Access to information Conflict and Power

Eliot: Finding the story among the details

Eliot takes us through the tools and processes he uses to gain insight from video footage, ranging from weather websites to Googling photos taken by enthusiasts at military shows, and highlights the importance of verification in establishing himself as a reliable, neutral source amid a sea of partisan online point-scoring.

 The rise of social media has opened up a vast set of new resources for reporters to exploit, with three days worth of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. Eliot takes us through the tools and processes he uses to gain insight from video footage, ranging from weather websites to Googling photos taken by enthusiasts at military shows, and highlights the importance of verification in establishing himself as a reliable, neutral source amid a sea of partisan online point-scoring.  

What have been the biggest outcomes of your work so far?

A big part of the work I do is influencing how the conflict in Syria has been reported, because there has been quite a lot of simplistic reporting, or reporting that is very focussed on the part of the country that journalists can reach. Even though there are hundreds of videos being produced, other areas were being dismissed because no one could verify the videos.  

One good example of the work that is really being picked up on is the issue of cluster bombs, because all the early evidence of cluster bombs was coming from videos. These cluster bombs were being used from day one

  • we could see them appearing on YouTube, but it still took a lot of time for the mainstream media to pick up on it.  It wasn't until Human Rights Watch did a piece on the work I'd done that the mainstream media really picked up on it.

I get the feeling that because there are a large number of journalists who have now seen my blog and how I work, that has influenced their understanding of how they are reporting the conflict.  They have a deeper understanding of the different kinds of the weapons they report on. They know that when the opposition are talking about the use of barrel bombs, that is an interesting term because it confuses two different kinds of weapons; the DIY weapon that was used in the conflict, and the manufactured bomb. They would use the same term for both, and it was confusing. The language of the conflict is what I am trying to explain as much as anything.

But I think the biggest outcome of my work came when I started spotting weapons from Croatia appearing in the south of the country. Eventually I managed to figure out they were all coming from Croatia, that they were all going to groups belonging to the Free Syrian army, and they were all coming into the country in huge quantities and going to one very specific location. So I posted it on my blog to try to figure out exactly what the story was behind them, because it was interesting. Then I was asked by the New York Times to do a blog post for them, which I decided to do based on  these weapons I had spotted.  That led to them doing an investigation with their reporters talking to people inside governments, and they discovered the the Saudis had been purchasing weapons from Croatia, flying them into Jordan, and then smuggling them directly into Syria. That was the first time someone had actually shown the smuggling route in action into Syria involving the Saudis.  Later they would find that the CIA were involved with these routes and were helping direct them.  

I think something like that can change the thinking of the people who are watching videos, because now when something unusual turns up, they start thinking - “where are these weapons coming from?”. For example recently there have been Chinese anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles turning up. People are getting to know that these Chinese weapons were supplied by Sudan to Qatar, and then sent to the Syrian opposition. So I feel the work I am doing is changing the way a lot of people are looking at the conflict. Rather than journalists relying on what they can see on the ground, they can see patterns emerging. Even though something unusual might not make any sense now, it's worth keeping an eye on it to see what happens.

What sort of things might you look out for in the videos?

When I look at videos, I am not always looking for stuff that is really obvious.  Take the Croatian weapons: this was not stuff that they were putting on YouTube and announcing - “we've got Croatian weapons!”.  It was just clips of them fighting, and they happened to be holding them in their hands. To most people they wouldn't even have stood out.  But because I've been watching videos for months and months, I know what was meant to be in the video, which weapons are meant to be there.  So when I saw something that was unusual, that immediately stood out to me. 

Even the people on the ground, they don't always realise what they are filming is significant.  A good recent example is a video I saw of an opposition activist picking up an unexploded rocket.  What was interesting about the rocket, and what he didn't seem to realise, was that the markings showed that it was manufactured in 2012 and it was an Iranian model. This meant the Iranians had been providing weapons to the Syrian government during the conflict, in violation of the UN sanctions against Iran.  That wasn't the point of the video; he was just showing off this rocket that they had fired. So that's the kind of situation where you've got to keep an eye out for some of the small details that suddenly pop up.  

Another similar example was a video showing a group of opposition parties who had taken over a mortar base, walking around filming what was there.  They film a crate with stencilling on it, from which I could tell they were Iranian weapons because of the type of fuse.  Again, produced and imported in 2012.  That is the most interesting part of the video, not that they have captured this mortar base but that the mortars inside that box were from Iran and from 2012.

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Iranianrefimage.jpg![Image

Is there a link between your work and the local actors? Are they aware of you and the impact of your work? Do they try to hide or show certain things?

I don't generally work with people on the ground in Syria. I do work with journalists because when they go out there, they will take a photograph or find a video and send it to me if they think I might be interested. They will send it to me because it wouldn't make a headline in the news. 

Activists and people on the ground are trying to film certain things to show what is going on in the conflict, but in the case of weapons this is something that is quite difficult to fake, and you can see when something has been set up. Because I've watched so many videos I've got a good feeling what video should look like. For example the video of the Austin Tice kidnapping looked completely wrong in that it was edited in the wrong way, filmed in the wrong way, the people in it looked wrong, and it seemed that the entire thing had been set up, because it did not match what I was used to seeing in other videos.  They are obviously going to film stuff to say - “look, this is terrible, look at these people dying” - but those videos aren't really interesting to me. We've seen a huge chemical weapons attack recently and that is interesting because of the number of people who died, not because people died.  There are people dying every day in Syria and the world doesn't really care about that anymore - it is no longer newsworthy and there is nothing unique or special about people dying in the way there are.  What I'm looking for is new information.

So why are you looking for new content?

When I started the blog, I didn't want to do stuff that mainstream news organisations would do.  I get maybe three or four thousand views a day on my blog; there is no point in writing a piece that is identical to something that is in the New York Times and that is going to get a million views. What I want to look for is stuff that is unique, that people aren't looking at.  

A good example is that recently I've been looking at the chemical attacks in

Saraqeb

On the 29 April 2013, there was an alleged use of chemical weapons in Saraqeb, near Aleppo in northern Syria.

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Saraqeb a few months ago. I've been spending months finding every single tiny detail I can about that attack because no one else is doing it. I think it's important to understand the story of chemical warfare in the conflict, to look at each of these events in as much detail as possible, because if I don't do it no one else will. I've got information about the attack now that is unique to me because I've had contact with journalists who have sent me images and videos that are unique.  I have heard statements from people that haven't otherwise been heard.  I want to say something new and something that is truthful rather than just repeat what everyone else is saying about chemical weapons. 

Can you take us step-by-step through how to go about your work - what is your typical process?

My process each day is to look on the YouTube channels I have collected, to see which new videos have been posted.  I basically have a collection of playlists on YouTube where I categorise different items, based on certain weapons or relating to a certain battle. So if there is nothing too spectacular, I will just sort them into lists and I might use them later for research, or writing about certain kind of weapon.  

I now also get a lot of stuff sent to me on , so I will check Twitter and see what people are sending me, and I check my e-mails. If I find a video that is really unusual or special, I will start trying to investigate it. For example I found a video showing a missile being launched from the inside of an anti-aircraft system, where the close-up shot shows the mortar is being used and not much else. I wanted to prove it was the type of anti-aircraft system I thought it was.  So I used various forums and websites, military people (you get people who go to these military fairs and take lots of photographs and close-ups).  I searched through and managed to find a photograph of the same part of the system somebody had taken at a military fair, and I could prove that the video was filmed inside one of these systems. 

Another example would be a video I saw showing the execution of twenty Syrian soldiers that had been posted on Twitter. Lots of people were arguing about whether it was fake or real. The video I had was a copy of the original video someone had uploaded. So I searched through YouTube using the Arabic phrase that was used in the re-uploaded video, and found the original.  I then found out the video had been uploaded to a Facebook page belonging to the group shown in the video, which also published statements saying that they had killed a certain number of troops working with Jabhat al-Nusra. To me that was enough to verify that the video was genuine.  I also made sure that it was the same YouTube channel they had been using for a long time, so I knew it wasn't just a channel that had been set up for this one video, because there were accusations that the Facebook account had been hacked and they put the video up to discredit them.  

So I proved that the videos had been used repeatedly on that Facebook page for months, that the YouTube channel was the original channel, and then I posted online to explain the process I had gone through. That meant that when the New York Times journalist came to read my blog, he knew he could rely on what I had done and he wrote an article based on it. It's really a process of finding the information, verifying if that information is genuine and then writing it up in a way whereby you can explain the process and why the video is significant.

What are the most important resources in your toolbox?

My toolbox is quite wide, really. I always think about what I can use to achieve something. Could I use to look at the topography of a certain area? Could I use weather websites to find what the weather was like on a certain day? If it is raining on a video from the 14th August, I might look at the weather on that day in a certain location and find it was a week of red, hot sunny days. You have to look at different elements in the video, and think what you have to do to prove that's accurate. Some weather sites even show you cloud coverage, whether it was heavily cloudy or slightly cloudy, which you can compare to what you see in the video. 

There are so many resources on the Internet for remotely finding . For instance, when I was looking at a video from Libya I wanted to find out the angle it was filmed at. I knew what time of day it was filmed at, so I could see the position of the sun and I knew exactly the direction in which the camera was being pointed. I've learned about how mosques are built in a specific way so you can see which direction the mosque is pointing and use that to align the map you are drawing. It's about understanding the different elements and using the massive amount of resources online to get the information you need. 

Gathering information for me is quite easy now. It's turning it into something useful that is the difficult part. Once I've gathered the information, I look at online databases. Jane's, for example, has a huge amount of information. Another interesting source of information are people who go onto military forums after going to a local military show – often they have taken detailed photographs of a weapon system, and sometimes they are the best sources as they will take them from every single possible angle. In Jane's you might get one photograph, but you want to see a very specific part of the weapon, such as a bolt on the tail-fin. There are also a whole variety of sites with diagrams of weapons, people talking about weapons from specific countries such as from Russia or the Czech Republic - they are also really great resources. 

I'm a member of a number of groups where we discuss munitions and through that I've met a lot of arms experts. I now have a stable of chemical weapons experts I can draw on. So it's all about building a with specialists. Often people will refer to me as an arms expert, but I'm not, I'm really just an expert at knowing arms experts. 

What would be your advice to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps? What are the pro's and con's? Things they should think twice about? And what are the consequences?

I would suggest that anyone who wants to investigate a conflict in that way should understand the size of the conflict and the volume of material being produced. Can you look at all the information and understand and process it, or do you need to focus on specific areas?  In the case of Syria, there is a huge amount of information being produced, no one person can have an understanding of the whole conflict. I spoke to someone from Nigeria, where a much smaller volume of information is being produced, so they can afford to specialise in every aspect of the conflict.

Next, I would say that if you are going to put anything online make sure you are correct, because you are going to start a process of building a reputation for yourself. If you start posting information that is unreliable, that is going to quickly damage your reputation. There are people who post information on Twitter and are nearly always correct, but once or twice they have being wrong about something. So people will go back to them and say - “we can't trust you because you've got this wrong in the past”.  is really important and it's important to do a lot of research on what you're looking at.  

Image -
rpg22.pngIf you are looking at weapons, you don't only need to know the general shape but you want to look at every single element of the weapon in detail compared to your reference images, and if there is a difference you need to try and find out why. It could be just variants of the same weapon, which is not a big deal, or it could be a completely different weapon.  A good example is the RPG-22 rocket launcher; there is another rocket launcher made in a different country that, apart from a red band, looks identical in every way.  If you weren't really thinking about what you were doing you could automatically presume it was an RPG-22 and the red band does not mean anything, but it's a significant difference. Even tiny differences can be significant.  

Another example of that came when I was researching the weapons from Croatia. I had four weapons; two from the former Yugoslavia, one was a Soviet rocket launcher used by the Croatian army, and the fourth was a grenade launcher which was either a South African weapon or a Croatian copy of the same weapon. The only way of being sure about which one it was was finding a video with a close-up that showed the part of the weapon where two bolts were meant to be. If they were there, they were Croatian weapons, and if they weren't then it must be the South African version. If it had been the South African version then I would start to think that maybe the RPG-22 also isn't from Croatia but another country, causing the whole theory to collapse.  As it turns out, it was a Croatian model of this grenade launcher so it supported the rest of my theory.  You've got to look at all the evidence, look at it in detail, and make sure all of it works together. And if you're not 100 percent sure you should be prepared to put those doubts out there because, you never know, maybe someone will come along who can explain this for you. Not being 100 percent correct is not necessarily bad if you are up-front about it.

Any other advice on a personal level?

I would say that when I started out I was a pretty quiet person and had no contacts with anyone in this field. The first time I appeared on television I was terrified, but after a while you get used to it. Don't be afraid to contact people and ask them questions, send them an e-mail, because a lot of these people are more than happy to help, because they are the experts and they are being ignored. They may not reply to you, but it's not the end of the world. They might reply to you and that might just be the start of a relationship, a new contact you can work with. I've found that a lot - if you build up a big network of contacts, you will find that a lot of those people don't know each other but really need to be talking to each other. Don't be afraid about putting two people in contact with each other who can help each other out.  

I would also advise knowing your limits when you are looking videos, because I look at a lot of videos from Syria that contain very strong imagery. Some of the stuff you will see with Syria is absolutely terrible, you will see the worst things you can imagine. If you can't handle that don't even try because there are plenty of people who look at these videos and just can't take looking any more.  I have always found that personally, one helpful trick which is to watch videos with no sound on because it keeps you at a distance from the video. If you can't hear the sound of the horrible things that go on it has less of a upon you and that's a really good way of avoiding the worst effects, I find.

Neutrality is a very important part of your work. But the other aspect of neutrality is not whether you are representing one group or the other, but your emotional reaction. If you are outraged by something, how do you deal with that and remain neutral?

I've been following this conflict now for a long time and I've got over the emotional reaction now – it takes something really terrible for me to get emotional about something in Syria now, because so much has gone on in the past. I've seen dozens of people killed, maimed and injured, so why get emotional about one specific video? If I started doing that it would completely undermine all the work I'd done and I might as well throw my reputation out the window. So you have to try to distance yourself from the emotional impact, while understanding that it exists. 

Maybe I'm just someone who is particularly resilient to these graphic images. Maybe it's just that as the conflict has gradually escalated we have gone from people being shot to people being blown to pieces, and I've just got used to it over time. There is still stuff I find really hard to watch - anything involving facial injuries, especially to anyone who is still alive. I can never get over people having their throats cut, which happens increasingly in Syria. But sometimes I feel I have to watch the videos so I can become immune to the horrible imagery in a way, because I'm going to see so much of it in the future. And I feel like I have to be the one bearing witness to it as no one else will.  

When it comes to my blog, I very rarely use graphic images because there is not much you can learn from it really. A dead child isn't going to tell you anything more about the conflict, so why post that video on Facebook?  I think the exception is where there is a chemical weapon attack, or an alleged attack, where each video is a piece of evidence to help build a picture of what has happened. You have to watch those videos very carefully and you have to look at the symptoms. Recently I was studying a chemical weapon attack and I wanted to know how many victims there were because there was conflicting information. So I watched all the videos from the attack slowly and I counted every single victim, then I took screenshots of them so I can use them for reference. But you don't want to do it for every single video where someone has had their arm shot or they are losing an eye, because that is not teaching you anything.

Have you found the work fulfilling, moving from being a passive observer to a more active and political role?

I find the work very satisfying because I want to see more accurate reporting on Syria. It is a huge subject, there is so much to it and very little of it is being examined properly. I have my own political opinions, but Syria is a very complex conflict and it seems stupid to me to pick a side in a conflict which is so complex. It's OK to say you don't like Assad because of all the people killed.  It's OK to say you don't like the opposition because they are responsible for executions. But it's not a black and white conflict.  All I want to do is go and show people why it's complex, because a lot of the reporting in the mainstream media has been quite black and white: the government is bad, the opposition are good. And then they pick up that the opposition are executing people, and now maybe the opposition are actually bad.  But that is a very simplistic telling of the Syrian story. I want people to understand from the individuals on the ground in Syria, right up to the mechanisms of government, how everything is working. Not just a story of the .

So you are trying to improve external reporting and make sense of the conflict, but how much of this do you think should be fed back to people on the inside of the conflict? How can they benefit from it?

I have now met and spoken to some people on the ground in Syria. Some people in Syria I talk to regularly feel that the conflict isn't being reported correctly.  It is always interesting to me that when you are online, people are arguing about which side is right and which side is wrong. But when I have spoken to Syrians in the country, quite often they don't engage in that sort of debate because they are in the middle of it and they know that it is not a black and white issue, that there are problems with both sides. They feel that when they see reports in the international press their lives aren't being reflected. So when I'm looking at incidents in more detail, they really appreciate someone who cares enough to do that rather than just painting the conflict in very broad strokes.

Interview with Eliot Higgins

First published on July 10, 2015

Last updated on July 30, 2020

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