The rise of Brown Moses: How an unemployed British man has become a poster boy for citizen journalism

We’ve written many times about how social media and what Om likes to call the “democratization of distribution” have changed the way that journalism works in a digital age, and how various media players — from The Guardian to NPR’s Andy Carvin — have made the practice of “open journalism” one of their guiding principles. But there is probably no better example of this new form of journalism at work than Brown Moses, an otherwise unremarkable British man who has become the go-to source for information about weapons in Syria.

To describe someone in that way would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago: how could a 34-year-old unemployed man sitting in the front room of his British flat — with no prior training in weaponry, no experience in the Middle East, and no command of Arabic languages — become an expert in that kind of specialized intelligence?

And yet, as two recent feature pieces on Brown Moses (whose real name is Eliot Higgins) describe, that is exactly what he has done (Higgins mentioned on Twitter that he has been employed for much of the time he has been doing the blog, and did his work in his spare time). According to the New Yorker:

“It’s very incongruous, this high-intensity conflict being monitored by a guy in Leicester,” Stuart Hughes, a BBC News producer in London, told me. “He’s probably broken more stories than most journalists do in a career.”

A journalist by any other name

Citizen journalism

One of the most fascinating things about Brown Moses from a journalistic point of view is that he is completely self-taught, and gets no income from what he does — he appears to be motivated purely by curiosity, and a desire to get the truth out where everyone can see it, something that is a fundamentally journalistic impulse. And yet he has no training as a journalist, and probably wouldn’t qualify as one even under the broadest interpretation of a recent U.S. “shield law” aimed at protecting journalists.

Higgins also talks at length about how one of his guiding principles is that his work must be done in the open, and be as transparent and collaborative as possible — an approach that I would argue too few traditional media outlets take towards their journalism. As the New Yorker describes it:

“Rather than make rivals of other bloggers analyzing Syrian videos, Higgins linked to their work. He used Storyful, an ‘open newsroom’ tool that enables multiple contributors to conduct an investigation based on evidence gleaned from social media, and drew on the knowledge of munitions experts, chemical-weapons inspectors, and civilian opposition activists inside Syria.”

A kind of role-playing game

As described in both the New Yorker and a similar feature at Huffington Post, Higgins started out as a commenter on various news sites who became fascinated by the violence in the Middle East, and started a blog partly because he wanted to win arguments with his fellow commenters. A somewhat obsessive man who used to spend hundreds of hours playing various online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, Higgins soon turned that energy towards identifying weapons in videos posted to YouTube.

Brown Moses

Within about 18 months, after viewing several hundred videos a day posted by various rebel groups and other sources — which he verifies through a combination of first-hand research in Jane’s Digest and other publications, along with a growing network of experts, both in the Middle East and elsewhere — Brown Moses had become an indispensable resource for everyone from aid groups to New York Times writer and former Marine CJ Chivers. As the Huffington Post piece describes it:

“I saw the U.N. got the Nobel Prize for Syria,” says one expert, referring to the United Nations-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who declined to be named on account of his own work with the international body. “I think Eliot has done a lot more for Syria than the U.N.”

A model of crowdsourced journalism?

Kristyan Benedict, the campaign manager of Amnesty International, told the New Yorker that her organization has staff members monitoring videos from Syria, but said Higgins “just gets there quicker than a lot of established research outlets have been able to.” And all of this is done from the front room of his flat in Leicester, which doubles as his young daughter’s playroom: the New Yorker described lace curtains, toys stacked against a wall and a gold-foil balloon from his young daughter’s recent birthday.

Moses — who took his name from an old Frank Zappa song, and used to use a portrait by Francis Bacon of Pope Innocent X as his Twitter avatar — has had a series of part-time jobs, working as a data-entry clerk at Barclays bank and managing inventory for a company selling women’s underwear. He set up a crowdfunding campaign earlier this year that raised about $10,000 in less than a month, but apart from that he derives no income from his work (something his wife seems to think is more than a little unfair, given how much other organizations and media outlets rely on his research).

Could Higgins be a model of what crowdsourced journalism, or at least crowdsourced verification, looks like? Many see him as just that — Yasmin Green of Google told the New Yorker that she and her colleagues have been “having discussions about how you scale Brown Moses.” For his part, Higgins says he thinks others can be taught to do what he does: “I played a lot of role-player games. Believe me, there are a lot of obsessive people out there who could probably put their passions to a more productive use.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Facebook / Brown Moses and Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

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