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Year in Review: ‘The biggest threat is failing to address the reality of online alternative media ecosystems.’

Eliot Higgins founder and executive director of investigative-journalism group Bellingcat, looks back at the big issues of 2019 and how media manipulation has developed.

Mis- and disinformation moved up the news agenda over the last 12 months as researchers, journalists and the public faced unprecedented problems navigating the online news ecosystem. Information Disorder: Year in Review takes soundings from experts around the world on what to expect – and how to be more resilient in 2020.

Eliot Higgins is the founder and executive director of Bellingcat, an investigative-journalism group based in The Hague, Netherlands. He focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

First Draft: What was the biggest development for you in terms of disinformation and media manipulation this year?

Eliot Higgins: The public continues to fail to engage with how disinformation is being spread. It’s quite frustrating. As a disinformation target myself, I am very aware of it.

We often operate under the assumption that state actors are pushing all of this disinformation/misinformation but that’s not the case. It originates from networks of websites and individuals that have been developing this kind of ‘alt-media conspiracy land’ online presence. This narrative [of state actors] is often pushed, while I continue to see a failure from organisations to engage with this topic and even understand the issue at its most basic level.

There is such a focus on the ‘next big thing’: synthetic video is next. Let’s all write about deepfakes for the whole year. But are deepfakes an existing issue? I feel there is a notion of development and a lack of development at the same time.

What is the biggest threat journalists in your part of the world are facing in 2020 in terms of information disorder?

We have this alternative media ecosystem that is driving a lot of disinformation. It is not understood by journalists or anyone really beyond a very small group of people who are really engaged with it. I doubt that even the alt-media ecosystem really understands its own nature and how it grows organically rather than being an organised space. The biggest threat is failing to address the actual reality of online alternative media ecosystems. That failure undermines efforts to counter disinformation.

What tools, websites or platforms must journalists know about going into 2020?

Among the newer developments, one that has been very interesting for Bellingcat is a tool that had various versions and names like findface and findclone. It allows us to reverse image search people’s faces on VKontakte, the Russian social media site.

As we do a lot of work that is focused on Eastern Europe and Russia, and VKontakte is the most popular social media network in the area, it is basically a massive resource to find people. It’s extremely useful when we are searching for people that we might not have the name of, or we need more details about, and we know that they are Russian. It’s scarily powerful.

It’s like being able to have a tool that would reverse image search people’s faces on Facebook. Of course it depends on where you are doing your work.


What was the biggest story of the year when it comes to these issues of technology and society?

This is a specific kind of disinformation related to a shooting that happened last March.

In the wake of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, the shooter published a manifesto online. Bellingcat writer Robert Evans, who is looked into the far right online, particularly in forums like 8chan and 4chan, read this manifesto and immediately recognised it for what it was: not a serious document, but written in a way that was heavily focused on in-jokes for the 8chan community.

The idea of the manifesto was to make journalists who are not equipped to understand that culture, read it, and produce serious reporting on jokes. That would have been the mass-shooter’s final joke against society: to trick all journalists into writing inaccurate and stupid copy and going after certain individuals who pretended to be influencing him, but were only building on memes from the 8chan community.

For example, [world-famous Youtuber] Pewdiepie and other people who were the subjects of memes on the 8chan community were mentioned by the media. The Bellingcat team reacted immediately.

After the event in New Zealand, my colleague in America wrote an article which was published at seven in the morning in the UK. When American reporters got up and started reporting on it, European journalists were sharing it.

As a result the narrative around the mass shooting changed: it stopped journalists from falling into this trap and it improved the reporting about the manifesto.

For us that was a purposeful attempt at disinformation by an individual that would have a big impact on the entire journalism ecosystem, and very few people within that ecosystem would have been equipped to actually understand what they were looking at.

When it comes to disinformation in your country, what do you wish more people knew?

Researcher Kate Starbird wrote an important report called “Ecosystem or echo-system?” looking at how misinformation about the White Helmets is spread. Starbird identified the online ecosystem that exists around Syria, Russia and conspiracy-focused Western anti-imperialist types.

Similar ecosystems spread information about different subjects. Understanding that is important because you can also see how this edges through that particular alternative-media ecosystem which has little overlap with the mainstream-media ecosystem.

What we are trying to do is always police the edges between the alt-media ecosystem and the mainstream-media ecosystem which is very frequently showing misinformation and disinformation. These edges share misleading content that they believe to be true, because they have a whole network that reinforces their ideas.

It’s really about policing the edges between the “alternative media conspiracy land” and the mainstream-media ecosystem. And I think the recent reporting on the OPCW whistleblower has been a very good example of where it has been happening.

If you had access to any form of platform data, what would you want to know?

We are obviously doing a lot on Russians and exposing GRU agents and those kind of stories so we have access to quite a lot of data. Having unrestricted access to VKontakte, at a kind of in-depth level, would be very useful for us.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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