Brown Moses, his alter ego Eliot Higgins, and the rise of the self-trained journalist

The term “citizen journalism” gets thrown around a lot, used to refer to everything from people tweeting in crisis zones to high-school students covering city-council meetings. But for me at least, one of the people who best epitomizes that term is the blogger Eliot Higgins, better known by his nom de plume Brown Moses — a man who took an aptitude for painstaking research and used it to turn himself into one of the leading sources of information about the conflict in Syria.

I’ve written about Higgins before, and described his somewhat miraculous transformation over the past couple of years, from an unemployed accountant to a pioneering war blogger — one whose research is relied on not just by aid groups and government agencies in Syria but is praised by established journalists like New York Times war reporter CJ Chivers and others. But I was reminded again of how amazing his story is when I interviewed him on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy last week.

A case study in citizen journalism

Before we started the interview, Eliot — a fairly unassuming-looking man of 35 who lives in Leicester, England — described how he started blogging about Libya and Syria when violent attacks against innocent citizens flared up in both countries. And as information about those attacks, including the use of banned chemical weapons and other devices, swept through the blogosphere and through social media, Higgins decided to focus on proving or disproving these reports. So he began to accumulate as much physical data as he could about the attacks.

Some people — even trained journalists — might have looked at a few newsgroups or Facebook pages or YouTube videos, but Higgins went much further: at one point he was watching and cataloging information from as many as 150 YouTube videos every night, posted by eyewitnesses to attacks as well as by militant groups themselves. His presentation at the journalism conference showed how he isolated landmarks and compared them to Google Earth imagery (something Andy Carvin also did during the Arab Spring demonstrations and their aftermath) and also how he verified weaponry based on serial numbers and other markings, working with a rapidly expanding group of fellow investigators and bloggers.

The YouTube ID of KGS5X36LloY?rel=0 is invalid.

Over the course of a year or so, Eliot was able to prove not only that certain weapons were being used — including chemical weapons and what are called “barrel bombs” — but he also used his mapping and calculation skills to show that in some cases rebel groups were in control of much more sensitive areas than had been reported either by government agencies or the mainstream press. In other words, he didn’t just prove or disprove facts or information that were already in the public domain, he broke news about the conflict. And all from the couch in his flat.

Higgins told the audience in Perugia that he is working on setting up a company or foundation that he hopes to launch soon, which will specialize in the kind of open-source research he has been doing — much of which has been recently done in partnership with Storyful, a user-generated content verification service, and its Google Plus-based “open newsroom.” He has also been working with a number of media outlets and journalistic entities to help reporters and editors become better at the kind of skills he uses in his research.

All open source and publicly available

For me at least, one of the biggest strengths of what Higgins does is that it is all effectively open source — he publishes or makes available all of the videos and facts and assumptions that his conclusions are based on so that anyone can check them, unlike some traditional media organizations who rely anonymous government or military sources in the region and often don’t provide much objective evidence for their conclusions so others can verify them.

But more than anything, Eliot is living proof not only of the idea that the tools of journalism are now available to anyone, but that the skills and functions that used to be included in that term are effectively being disaggregated or unbundled. Just as the eyewitness reporting part of a journalist’s job can be done by anyone, the fact-checking or research function that backs up this reporting can be quite easily done by someone who is smart, methodical and motivated like Eliot Higgins — or like the staff at Storyful, or Andy Carvin (who is now at First Look Media).

In other words, the barriers to entry have effectively been demolished. And just as we have new entities like Vox or 538 aimed at explaining the news, we now have people like Higgins creating new verification engines for proving or disproving the facts behind some of the news. The media ecosystem is growing and adapting.

This doesn’t mean that traditional reporting is no longer valuable, obviously, or that existing media entities with their foreign-reporting staff should be replaced by unemployed accountants working from their flats. What it means is that the practice of journalism is being expanded and broadened — and in some cases that is creating valuable new ways of doing the same things we have always done, but cheaper and more quickly. In my opinion at least, traditional media outlets and journalists shouldn’t see that as a threat, but rather as an opportunity.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Augsburger Allgemeine