins is not most people. Back in 2011, Eliot was stuck in a boring office job. While his coworkers were on their coffee breaks, Eliot was watching live streams from the Arab Spring. At the time, there were mountains of tweets and photos and videos coming out of the region, and it was often difficult to figure out what was real and what wasn't. Governments and rebel forces would often make claims that directly contradicted each other. Eliot found himself on The Guardian's website, getting into debates with people over the legitimacy of these claims. He realized that you don't actually need to be on the ground to determine whether something is true or not. You just need an internet connection. Eliot would sift through YouTube videos looking for landmarks, like the name of a shop, and then find the exact location of that shop using Google Earth. From thousands of miles away, he was able to piece things together in a way that journalists on the ground couldn't. These early projects formed the basis for Bellingcat, what has become one of the biggest open-source investigative operations in the world. They've proven that Assad used chemical weapons in Syria and that the Russians shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane. They've identified alt-right protesters in Charlottesville and deciphered the identities of Russian assassins. They often figure this stuff out well before the big intelligence agencies or the media do. Eliot chronicles all of this in his new book, We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News. The thing that really excites me about Eliot's work is that he's pretty optimistic about the internet. He feels this kind of open-source investigation could be part of the answer to the rising tides of disinformation and conspiracy. You don't need to believe everything you see online or trust every established institution. Citizens have the tools and the means to find out the truth for themselves, and that's a pretty empowering idea. Here's my conversation with Eliot Higgins.

I want to get into some of the investigations you've done, and the way the organization you've built is set up and designed and the methods. I did want to start at an earlier moment when you were transitioning from a nine-to-five job into this more full-time job as an investigator and a journalist, and it's pretty remarkable. You went from working a nine-to-five job to being profiled in The New Yorker. When you describe that in the book, you sound in awe of that moment, of seeing yourself with a New Yorker profile. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and how that happened?

Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I really started doing this because first of all, it was really just about arguing with people on the internet about stuff that was happening in the conflicts in Libya, kind of arguing back and forth, but realizing during that that there was a lot of interest in the content that was being generated by that conflict, yet no one was really taking it seriously. Journalists didn't know how to verify it. They'd had their hands burned before in some other situations, where they shared what they thought were legitimate sources from the Arab Spring but they turn out to be fake sources. I realized that when people were saying, "How do you know where this was filmed? How do you know this is real?" I realized you could use satellite imagery to figure out exactly where this was being filmed and photographed, and that was in 2011. Then in 2012, I started to blog, more because my daughter had been born, my first child, and all my other hobbies had gone out of the window. I just didn't have time for them. I thought I'll start something where I can pick it up and put it down easily if she starts crying or she wants a nappy change or something like that.

Taylor Owen: Just a casual hobby.

Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I started the Brown Moses blog, as I called it, which was named after a Frank Zappa song I liked and was an online pseudonym I'd been using in these earlier online arguments. I thought, "That's what people know me as, so I'll use that." Used the first basic template I came across on Blogspot, and I basically just then, every day I challenged myself to find something to write about, and more and more that became videos coming from the conflict in Syria. That's when the first, really early formation of the open-source investigation movement began. Then in early 2013 after about a year of blogging, I used those YouTube videos to discover basically the Saudi secret arms smuggling operation to the rebels in Syria. I shared that with the New York Times, and they published a front-page piece on it and mentioned me. Then all of a sudden I was having ... first of all, The Guardian came to give me an interview. Then after that was published, I had CNN come to my house. Then every day I had a different news van parked outside my house.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. I'm wondering about that period, where now you seem very reflective about expertise, and it's hard to in any way challenge your expertise in this, both method and spaces, but how did you think about that at the time, when you were taking on and in many ways disproving what the so-called experts were saying about these events?

Eliot Higgins: Well, at first, because this was just my hobby, I didn't really think of it in any bigger context than just doing stuff on my blog that people would talk about on Twitter and that they'd argue about, and then they'd argue with me about it. It wasn't until after the New York Times piece and all the coverage that followed that. I was invited by a group called the Tactical Technology Collective, who were based in Germany, to attend a camp in Italy. They asked me to be one of four people who would teach this investigative track to these activists. I was like, "Well, isn't there someone more qualified to do it than me?"

Taylor Owen: They're like, "Nope, You're the guy."

Eliot Higgins: Yeah. I'm just like, "Why are they asking me? There's better people than me." What really struck me there was, as I showed them my work, I had no idea how they'd react, because these were people who were properly on the front lines of activism, literally being shot at by police in their own country because they're protesting against some wrongdoing. Then they were watching me talking about my YouTube videos and stuff like that, and I was a bit worried they'd just say, "This is nonsense. What are you doing? This is just stupid YouTube videos, we're out on the front lines," but they reacted really positively to it. It made me realize how much. They spoke about the value of this kind of stuff in making the cases that they were trying to make. I think really, with what happened in 2014 once Bellingcat had been launched, which was the downing of MH17, that then acted as a really massive catalyst both for the growth of Bellingcat and the broader online open source investigative movement.

 

[CLIP]

Dan Abrams: "Not an accident or a disaster, but an act of terrorism." Those were the words of the Ukrainian president today after a flight with 298 people on board was apparently shot down over his country.

SOUCE: ABC News YouTube Channel https://youtu.be/Mb1Lt6IlVeA

“Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Shot Down: Timeline of What Happened”

July 18, 2014

 

Taylor Owen: Yeah. I mean, that's exactly what I want to ask you about. I'm trying to think of which of the investigations to ask you to run through. It seems to me that one is just the most stark, in the sense that you had a world leader publicly saying one thing.

 

[CLIP]

Lucy Taylor: We've heard from Russia's defense ministry in the last couple of hours, reiterating their absolute denial of having anything to do with this attack. They say that no Russian weapons were involved in this.

SOUCE: TRT World News YouTube Channel https://youtu.be/XxUwjx9rVeo

“Russia denies responsibility for MH17 crash”

May 24, 2018

 

Taylor Owen: You're disproving that, to pretty significant global consequence. I wanted just to give people a sense of the methods and the process. If you could walk through that investigation for a few minutes, just to give us a sense of how that came together.

Eliot Higgins: On July 14, 2014, I launched Bellingcat, along with a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Then three days later, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. That was just the big story. It was just because Bellingcat had just been launched. There was a huge amount of information coming from the conflicts in Ukraine, because unlike Syria, where you have a small number of YouTube channels and social media sites sharing everything from the opposition-held areas, in Eastern Ukraine it was like the internet was completely open, so people could post anything they wanted. Some of the things being posted were videos and photographs of a Buk missile launcher, surface-to-air missile launcher, that people claimed had been traveling through separatist-controlled territory on the day MH17 was shot down. People who had followed my work for a while started getting in touch, saying they found stuff or they'd made some discovery, or I'd see people discussing stuff online. One example of this is a colleague of mine, Eric Toler, who's based in the U.S., and he speaks Russian and he'd seen what happened, and he was digging through material. He was looking at one photograph that showed this Buk missile launcher on this low loader, this transport vehicle. It was claimed to be in one town, but he figured out it was actually in another town, using ... basically there's a shop sign in the background. He Googled that and towns in that region of Ukraine until he found one that actually gave a result with that combination of words. That was a Wiki someone had set up that listed all the streets in Ukraine, along with the shops that were on there. It had the name of the shop we were looking for and the street it was on. It didn't have the full address, but he could Google that again and pull it into Google, and that gave more results. This time, that included a court document where there'd been a fight at the shop which gave the full address of the shop, and videos posted online by a Ukrainian guy whose hobby was to drive around the streets of Eastern Ukraine with his dashboard camera on, to film it and put it online with a list of streets he'd driven down. That popped up in the search results. We could watch that and then see that he actually drove past the location where this photograph was taken, the same shop. Because we then had the exact location of the camera, we could also use the shadows that were visible to calculate an approximate time of day. Later on we would discover, as we formed as a team and started digging through social media posts, we started to discover posts made by people on the day, as they saw the missile launcher driving through that same location. That was the first few days of what we were doing in what ended up being a multiyear investigation. We were able to establish the route of the missile launcher, when Russia was busy trying to pump out as much propaganda as possible about what happened.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. I was thinking back on that time period and following that event, and my recollection of it is that it was almost binary. For some period of time there was complete denial, and then everybody accepted that it was them. Is that how it actually played out? Once you discovered this, there was just universal acceptance of it, or was there an evolution?

Eliot Higgins: Universal acceptance, I mean, I don't think you ever really have anything like universal acceptance.

Taylor Owen: On the internet? Everybody doesn't agree?

Eliot Higgins: What actually happened is quite quickly, there formed a counterfactual community around what happened to MH17, very focused on the conspiracy end of it. They often were either very pro-Russian voices or people who didn't trust anything that they thought was advantageously to the West or the U.S.. Therefore it must be that Russia is actually the good guy and innocent in the situation, and they formed their own online community. You see that with pretty much anything that happens in the world, from coronavirus to QAnon. There's communities that form around their own alternative realities. For the most part, what I think our work showed is that first of all, Russia was lying from pretty much day one about what happened. They gave a press conference on July 21st, 2014, just a few days after MH17 was shot down, and they just lied time and time again in this press conference, and we basically exposed those lies systematically. It's one thing to say, "Oh, well, Russia is lying about something," but when you can do a PowerPoint presentation and you're breaking it down step by step using publicly-available information, that is powerful. I think that really helps with our reputation, but also showed that open-source investigation is something that you can produce usable and checkable results with.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. Fascinating that you could do so iteratively and publicly, in a way that was reactive to the Russian government's propaganda on this in a way that official institutions couldn't, because they had a formal process of investigation. That must have driven the Russian government crazy. I'm sure you had Putin's attention through all of that. I'm wondering, were you concerned about that and was that frightening, knowing that you were under the microscope of the Russian government?

Eliot Higgins: It was always like an escalation. It started early 2015 when the pro-Russian media, this Sputnik News and Russia Today, started doing more and more coverage that was critical of myself and Bellingcat. I remember they cited a report that was called Anti-Bellingcat from some Russian bloggers, as they described it, but it turned out these bloggers were actually working for a Putin-founded think tank. Of course, they didn't mention that in their coverage of it. As well, the stuff that was actually in this report was just inaccurate and just complete garbage. It was really badly written, and they were citing it. I think they couldn't understand what Bellingcat was, because as far as they saw, I think we came from nowhere and we were suddenly exposing all this stuff Russia was doing. They looked at all the other crazy bloggers who were out there and wondering why we were getting cited and all these other kinds of bloggers weren't, because they didn't really understand what we were. That escalated then to the Russian foreign ministry denouncing us, saying that we are amateurs and we were using fakes. In that case, I actually wrote to the Russian foreign ministry and asked them if they could provide the evidence we were using fake material. They actually sent us, as a reply, eight pages of plagiarized blog posts that they'd stolen off the internet. We figured out they'd just copied and pasted just lines from this blog post. They were the foreign ministry, using some LiveJournal to counter us. Then we were targeted in the same hacking campaign that targeted the Podesta emails, that resulted in drama around the 2016 election campaign. We had more disinformation about us. I was targeted by a big troll factory campaign, trying to attack me. In one day, there was like 50 articles about me that appeared online. It's just been continual. Of course, now we've done stuff looking at Russian assassins where I get visits from the police every so often, just to check in and make sure that I've not been assassinated yet. They give me advice about, "Yeah, you probably want to make sure your doors are locked and stuff like that."

Taylor Owen: This disconnect between the process and what the official intelligence agencies know and their process, versus what you are able to discover and do, just seems to get increasingly stark. I was just listening to a podcast interview between the director of science and technology for the CIA, and she was saying that they are confident that they are state-of-the-art when it comes to the use of online investigation tools. How do you respond to that, her comment there? How do you view these much more official intelligence-gathering operations?

Eliot Higgins: I think so often there's such a focus on tools, but really I think what makes Bellingcat so effective is the community that's around us rather than the tools that we use. I mean, sure, we need the tools. We need the Google search and Google Earth and stuff like that. The fact that we can ask a question to all our followers on Twitter allows us often to find answers that we wouldn't be able to find ourselves. For example, when we looked into the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny in Russia, discovered that there was an FSB team who'd been following him 40 times, including the time he was poisoned. We looked into this FSB team. We were able to get their travel records, because Russia is an amazingly leaky bureaucracy where you can buy anything, basically. We got their travel records, their phone records, and we discovered that they were following not just Navalny but other people too. We actually put out to our followers on Twitter basically a list of their travels, of these FSB team members, and asked if any of them could see that they had synced up with any other mysterious deaths. Because we crowdsourced that effort, it actually led us to three assassinations we wouldn't have been able to find otherwise, because they were very low-profile, local issues. That's just amplifying something to a large audience. Now, if you're an intelligence service, obviously that's a lot more difficult to do.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, absolutely.

Eliot Higgins: Yeah, so it's really now what we're doing with Bellingcat is developing more ways for volunteers to get involved with the investigation. We're building a volunteer section, showing more and more ways for people to learn how to do this themselves and building a bigger and bigger community.

Taylor Owen: It seems that you sit adjacent, to a certain degree, to these intelligence agencies, but the other institution you are adjacent to and a part of some degree is journalistic ones. When the Syria conflict was happening and you were developing your methods and work there, I was working at the Columbia Journalism School. I remember a lot of conversations at the time about what you were doing, but also about how they were embedded in these changes happening in journalism. One moment that remains really stark ... I actually wrote about it in a book years ago ... was Marie Colvin being killed in Homs, which you reference in your book as well. It seems to me the journalism discussion at the time was about witnessing, was about there being all these cellphones all of a sudden, able to bear witness, and juxtaposing that against what Marie Colvin and physical journalists were doing there and their role in bearing witness. In reading your work, it seems to me you're going a step further and saying this isn't just using these YouTube videos or these live streams or whatever it might be to bear witness and to see what happened, but to actually understand what happened.

Eliot Higgins: I think now with Bellingcat, we always see ourselves as an interface between the person on the ground who's filming these things. They film it because they want there to be accountability. It's not just raising awareness of it. It's not just about getting onto a blog or a website or a news channel. It's about them wanting there to ... you don't film someone being killed because you don't want anything to happen because of it. Now a lot of our focus is not just on doing the analysis, but also how you seek accountability for this kind of work. For example, we've been doing a lot of work in the last couple of years looking at Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, using our experience from the conflict in Syria to develop a new process for investigating incidents that are happening in conflict zones, applying it to Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, and looking at how that could be used as a package, in a way, an investigative package for courts. We've been testing that in mock trials, and that's been quite successful so far. We were surprised that the first time we did it, the judge accepted our evidence. I think it's important that we develop these skills and give them to organizations who are able to do this in different regions of the world. We're still a small organization. We have 20 staff members. We are pumping out as much as we can, but there's a lot of conflicts going on in the world. There's a lot of material being gathered. I know this stuff that is being missed out there, just because there's not enough people to look at it and do that analysis. For example, a year or two ago, we were looking at a video with the BBC and Amnesty International and others that came from Cameroon, that showed executions at a roadside. This had just popped up on Twitter. It was two young women and two children who were marched off the road and executed by soldiers. We started looking into that and we published a bit on it, and Cameroon, the government basically called it fake news. I mean, they literally called it fake news and denied the video was real. That was like a red rag to a bull for us, and then we just kept doing it. Within about a year, all those soldiers were convicted for murder in a Cameroonian court. That only happens because we chanced across this video on Twitter, and we just happened to have enough capacity as a group to look into it and spend time looking into it. Had it not been for that, those women and those children would have not found any accountability for what happened to them whatsoever. Those soldiers would still be free, and they'd still be able to execute people that they didn't like the look of.

Taylor Owen: On a slightly different front, one of the things that really jumped out to me with your work is how we're defining open-source data, and what sort of data you seek to use or are willing to use. A lot of the examples involve truly open data, around map data or open tools or public profiles of people. It struck me in your investigation of the poisoning of Russian exile Sergei Skripal.

 

[CLIP]

Adrian Finnegan: The poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia follows several mysterious deaths of Russians in Britain.

SOUCE: Al Jazeera English YouTube Channel https://youtu.be/kIMfe7syMBY

Who poisoned ex-Russian agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter? | Inside Story”

March 8, 2018

 

Taylor Owen: You moved beyond those more open data sources, and it sounds like you downloaded some leaked Russian databases that probably had a bunch of personal, private information in them. Was that an ethical debate you had internally, about what data you would and wouldn't use in these investigations, and is that something you think a lot about?

Eliot Higgins: Yeah, it's something we have a lot of discussions about. The thing to understand about Russia is that it's basically an extremely corrupt police state where everyone at every level is trying to make money, and part of that includes people selling access to government and police databases. This has been going on for years and years. You could go to a market in Russia 10 years ago and pick up a DVD with a Moscow residency database burnt onto it. People would use this kind of information for all kinds of things, frauds, looking at who their husband's been calling, all kinds of different things, but it was quite a vibrant market. If you wanted someone's passport details or their phone records or anything that the government has, you could get. My colleague Kristo Grazev, he had been looking into these Russian spy activities for a while. With the Skripal case, we started looking into this, and when the identities of the Skripal suspects were published by the UK authorities, we looked up their names, looked at their faces, and they just didn't really exist on the internet, which was odd, seeing they were supposed to be salesman. That was a bit strange. Then a Russian newspaper got their passports or their flight details, including their passport numbers and their date of births, and that gave us a lot more to go with. That allowed us to find their entries on Russian government databases of residencies in Moscow. What was interesting there is they existed in 2013, but they didn't exist in 2012. It was clear that in 2013, these identities had been added to databases, so that made us even more suspicious. Kristo then realized that there was ... you basically go on, you find the right Russian website, and you'll find someone on there saying, "Oh, I can get this for you." Kristo got the two guys' passport registration forms, and that turned out that they actually had very odd markings on those forms. It had the phone number of the Russian Ministry of Defence, a stamp that seemed to indicate it was secret service-related. It was all really dodgy stuff on there, so that made us even more interested. Then we did have a discussion like we're buying data, and it's not traditionally open-source information, but it's the only way to actually find out who these people are. We thought, "Well, we'll give it a go. It probably won't work. I mean, after all, they are spies for one of the most notorious spying countries in the world. They probably have hidden this stuff quite well." Turns out they didn't hide it quite well. They were doing really dumb stuff, like their fake identities often have the same first name, place of birth and date of birth. That means if you have someone's fake identities and you have those two pieces of information, like you get off their passports, you're able to search for people who have matching attributes on these leaked databases. We'd find everyone with the same first name, date of birth and place of birth, and that would find us more and more spies.

Taylor Owen: On the data side, I was at a workshop years ago where someone from Facebook was doing a demo of the Graph Search that they were about to launch. I was struck by you highlighting how valuable that tool was to you, and of course it would be. At this event, though, that was filled with privacy scholars and tech and society people, people were shocked by this thing, that this would even be considered to be made public. It strikes me that these kinds of open-source investigations have a real tension with privacy concerns. The more data out there, the better for you, right? How do you square those two values?

Eliot Higgins: It's one of the paradoxes of our work. We want every bit of data we can get our hands on, but at the same time, we want people to be very protective and safe with their data. If the bad guys can be clumsy and everyone else can be safe, that would be the ideal scenario, but unfortunately we don't live in a perfect. Yeah, the Graph Search was an incredible tool for research, and I can understand why they got rid of it after the Cambridge Analytica stuff, because there's plenty of other things you can do with it as well. Just a recent tool that was very useful in our research were sites that started appearing in Russia, that basically they downloaded all the images from Vkontakte, which is Russia's answer to Facebook. Loads of Russians use it. They'd been downloading all the photographs from it and then using facial recognition on that, so you could basically reverse-search any Russian and have a really high chance of finding their photograph on this search engine, and then find their social media profile. It was fantastic and it is fantastic. There's still some other services that do it, but it was also being abused by people to basically track down women who'd been appearing in adult films and then harass them by finding their social media profiles. We're using it to find Russian spies and soldiers and people fighting in Ukraine when they shouldn't be, and all kinds of stuff like that. It's like any tool. There's potential for abuse, and it's difficult because we don't want innocent people to be affected by this, but at the same time, these tools can be very useful for revealing all sorts of really serious stuff that's happening in the world. We've uncovered war crimes and assassinations using these tools. There is value there.

Taylor Owen: Over the course of the time you're doing this work, the other thing that's really emerged quite clearly is how these spaces can be used for false information and dis and misinformation. I'm wondering how you see your search for facts in this ecosystem and promoting facts, versus bumping up against just this flood of false and misinformation? Do you think one can counter the other?

Eliot Higgins: For me, it comes down to how society has really changed in a very radical way really, thanks to the wonders of the internet. If you were someone who had lost faith in traditional sources of authority for whatever reason, pre-internet there weren't many places you could go, because you would know people in your social circle. Unless you put in a huge amount of effort to find whoever also believed the earth was flat or whatever it may be, you'd have difficulty doing that. Now, though, you can just Google it, and you've immediately got access to an entire community that will reinforce whatever beliefs that you have. You will be then surrounded by bloggers, experts, doctors who will support these theories, and so on and so forth, until eventually some people are now believing that Bill Gates has put microchips in the vaccines and that kind of stuff. It's basically a form of online radicalization, but it happens with any topic under the sun, where you can have a lack of faith in authority. Within those communities, you have groups of people who become really the standard barriers for those kinds of topics. They're the noisiest. They're the ones who lead discussions. They have their YouTube channels and news websites and stuff like that. They form a kind of separate media ecosystem from the mainstream ecosystem. In a way, once they've moved into those alternative media ecosystems, these counterfactual communities, you can't really reach them anymore. Because if you tell them they're wrong or you present any amount of evidence you want, they will have plenty of people who will tell them that, no, actually they're right. I think what we have to do is start realizing that this lack of trust in traditional sources of authority is being addressed by online communities that draw people into basically more radical ways of thinking, and what I think we need to do is start teaching people actually to use things like open-source investigation in their own lives, show them that this is something they can actually do. They can participate in different ways, not just looking at conflicts in Syria and Russian assassinations, but looking at issues that affect them directly, looking at issues that are happening down the end of the road. Something like getting Freedom of Information requests about how many police chases are happening in their local area, and questioning if they're higher or lower than the national average. It's not the biggest story in the world, but it matters to those people. It's also very empowering to those people, because they then realize that actually as an individual, as even a 16-year-old, you can make a Freedom of Information request and find out something that wasn't already known. And you can empower them through that and also connect them to communities like the communities that we're building with Bellingcat, then that gives them another way to be empowered. It allows them to connect with people who are also looking for the truth, to build and improve things and challenge authority as well when it does stuff that's wrong. Then, rather than them going off just being mad about something in the world and then finding some community of people who are going to draw them into conspiracy theories, they actually are able to find communities that can actually help them positively contribute to these issues and be part of a community where, rather than just being angry and screaming at people who disagree with you, you say, "Okay, what can we do to actually affect change and actually make something happen?" If we don't do that, I think we can't be surprised if we just see more and more incidents like we saw on January 6th in Washington, D.C., and just weirder and weirder conspiracies appearing online that don't seem to make any sense, but hundreds of thousands of people believe it.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. I mean, it's such a fine line sometimes between a positive and a negative rabbit hole, or one that's filled with misinformation versus one that's factual. I mean, the same impetus that drives people to solve some of these mysteries online are the same impetus that drives people to try and seek comfort in the rationale of the world that might be a conspiracy.

Eliot Higgins: Yeah. It's tough as well because once you lose people to those conspiracy theories, it's really, really hard to reach them again. I think the problem is, no matter of fact-checking websites or think tanks writing about bot networks is ever going to really address these issues. I think when there is this focus on, "Oh, what should the tech platforms be doing, or how can we stop Russia from doing this to us," it completely misses the point. This is something we're doing to ourselves. The internet is connecting us to like-minded people. Some of those like-minded people are just as dumb as we are. Unfortunately, until we start actually thinking how do we make a healthier civil society, how do we engage people in a different way, how do we actually use the internet for good, rather than just thinking it's a thing that exists that we don't have to worry about until people are burning down the Capitol building, until we start thinking about it as an opportunity and being proactive about taking that opportunity, it's no wonder that we're going to slide more and more into conspiracy and weird ideas on the internet.

Taylor Owen: Well, thanks for all the work you're doing to counter exactly that.

Eliot Higgins: Thank you.

Taylor Owen: To bring a bit of rationality and fact to our online lives.

Eliot Higgins: Let's hope so.

Taylor Owen: That was my conversation with Eliot Higgins. As always, you can reach me at [email protected], and please subscribe to Big Tech wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Big Tech is presented by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and produced by Antica Productions. Please consider subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. We release new episodes on Thursdays every other week.

For media inquiries, usage rights or other questions please contact CIGI.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.