Remember when the words “breaking news” used to refer to the thrill of hearing about world events as they happened? These days, it has become the daily sport of autocrats and elected officials alike, who have realized that discrediting once-reputable journalistic sources — quite literally, attempting to break the news — is an effective strategy in not being held accountable to facts. While it can be scary to realize that such misinformation games occur — and often even originate — at the highest levels of government, there is hope in the form of citizen journalists such as those profiled in Hans Pool’s “Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World,” an exciting look at one such group of self-appointed fact finders that presents their innovative research techniques as a kind of cutting-edge spy thriller.
When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine, sparking vehement denials that Russia had any involvement, Bellingcat went to work to pinpoint the Buk missile launcher responsible as belonging to the country’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. After a group of white supremacists were photographed beating a young black man at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, N.C., Bellingcat went searching through social media profiles and public videos to identify the assailants. And when the suspects in the Skripal poisoning gave a scripted interview to the Kremlin-backed RT channel, it was Bellingcat that uncovered who these two Russian operatives really were, exposing their cover story as a farce.
Each of these cases — and many more, including investigations that have both confirmed and debunked a wide variety of conflict-zone videos — has proven controversial, largely because Bellingcat’s team circumvents the usual channels of investigative journalism. Instead, founder Eliot Higgins and his contributors rely on “open source” research, combing through user-uploaded content, satellite photos, public databases, and all kinds of semi-shady archives (such as a comprehensive list of Russian passport information found on bittorrent).
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As Bellingcat begins to establish itself as a credible alternative to conventional news outlets, RT and others have begun a campaign to discredit Higgins, whose non-expert background — the college dropout launched the site while unemployed and still operates it from his home in Leicester — makes it easy for critics to suggest that he’s a hack, or worse, a mouthpiece for some secret organization’s agenda. Skepticism is healthy when it comes to reading anything online, lest we fall for “fake news,” although even experts are fallible (one reason Trump has had such success in extending the “fake news” label to legitimate outlets), and reporting strategies must evolve in order for media to disprove increasingly sophisticated propaganda techniques.
The beauty of Bellingcat, both the organization and the documentary, is the way the organization aims to share its methods with others, inspiring old-school outlets such as The New York Times to innovate accordingly. By introducing audiences to the key members of the Bellingcat team — including Aric Toler, an American dedicated to untangling Russian spin; award-winning Dutch investigator Christiaan Triebert; Finnish military expert (and MH17 obsessive) Veli-Pekka Kivimäki; the Syrian Archive founder Hadi Al-Khatib; and German visual artist Timmi Allen, who analyzed video of freelancer James Foley’s beheading to pinpoint where the execution happened — Pool presents them not as heroes so much as pioneers, revolutionizing the fields of both news and international criminal investigations.
Now that internet users have access to an astonishing array of information, research that was once thought impossible can now be done by anyone with the critical thinking skills to analyze what’s already out there. Hence the name Bellingcat, which derives from a children’s story in which a mouse hatches the plan to tie a bell around a cat’s neck, but can find no one brave enough to undertake the operation. By contrast, Eliot’s organization is staffed by volunteers from around the world, and Pool travels far and wide to film them, shooting these computer jockeys in shadowy rooms, or else framed by overcast blue-gray skies, like characters in a John Le Carré spy movie. As they trade intel, he features snatches of conversation in colored on-screen text balloons while a Dutch electro-musician layers a beating pulse beneath it.
It would be easy to lump the Bellingcat gang in with an organization like WikiLeaks, but in many ways, Eliot and his team are the opposite of Julian Assange. Instead of uploading secret data provided to them by sources who presumably stand to gain from its exposure, Eliot et al. ask themselves the questions news media should be posing and then proactively hunt down the answers through every channel available to them. It’s exciting, cloak-and-dagger stuff, no less exciting (or valid) for having been done from someone’s armchair at home. Pool pulls some cheap shots by cutting to Putin, Trump, and Kim Jong-un whenever he needs to personify who they’re up against. But in a world where those three are leading the charge to break the news, Bellingcat are doing their best to put it together again.