Bellingcat: Teaching Critical Thinking to Fight Disinformation – Next INpact

In 2014, journalist and blogger Eliot Higgins founded Bellingcat, a European association of investigators and media outlets that rely heavily on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT, for Open Source Intelligence). Eight years later, a journalist researches for the Swiss magazine Schweizer Monat what this experience has taught him in terms of disinformation and the fight against the spread of fake news.

Iconic Bellingcat investigations include Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Contrary to Russian claims that the rocket was launched by Ukrainian troops, journalists traced the path of the projectile to the ground and to Russian troops.

The media has also covered the Syrian war extensively, helping to showcase Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s use of chemicals against insurgents, highlight unclaimed attacks and report on the use of drones, among other things. Islamic state.

As is usually the case, the association has also trained participants who specialize in open source surveys so that they can reproduce them themselves. In another notable case, Bellingcat revealed that Russian opponent Alexei Navalny had been under surveillance for a long time and linked his poisoning to Russian intelligence agencies, again using open-source investigative methods.

Eliot Higgins relates that in the course of these investigations, he repeatedly came across conspiratorial or fact-rejecting groups, although the method that allowed them to be established was discovered and explained step by step. “If foreign state actors play a role in disinformation,” he writes, “focusing on them misses not only what is in many cases the true root of disinformation, but also how to address the underlying problems that lead to the creation and spread of disinformation. disinformation. »

Higgins finds that, in many cases, a certain type of information is rejected by the group or groups that formed the community before the information is available. For example, those who have most vehemently disputed allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, ten years earlier, often rallied around opposition to the war in Iraq.

The journalist also points to the tendency of members of such groups to turn their distrust of various institutions into the basis of a holistic worldview – those who believe in conspiracy theories will build on this distrust to reduce complex subjects to a binary opposition: good versus bad, true versus false. With his tendency to nudge everyone with posts that go in the direction of his beliefs, he finally emphasizes that the era of social media and algorithmic sorting of information is not helping.

For wrestling, Elliot Higgins advocates a multifaceted approach, taking the example of coverage of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, strong communities for research and verification of information, including journalists, activists, researchers and citizens, succeeded after the war in Donbas in 2014. Eight years later, these networks made it possible to report alleged Russian military exercises on the border and quickly debunk very false information.

According to the founder of Bellingcat, it is by creating networks of this type of communities, consisting of several profiles, that we can fight both disinformation (content) itself and the entry of new people into conspiracy bubbles, a mechanism that the journalist compares to political radicalization on the Internet.

To do this, Eliot Higgins calls for teaching more and more people, especially young people, critical thinking and the basic methods of open source research. A topic with which you will have the opportunity to read in detail in our magazine No. 4, which will soon be available in our online store.

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