Bellingcat and the importance of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

I just finished the book We are Bellingcat, which documents the origins and work of the investigative journalism group Bellingcat. Bellingcat, a name derived from the fable Belling the Cat, is notable for relying almost exclusively on open source materials such as social media content, satellite imagery, maps and other readily available material for its work. In addition to employing a small full-time team, the organisation leans on a large network of independent contributors to help with its investigations and fact checking.

Bellingcat was started in 2014 by Eliot Higgins, who initially became known for his work on the Syrian Civil War and ultimately played a key role in connecting the chemical weapons attacks against Syrian citizens to the Assad Regime. He did this through analysing images and videos posted on social media from his home in England. Since then, the organisation has been influential in covering the Ukraine War, Russian covert operations in the West, the Yemeni Civil War and much more.

The book also covers the open source intelligence (OSINT) method more broadly, which Bellingcat helped shape. In the past, mainstream media (MSM) outlets controlled the coverage of conflicts as the only means of gathering information was to physically send reporters to war-zones or rely on sources that were often kept anonymous.

Advances in technology have changed how conflicts and other important events are captured and reported on. Today, billions of people, including those residing in war-torn and isolated areas, have Internet-connected computing devices in their pockets that allow them to capture videos and images and share those on social media. People sitting on a couch in their living room thousands of miles away can access that content and in combination with a host of other open source tools - satellite imagery, map data, forensic video/image analysis and geolocation - conduct the investigative work that previously only MSM outlets could. They can then share their findings and collaborate online with others doing the same work. This is the OSINT method.

When information was scarce, the MSM controlled reporting. We now live in an age of information abundance, which has levelled the playing field and enabled anyone, regardless of pedigree, to report on and shape the discourse around global events.

The past few weeks since the 7/10 attacks on Israel have been the latest episode to expose the shortcomings of MSM outlets. A rush to print, induced by competition with other outlets, and a reliance on often unreliable sources have plagued their reporting.

Compare this to the OSINT method, which places collaboration instead of competition and a reliance on open source materials at the heart of its modus operandi. “According to an anonymous source” doesn’t cut it anymore when the primary evidence is right there for everyone to see.

However, OSINT also comes with its own set of risks.

People that consume too much explicit footage are susceptible to ‘vicarious trauma,’ which is triggered by the indirect exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. People need to pay attention to their mental health. There is and will continue to be content that just doesn’t need to be consumed.

Information wars will be waged with greater intensity in order to win narrative supremacy. This will be compounded with AI that can produce fake content en masse. More than ever, the collaborative efforts of Internet contributors in the open will be the best defence. I also think that blockchains will play an important role in the future to help determine the authenticity of content.

The OSINT method is a needed tool in the toolkit of investigative journalism that can help us get closer to the truth. It's important that OSINT-first publications such as Bellingcat continue to thrive and that MSM outlets start integrating it into their work. Some outlets such as the NYT, FT and the Washington Post have already started building internal OSINT teams.

The vast majority of people will not directly participate in OSINT, nor should they. What OSINT should teach everyone, however, is to be more critical of the content they are served, and to demand as much as possible, that it is backed up by evidence.