This game is now over
Save 54% by subscribing to BBC Science Focus magazine
Read the transcript of our Science Focus podcast with Eliot Higgins-scroll down to listen to the episode.
Daniel Bennett Okay, first of all, for people who may not have heard of Bellingcat or they may have heard of its name mentioned in news reports, can you explain what Bellingcat is?
Eliot Higgins So today we are a small non-profit non-governmental organization. We have about 20 employees. What we do is the so-called online open source survey. This is the use of online materials from social media posts to satellite images on services such as Google Maps to investigate various incidents, from war crimes in Syria to poisoning in Russia, to stolen animals, to wildlife crimes. Different themes.
We have existed since 2014. It was basically my blog at the time, and we had about £60,000 in crowdfunding, including myself and some volunteers. It just grew from there.
Daniel Bennett. So you know, you said you participated in the investigation, but I mean, you broke huge stories in the past few years. I mean, it is obvious that people may be familiar with flight MH 17. In the past few years, what important evidence has you been able to prove this?
Eliot Higgins So our first large investigation should be conducted on MH 17. This is indeed where we formed the investigation team. This is a group of volunteers, most of whom have now become staff. But first, we tracked down the missile launcher believed to have been shot down from eastern Ukraine through separatist-controlled territory to the launch site where the missile was believed to be launched from, and found evidence that it was the launch site.
Then we found the same missile launcher in a Russian convoy a few weeks ago, the missile launcher heading to the Ukrainian border. Then, we started to identify individuals who passed unnamed phone calls announced by criminal investigations, joint investigation teams, and Ukrainian security services. But we found out who they were based on the content of the call, and it turned out that they were Russian military officers and intelligence officials and others.
So this is a bit of a sign that Russia participated in this attack on this aircraft, which caused 298 deaths. Other big news has been focusing on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We have determined the true identities of the people involved in the Skripal assassination, as well as the true identities of other people involved in the assassination. The assassination is another Russian intelligence assassination in Europe.
We also determined Russia’s secret nerve agent program through that investigation. This led us to the FSB's domestic Russian intelligence team that tried to assassinate Russian opposition leader Navalny in August last year.
Eliot Higgins This led us to more assassinations and attempted assassinations in the same FSB team, which appeared to use the same nerve agents used in Skripal poisoning and other poisoning incidents in Europe. We also do other subjects. It's not just Russia.
We have investigated Frontex's delay of borders in the Mediterranean, which is now part of the EU investigation. We have published articles on the illegal wildlife trade in Dubai and a range of different topics, especially the far right in Europe and the United States.
Daniel Bennett This is a series of jaw-dropping investigations. But it only pulled back for a minute. Although you have become an expert in the work you do, you are not a professional investigator, are you? When people think of intelligence agencies like the CIA or MI6, they traditionally don't think of you.
Eliot Higgins Yes, we are some very passionate amateurs, their hobbies are out of control. So it’s like [00:04:22] things in Russia—all [0.5s] of these Russian poisoning [investigations] are basically the work of one person, who just really focuses on this kind of evidence, and with that kind of special The way to deal with these stories.
I mean, our survey, you know, our staff may have 20 people, but there may be one or two people working in each survey. But we are also part of a wider community, which is both a community of experts — you know, journalists, people working in NGOs, perhaps military and weapons experts, chemical weapons experts — and social members of the public we contact media.
I am a person who likes to surf the Internet very much, so there is always that community around me. But when we started doing this work, because it used open source information, anyone could join and view it. This also means that anyone can participate in the survey, because it is a very clear and transparent process that can explain how you reach your conclusions.
Therefore, the community around Bellingcat’s work continues to grow. They often use crowdsourcing in surveys to answer certain questions or help them find certain materials, or some people may figure out where something was filmed and then be able to explain it. . We can then use it as part of an investigation. So for us, at every level, collaboration is at the core of what we do.
Daniel Bennett You are involved in some very complex projects, but if you look back a bit, can you explain how you got involved and explain what is at the core of open source investigations?
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) Back when I started doing this, before I started doing this kind of work, I was basically just, you know, I was in management. I really don't have surveys or journalism or any professionalism.
Eliot Higgins But I spend a lot of time on the Internet arguing with people about what is happening in the world. At that time, in 2010, it was the Arab Spring. So in 2011, I was arguing with people every day on the Guardian Middle East live blog, looking for links, just interested in what was happening. But what follows is that people will share videos, and everyone will argue whether they are true or not. But no one actually tries to figure out whether they are real or whether they are in the filming location.
So I have a video, which is said to be in a place called Tiji in Libya. The rebels said they had just occupied the town, and the video basically showed a tank driving on a road with two wide lanes, with a mosque and various buildings next to the road. So I thought, well, maybe I can find this road and mosque on satellite images. So I went to Google Maps and found the town easily. Tiji Libya, this is the first problem that arises.
When I checked the satellite map, it was obvious that there was a main road running through it. So I zoomed in. These are two lanes. It is separated by a divider, just like the one in the video. I followed it, and there was a mosque on the road with a dome on the minaret, exactly the same as I saw in the video.
Then I watched the video again. I started to pay attention to the smaller details, such as the walls around the mosque, the curve of the road, and the visible telephone poles. You can see the shadows they cast on the satellite image, so you can see their location. By comparing these smaller and smaller details, I can become more and more certain that this is exactly where they claim to be. This way I can go back and win an Internet debate about where the video was actually shot.
So, it kind of started from there, but I found it really attractive. You can do this. I am really interested in what happened in Libya, but I am frustrated that the report pays so much attention to the views of local reporters. Although there is a lot of information shared online from a variety of different sources, this information is just ignored because people feel they can’t verify it, or they are like, well, this is a YouTube video, what does this show us? This is not a news report by a local reporter.
However, if you actually check and analyze them and combine them with other IT information and verify what you see, it will actually give you a more detailed view of conflicts. So you can actually see where the front lines are, where battles take place every day.
Eliot Higgins So I have been doing it. At the beginning of 2012, I decided to start blogging, but I didn't intend to use it as a place where I could write my thoughts and write them down.
Eliot Higgins But I also see that many people are already using these videos, and they are basically conspiracy theorists. They appear on these conspiracy sites. In the background of the video, there will be some people like white people. They will say that a CIA agent is working with the Libyan insurgents to overthrow Gaddafi. It's usually like some reporter or something just hovering in the lens.
But what I want to write is what I can see, not my opinion. So I started to write a video about Syria, showing the weapons being used. Because I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t have to listen to them because I don’t know. But I can see the weapon.
Then I used online resources to identify weapons and posted relevant information. Then people became interested in my weapons. People from non-governmental organizations. When I posted a post about cluster bombs, Human Rights Watch started asking questions, for example, where did you get these videos? Can you find more?
Then it slowly advanced step by step until in 2013 I encountered a weapon I had never seen before in the former Yugoslavia. I got in touch with a reporter from The New York Times. I shared it with them, and they left and said that they had talked with US officials, and they said it was part of a secret Saudi smuggling operation, and I stumbled upon it in a YouTube video posted by the rebels themselves.
This got me more attention in the media, because this is a novelty. Someone can use YouTube videos to expose Saudi arms smuggling activities. It just grows and grows from there. Then in 2014, Bellingcat was launched.
Daniel Bennett So when did you quit your daily job and what made you believe it was time to start working full-time?
Eliot Higgins Well, in 2012, I had a blog called Brown Moses, which was named after a song by Frank Zappa. I have been using this name as a pseudonym online. Then in 2013, when I published a story about weapons, I got a lot of media attention. The Guardian first interviewed me, and then I asked CNN to talk about Mr. Mom who stayed at home. He took care of the children at home and looked for weapons in the Syrian conflict. This is not what I like [inaudible]. But despite this, I was still working full-time at that time.
But I just arrived at a period when the company I worked for basically had layoffs, and I was a bit like a cutting board. I have been approached by a company—like a business intelligence company discovering whether your oil workers will be attacked by al-Qaeda—and they said, we want you to work for us. They provide a pretty good salary, which is higher than my previous salary. But they said you must stop doing your blog.
At that time, I got more and more media attention, and I thought, well, I need to pay my mortgage, so I'm going to tell Twitter that I can't do it. I said I must stop doing what I am doing, but many people say why don't you try crowdfunding? So I think this is a good idea, but it may not be. But I did it anyway. You know, I raised about £12,000 for that crowdfunding, which allowed me to start working full-time.
Then I started to meet more and more activists who really liked what you can do with this work. People from NGOs were asked to talk about my work at the event, and then it reminded me of the Sarin attack on August 21, 2013, where I found that I had more information about what happened than anyone else. Because I just watched YouTube videos and found out where all the rockets landed and the ammunition used.
I recognize that these rockets have been used by the Syrian government before. When Seymour Hersh wrote an article for the London Review of Books, this genre became the focus. He basically said it was a false flag, and it was jihadist insurgents who used Turkish sarin to create a false flag to draw the United States into conflict. I was watching these videos and said it was obviously totally rubbish. So I wrote this.
Seymour Hersh is not very happy, but many reporters think this is a conflict between old news and new news. But for me, this is never really against something, but a new way of investigating things that can complement traditional news forms. Then I became more and more famous.
Then in July 2014, I crowdfunded and launched a new website, Bellingcat, which provides people with a place to publish articles using open source surveys, and also provides people with resources to learn how to do it. Yes, three days later, Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 was shot down. This became our first truly big story and a great catalyst for Bellingcat and general open source investigations.
Daniel Bennett has a lot of things I just want to sort out. So first of all, I am just a person to understand one thing, this matter may be asked a lot. Bellingcat-where does the name come from?
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) comes from Belling the Cat's fable. It tells a group of mice who are very afraid of big cats. They came up with the idea of hanging a bell around its neck, but they did not plan to put The bell is placed on the neck of the cat. So we are teaching people how to call cats.
Daniel Bennett You know, you gave us a short version of the complete sequence of events in the book. I just want to clarify that everything you can do—such as identifying missiles and their launch locations—is not through any specially trained hacker or computer skills. These discoveries were made through information on the Internet. You just need to find it.
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) This is a combination. I mean, when [MH 17] was shot down initially, these videos and photos appeared on the Internet-basically just a large number of people searching for videos and photos related to it-the BUK missile launcher.
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) So you have such an online Twitter community, they just want to find things about it like you do with any event now. They showed off the BUK missile launcher. But the question is, where were these photos and videos taken? For example, there is a photo of a missile launcher on a low loader passing through a town. This photo was taken from the front yard of a garage. A person named Arik Toler came to me and said, I think I know where it is.
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) explained that he used the Russian shop logo in the background, basically a Google search, and the names of towns in eastern Ukraine. Then he found a match. This is a court document. There was a battle in the store. The full address was provided and he was pointed to this location. However, he also found that the dashboard camera video uploaded by someone on the Internet was in Eastern Ukraine passes through the same place.
So not only do you have satellite imagery, you also have actual video clips from the ground. It’s just because someone likes to take photos with a dashboard camera, put it on YouTube and list the streets they’ve walked on. This way we can find the video clips at the same location.
Eliot Higgins (Eliot Higgins) When we published the article, reporters on the ground saw it and actually went to the same place to interview the locals. They confirmed that there was a missile launcher there, and some people even heard the same I took a picture of the place and traced the scene.
So this has always been an interesting interaction between what we are doing and what people on the ground are able to do with information, because we are very transparent, we are using open source evidence, and people can see our content." Do it again and say, Oh, actually, I might study it myself and expand our work.
This is always the essence of what we do with Bellingcat, because I know this is usually about the network of people, not only connecting people to work together, but also posting information there, if someone sees you in What they do, they can pick it up and use it to do something on their own.
They may do so publicly. They may do it privately. But to a certain extent, it can keep that information alive after you publish it. It is always about what can be done with this information, not what we can do with it.
Daniel Bennett So I'm curious, because when we talk about it, you know, you talk about all the big discoveries at important moments, but I want to know what every day is like, as a person who conducted this survey, you know? Yes No, we're talking about you just, you know, the days when you screen shots and you are looking for something specific?
If you are one of these people, you know, how would it feel when one of your contributors, or even yourself, tried to solve a difficult problem in the early days? I mean, this is a fascinating idea, you found this, you found this, you know, like a movie, the mystery is solved at night? What is the process like?
Eliot Higgins I mean, this is usually very dense and takes a long time. You have been digging for materials, but you are looking for the kind of things that you can find that match him and may lead you to find 1,000 kinds. You know, Facebook pages or social media profiles or photos or videos are just endless digging for content.
Therefore, this can be very time consuming. But on the other hand, you know that when you find the information you need to help you make a case, it can be very beneficial. This is just digging in the needle in a haystack on the Internet, looking for needles.
Daniel Bennett So some people may think they might want to try some open source investigations after hearing this. But what are the risks of doing so?
Eliot Higgins Well, I mean, on the one hand, when we crowdsource, we do use it as a technology. But we have a lot of people who like surveys, but we want to give them simple tasks because when you crowdsource surveys, if it is complicated, you will end up with collective thinking.
It happened in the Boston Marathon bombing. They actually had a group of people on Reddit, and hundreds of people had confessed to the wrong person. But because of this kind of collective thinking about what is valuable and what is not, they are on the wrong path.
You'll see the same thing happen on January 6th and the suspects were identified there, because several people were misidentified by the group that was 100% sure they found the right person. It's the same group thinking again. However, if you give people a simple task, for example, when we complete Europol’s "Track an Object-Stop Child Abuse" campaign, people are asked to identify a single object extracted from an image of abuse, such as a bottle of washing machine. Hair lotion or a bag, this is much easier, because it is a simple task. Like, you know what this object is, yes or no? So this is better. Therefore, you must use this audience in the right way.
You also know that if you are dealing with conflicting footage, you will see terrible things, and alternative trauma can be a big problem. So when we deal with this issue, we must be very clear about this. And, you know, I strongly discourage people from participating in war crimes investigations, because if you are not prepared to use that material, you will see things that will stay with you for a long time.
Therefore, you must also educate people about such dangers. And for people, sometimes people can, you know, those who are not good investigators will build up a bunch of wrong cards, you know, come to very unreliable conclusions. This will also lead other communities to investigate content online. Conspiracy community.
The way they operate is that if they come to a conclusion, they will find evidence that contradicts what they say, because they are almost fanatical, like addicted to it, they will find a reason to dismiss it or conduct another experiment , Indicating that the last experiment was inaccurate. There is an obvious example in the movie "Behind the Curve", which tells the situation of the flat earth people at the end of the movie.
They did an experiment, proved themselves wrong, and then really complicated the experiment because they couldn't accept the results. Then they said, oh well, finding accurate results is too complicated. Therefore, we are still right. So you already know that as a community, use this resource very carefully. You must ensure that people do not come into contact with things that might be harmful to them.
Daniel Bennett, you know, I was thinking, do you think that way? Did you see it? You know, there are many, many, and even we have reported, many discussions about the failure of the Internet. One of them is obviously the resulting conspiracy theory. I'm going to name one: QAnon. I think people basically use a set of dots to manipulate the audience and say "this is something", and then let the general public join themselves and form their own conspiracy. To some extent, do you think you are almost the opposite?
Eliot Higgins, in a sense, yes. Because I think, despite this, people have a fundamental distrust of traditional sources of authority. Many people have this situation in the media, government, and medical professionals. Now, if you have that, you go online, and you are looking for alternative authoritative sources, some groups will give it to you. Now, these groups may be groups focused on conspiracy theories. You may find it like an alternative health community.
This is not to say that these people are conspiracy theorists, but this is the first step in finding more people with this way of thinking. For example, if you are a person who is particularly opposed to war or conflict, you will find some communities on the Internet. They say that Assad has never carried out any chemical weapons attacks in his life, or that Ukraine actually shot down MH 17. But they are basically the same.
If the earth is flat, if QAnon is real, if the coronavirus is Bill Gates’ conspiracy to implant microchips in the human body, if MH 17 is shot down by Ukraine, if the chemical weapons attack did not happen in Syria, then it’s against some form of The authoritative ones do not trust at all, and then they refuse. Then they are attracted to communities that reinforce these views. They have websites, blogs, celebrities, podcasts, and they will tell them that, in fact, you are right, everyone outside of our community has been deceived and they are wrong. We are the only ones who know the truth.
So they began to establish their own heroic consciousness, thinking that we are actually people who know the truth, and those outside the truth are either poor, misguided fools or part of a conspiracy. So they begin to break away from reality in these bubbles, and once they are there, it is difficult to reach them.
So I think that as a society and community, what we have to do is to study how to let people who are looking for alternative sources of authority develop their own sources of authority through evidence-based investigations. This is why we have conducted so much training to As for we are looking for a kind of training for those who are in school age, college age to conduct surveys.
You know, tell them that you are not powerless. You can actually do something with a laptop, because if I can, say, a laptop and expose the left, right, and center of the Russian spy, anyone can do it. There is nothing special about what we do. We do not use any special spying tools. I have used Google Earth and Google search and Google stuff, but YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, these are our tools. This is not some kind of super James Bond spy machine we use.
Daniel Bennett This is interesting because when I read this story and the story of how you started, it really resonated a lot, just like you started as an avid gamer. You are obviously doing what I am doing at the same time, which is playing online video games with a group of people in a long night and having a great time.
But, you know, it reminds me of what we shared there, which is working with a group of people to solve problems and figure out how to solve the problem. Did you find something similar among people you worked with after Bellingcat? I thought, is there a certain type of people that will be attracted to this kind of thing?
Eliot Higgins, I think so. I mean, if you are the kind of person who can spare four hours at night to raid World of Warcraft, and you keep killing the same monster over and over again until you get it right, the same kind of I think The point is, obsessions can be transferred well to investigations because you need, you know, to sit down and do something that is usually very ruthless, you know, hard and tiring, and ready to do it.
But, you know, get rewards at the end of it and find what you need. Its ending is more open, because there are no monsters or similar things that can be killed. But I think you still need that level of obsession.
I also think that as part of this type of online community, you know, it’s not just gaming communities, but, you know, these early online communities came from some terrible forums that gave birth to 4chan and 8chan and all these terrible things . You do have a better understanding of how the Internet works, because I dealt with it, a bit, we did a lot of false information in our work, because we were indeed approached by some policy makers, they like to say, oh, can you and We talk about false information.
It is very concerned about the idea that this kind of thing comes from outside, it comes from Russia or is confused by Russia, but in fact it is generated by these online communities. They don't understand this because they haven't spent their entire lives on the Internet.
They have been serious people all their lives, doing serious things. I spent a lot of time posting memes on Internet forums and trying to come up with interesting tweets. But if you are part of these communities and you come from there, you will actually better understand where this comes from, why you have Q, and why you have all these extreme right groups appearing in places like Channel 4.
All these things are second nature to you. However, if you come from outside, you will try to understand the problem. This doesn't seem to make any sense. So you start to think that it must come from the outside, because what these people believe is completely crazy. So it is difficult to explain this to policy makers. Tell them these Q people, they actually believe this thing.
They think this is true, they think you are a bad person, because otherwise they cannot solve the problem, because they think, oh, we will invest more money to fight false information through fact-checking websites. It's like, no, you need to get it in a more systematic way at an earlier age, where you can teach people, 16 to 18 year olds, how to investigate things fundamentally, and you can define it as news.
But in fact, investigation does not belong to a particular field, nor does it belong to experts. It belongs to all of us, and some kind of open source investigation is particularly possible because the evidence is very transparent and we do not rely on what the source tells us. We are looking for videos, photos and other evidence that can prove very clear.
You can use it to show a case. If you can equip people with these skills, then they will not look for these alternative ecosystems, where they will find the actual composition of the coronavirus, or, you know, there is no chemical weapon attack in Syria.
Daniel Bennett Yes, this is another point I want to talk about, because I think because you are a native of the Internet, you have been in these communities and forums for a long time. I think this is because, you know, Bellingcat is very obviously not concerned about politics, or almost just not about politics, but, you know, you never make assertions or hints or anything. You just want to shine for the evidence. And I think it was nurtured from where you came from. Is it fair to say that?
Eliot Higgins is. I mean, everything we do is based on solid evidence. We put it out, we explain how we came to conclusions, and we also try to be very cautious about what we say. I mean, even if we do make some pretty big stories, it is always based on evidence. I mean, we have been trying to make the source transparent, even though we have completed the investigations in Russia, these investigations actually basically use the black market data that is very available in Russia.
You can find an online forum where someone sells someone's phone records to anyone in Russia, including FSB officials we found. You can collect information easily. But we explained how we did it on our website. This means that other people actually went and purchased the materials to make sure we were telling the truth because we were accused by the Russian government as MI6 and MI5, the CIA, you know, all these people, but Russian reporters What they did was they brought the same information as us, and then said, no, this is actually only available.
If you find a suitable Internet forum, you can buy it. But we don't even believe it in itself, because it is not open source. Therefore, we cross-reference those data points found from these data sets with other independent data sources. Therefore, for each statement we make, we have two to three verification points. Therefore, even if it is not open source, we will verify everything we use as carefully as possible.
Daniel Bennett You recently made the news for tracking down the assassin who tried to poison the opposition leader Aleksei Novalny. Then let Navalny call up his own assassins! How do you deal with the idea that you might annoy some very traditional powerful people? Are you worried? Are you worried when you deliver the goods to your door?
Eliot Higgins Well, I must be more cautious now. I mean, we have obviously exposed Russian spies, I will find out later. But like when I travel now, I don’t eat food in a hotel. For example, I don’t provide room service because I don’t know where it comes from.
Once I was talking about a hotel where I had stayed for many years. Late at night, at eight o'clock, there was a knock on the door, what is this? The door opened, and a man in a suit with a name tag said, oh, I’m the manager tonight. Thank you for staying at our hotel 10 times. We want to give you some cookies and these candies as a thank you. I thought, well, I accepted them and thought, great free cookies.
But then I thought I didn't know who that person was, you know, he was wearing a name tag and a suit. You can get famous brands anywhere. I began to doubt. Finally I left the cookies and candies in the trash can in that room and left the next morning. Then when I left, another manager came over and said, oh, we hope you like the cookies and things we gave you last night. I thought, oh no, I have already checked out.
But for the Navalny thing, I mean, it really started when we exposed the Skripal assassins, because they appeared on "Russia Today" and said they were sports nutrition salesmen. But using this kind of Russian data market, we have obtained their passport registration documents, which are printed with the Russian MOD number and various very suspicious things.
So we know something happened there. But based on this, we found that they actually used a systematic way to create their own identities. They have the same name, the same place of birth, and the same date of birth. We can access all these Russian databases that have been leaked for years. So we kind of use it to search these databases and these three things. I found a list of more than a dozen people, found eleven social media, and then one or two people who did not have these personal data got their passport registration forms.
And it's the same person, but this is their true identity. We investigated them and they are all serving GRU officers. Then let us see the third suspect. He had another poisoning incident with eight other GRU officers of the arms dealer in 2015. It was another nerve agent poisoning incident. But at that time, the local authorities ignored the food poisoning and did not conduct a proper investigation. But once we found the link, they did conduct a proper investigation and found various closed-circuit television recordings of some people walking to his car the day before the poisoning.
So this allowed us to find the phone records of those people. We discovered that they had been summoning scientists who were working in a laboratory that allegedly produced sports nutrition drinks. But they have no background in sports nutrition. They have a background in Novichok manufacturing. This is a group of scientists with this kind of Novichok experience. So we have. We have Russia’s secret chemical weapons program. Then in 2020, when Navalny was poisoned, we checked the phone records of these people.
They have been calling FSB officials since 2017. These officials have followed Navalny forty times since 2017, including the day he was poisoned. We have their phone records, travel records, and all these leaks Information. So we found that they poisoned Navalny. Then we asked Navalny to call one of them and trick him into confessing everything by pretending to be his boss’s boss’s assistant in a 50-minute phone conversation. So we did it. That is a big story. Then we discovered at least four poisoning incidents that we have published so far, three of which succeeded and one failed.
One is the leader of the opposition party. He is one of Boris Nemtsov's allies. He was poisoned twice in 2015 and 2017. Before he was poisoned, the team had been following. Three of us were successfully murdered, including two very small activists in the Caucasus. They were followed by the team before their deaths. They were members of the official opposition.
We have four more cases still being processed. We think this is just the tip of the iceberg. It's just that it's very slow to work for the material. So there may be more such killings. So we are kind of, the short version is that we discovered a secret assassination program in Russia that uses a secret nerve agent program.
Daniel Bennett is right. Okay, so I want to go to the next step quickly. Especially in this book, you talked about some very interesting developments in your area. One is the mnemonic. Can you tell us something about that and what you built there?
Eliot Higgins is. Therefore, we have been working with many organizations on technology projects for many years. We have been working with an organization called the Syrian Archives, which was renamed Mnemonics Labs, and they are collecting videos from the Syrian conflict. They collected more than one million videos and other content. This is a lot of information. But what we want to do is to turn it into a more structured data, because these data are like YouTube videos, only with a YouTube description of when they were uploaded.
But we don’t have metadata like geographic location information. So what we want to do is to establish a volunteer section. This is the goal we are currently working on. We can actually put some of the videos in the archive into our volunteers and let them geolocate them. There are other technologies under development that allow videos to be grouped together by similarity.
Therefore, if buildings are taken from one direction and then appear in another video, they are related to each other. Therefore, you can actually have some kind of video network interconnected in a physical space, which is provided to volunteer groups for geographic positioning. And because their locations are similar, they are actually loaded with more materials, which can then be used to locate another building.
Therefore, you can have 50 videos of the same building that can be targeted almost in batches. When you are processing many videos, doing so is much faster than processing each video one by one. So we hope we can create a data-rich dataset for these videos, which will allow you to basically set a geofenced area on the map, circle a town, set a date, and we will show you everything on that date The tagged videos and the geographic location data we provide.
It can be a very useful discovery tool for researchers who study conflict, human rights, justice, and accountability, and for people who don’t want to classify a million random videos.
Daniel Bennett, you also talked about, I think, one of them, this is not a threat, but you know, one thing that may be a problem in the future is trying to find a way to save all this data and keep it somewhere, especially When you talk about volume. Collected millions of videos from Syria. So is this a way to preserve this history so that there is hope to write this history in the most accurate way?
Eliot Higgins, you know, because this is a huge archive of information, we can't assume that YouTube will keep these videos online forever, because we know they have previously removed the videos from the conflict. A few years ago, they deleted hundreds of thousands of videos because they started using a new algorithm to detect violent content and jihadist videos. It has collected a large number of videos from Syria.
Many of them are incorrect, you know, false positives. These channels received 3 strikes because they checked about 50,000 videos on the channel. The system is triggered about 3 times and then reviewed by someone who cannot distinguish between a jihadist group and a normal Syrian rebel group, because you need contextual information. And, you know, unfortunately, some people just don't know the difference. Then it triggers it. The channel is banned.
That is, you know, 50,000 videos from the Syrian conflict disappeared in a blink of an eye. I mean, in some cases, they will be banned, we will work with the Syrian Archives and discuss this with YouTube, and they will restore them. Then like a day later, when the algorithm finds three other videos, they will be banned again. Some channels have been banned many times, even if we restored them and they are always banned for the same reason.
My own personal channel has been banned. This includes a video that is not even listed, including all of my playlists, which includes thousands of videos sorted by weapon type, all of these details disappeared in the blink of an eye. Many people have been using these for research. So I restored it. But you know, this is still not easy to do.
There are many people, you know, the Syrians who are recording these videos, some of them, you know, are dead, there is no way to manage their accounts in this case. These videos may be lost forever. So this really shows everyone how important it is to archive these things from these platforms for future understanding, conflict and analysis.
Daniel Bennett This is an incredible story, from you more than ten years ago to who you are today. What would you say to someone who may be the same as 10 years ago, who does a job they don’t like, and who has this passion or hobby? What would you even say to yourself? What does passion have to do with these things?
Eliot Higgins found what you are interested in, you know, give it a try, because I didn't know what I was actually doing at first, I came up with these things myself. But now that you have a lot of online resources, you don’t always have to do a lot of research, and you don’t always have to read something that a million people read. You know, it can just, you know, do it yourself, write something you are interested in it, you will learn more, and think it is a way to develop skills.
You don’t have to start geolocating 10,000 videos and find out who killed who. You can just take a video and say, can I figure out where it was shot? Just the process itself, and write it down. Make a blog. People don’t have to read it, but just give you the opportunity to experience the process. It allows you to think about the process itself and how you can explain it to others.
And always be careful not to jump out of logic. Write only what you can definitely see, never say what you think you see. Then, you know that you will be more accurate, you will generate useful information, and others may encounter and start using themselves in their own work. You can be part of the community that is doing this, and I think this is very positive for anyone who wants to try this.
No matter where you listen to the podcast, you can tell us what you think of this episode via comments or comments.
Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
Save 52% by subscribing to BBC Science Focus magazine
Discover our latest special edition, covering a range of fascinating topics from the latest scientific discoveries to major ideas explained.
Listen to some of the most prominent figures in the tech world talk about the ideas and breakthroughs that shape our world.
Our daily newsletter is just in time for lunch, offering the biggest science news of the day, our latest features, wonderful Q&A and insightful interviews. Plus a free mini magazine for you to download and save.
Thanks! Please check your Lunchtime Genius newsletter in your inbox as soon as possible.
Already have our account? Sign in to manage your newsletter preferences