Those pesky kids really can unmask the bad guys: Tom Tugendhat reviews We Are Bellingcat
From the downing of Flight 17 to the identification of the Salisbury poisoners, Eliot Higgins’ book is a compelling account of audacious open source reporting, exposing spies and outwitting dictators in its wake
“Higgins has become like an x-ray into a hidden world”
By Eliot Higgins Publisher Bloomsbury
It turns out Scooby Doo was real. Hidden in the depths of the cartoon that shaped my generation is a truth – those pesky kids really can unmask the bad guys. Don’t believe me? It’s all here in We Are Bellingcat.
Starting from the most unlikely beginnings in Nottingham – with just some spare time and a laptop – Eliot Higgins has exposed spies, wrong-footed dictators and paraded criminals before the world. This doesn’t read like history but – unlike the stories put out by the Russian Federation he exposed for gassing civilians in Houla, Syria – it’s all true.
In the decade since he started searching for the truth in the furthest reaches of the internet, Higgins has become like an x-ray into a hidden world. President Putin’s hitmen were tracked and exposed not by a government agency but a few web-searchers with a few clever programmes and some tricks they’d picked up themselves.
The mass transportation of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang with queues of men at a train station – that reminded the world of the photographs of Jews queuing up on their way to be murdered – was exposed despite the lies of the former Chinese Communist Party. It didn’t happen decades ago. With a few angles of the sun on prominent objects, the mountain range in the background and satellite photos available for free on Google, they proved these photos were real and recent.
Bellingcat has shown the world that the truth is out there and that we can fight back against the lies of autocrats and that open-source reporting works. This fantastic and compelling story is brilliantly told by Higgins himself giving the details and insights that bring the story to life.
The next step in the Bellingcat journey will be to look closer to home. The acolytes of dictators get too warm a welcome in our own country and the money they have earned from torture and murder is washed clean by some in our service industry. We need the same level of scrutiny that Higgins brought to unmasking the murder of hundreds in the attack on a civilian airliner to the erosion of democracy in the West.
That’s a challenge already, but as the deep fakes he warns about turn the internet into a new tool of propaganda and deception, the government must think hard about how to defend us all. Losing this fight would see our liberties erode and our lives change for the worse. That’s the ‘who’ the mice who belled the cat are warning us about now.