Last month, I looked at the way citizen journalism had pieced together the journey of the Buk missile launcher that was apparently used to shoot down flight MH17 as it overflew eastern Ukraine. The use of geolocation and other readily available tools showed that the launcher had come from the direction of Russia, and returned that way after the Boeing 777 was destroyed.
Eliot Higgins, in an area with very few landmarks
This was all set out on the Bellingcat site, the latest venture of Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, who has turned his attention to the videos posted by the group who wish to be known as the Islamic State (IS). Geolocation is once again used to deduce the location of one of the group’s training camps, and also the area where they murdered US journalist James Foley by beheading.
At the same time, the UK press still does not get it: typical among them is the Daily Mail, which is speculating pointlessly about the identity of the killer. “The rapper, the hacker and the terror travel guide writer. Is one of these British extremists Jihadi John? Three potential Islamic State 'Beatles' emerge as MI5 'zeroes in' on murderer who beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley” they assert.
In other words, they don’t have a clue. But on they plough, needlessly getting side-tracked by an email that may have been sent by someone from IS: “Ranting email sent to James Foley's parents 'may have been written by working-class Briton': Language expert says spelling errors and phrases indicate author was from UK”. Yes, and it could have been one of scores of fighters.
And, in case Mail readers thought the coverage of IS couldn’t get any worse, it did, with “The coming apocalypse: Last week, historian DOMINIC SANDBROOK wrote a damning critique of the West's failure to halt Islamic fanatics. Now, after a savage murder that confirmed his worst fears, he looks into the future”. Yeah, right. A real historian wouldn’t turn out this kind of guff.
Fortunately, others are taking notice of what Bellingcat has revealed, with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show giving the training camp find an airing (at around three and a half minutes into the segment), and the Telegraph, which has previously profiled Eliot Higgins, has told “A UK-based Syria observer believes he may have identified the precise location of the video filmed by the Islamic State”.
While too much of the Fourth Estate is speculating pointlessly, Bellingcat is revealing much about IS’ modus operandi, and also that the group is remarkably poor at keeping its activities under wraps. All of that will help to inform what is really happening out there in northern Iraq, and therefore bring us nearer to finding out who did what. This, it should be clear, is a superior strategy to speculating.
Citizen journalism is here to stay. And the press needs to deal with that.