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Eliot: Breaking down the Syrian conflict

For UK-based blogger Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, what began as a hobby led to him becoming a go-to expert on the arms being used in Syria. Disillusioned with mass media coverage of the conflict and the undervaluing of citizen journalism, his painstaking analysis of the thousands of YouTube videos coming out of Syria since the civil war broke out picks out the details too often missed by others. 

Can you please introduce yourself

I'm Eliot Higgins and I run the Brown Moses blog, which looks at various issues including the conflict in Syria and the UK phone hacking scandal. 

Can you tell us a bit about how Brown Moses came about?

I started the blog in March 2012. I basically wanted to investigate things for myself and try and make sense of stuff that other people weren't writing about. In the case of Syria, for example, there was so much being produced and posted on YouTube that was just being completely ignored. I wanted to look at that and understand why no one else was looking.  

The story usually goes that you started this blog when you were living in a small town, unemployed, getting bored, browsing through a lot of stuff on the internet... and then suddenly you figured out that there was something going on in Syria. But what's the real story? How did it all happen?

eliotpointing.png I've always been interested in politics and current events. I was the sort of person who would debate these issues online endlessly with people. Two subjects which really caught my imagination were the Arab Spring and the UK phone hacking scandal, so I ended up discussing them a lot. One thing I noticed with the Libya story in particular, for example, was that there were a lot of reporters on the ground who tweeted news that wouldn't get reported in their story, even though it seemed important to what was actually happening on the ground. To me, even the small details and small events in the conflict were important and worth reporting but they weren't being recorded anywhere. They felt like part of the history of the conflict as much as the big battles and the big stories, and I thought it was a shame that some journalist would tweet something and then it would be lost forever because no one picked up on it.  So one of the reasons I wanted to create my blog was to record those things so they would be available to all in the future.  

My daughter had also been born six months earlier and before that I had a lot of hobbies that I couldn't carry on with. I was looking for something I could do that was stimulating and would be an interesting way to pass the time. So I really started it for my own interest. I didn't expect anyone to read it, and in a way I think that is what has kept it rather pure, because whenever I've covered something for my blog it's because it's being something I'm interested in.  So what is the point in trying to score points? One thing I found at the time of Libya and the Arab Spring was that social media was dominated by bloggers who were trying to score points off each other.  They had their own agenda. They were pro-government or pro-rebels and they were just posting stuff based on that. I thought that diminished the contents of those videos. So I wanted to do a blog where I could just look at the videos, try to fairly analyse them and understand what was going on in the conflict without taking sides.

How politically engaged were you when you were growing up?

From being a teenager, I always really engaged with US politics, the more popular side, such as Michael Moore for example -  when he used to do TV shows in the UK, I would eat them up. From there I started reading books by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, and books like 'Fast Food Nation'. I was more interesting in American politics than British politics, which has carried on through the years. When I started the blog, it was the result of an interest in both politics and how the media worked, particularly around the Arab Spring. 

How would you define the problems with the approach of mass media (television, newspapers etc) to contemporary conflict?

What I found with the Libyan conflict was that journalists would be tweeting something like “I've just seen this...”, for example when journalists on their way from Misrata to Sirte saw the opposition firing artillery into Tawergha for target practice.  They would comment on it on Twitter, but because their summit was at another location they didn't write about it later on. There would be the odd tweet remaining here and there but that picture was being overlooked by the mainstream media. Then months later you would find out there were allegations of ethnic cleansing and ethnic violence there. I think sometimes because a journalist is only one person on the ground, they go where they are told to go in most cases. Sometimes they don't really see the big picture that is going around them. But if you look at the macro view of what is going on, and at the information that is coming through Twitter from reliable sources, videos appearing on YouTube, you can get a much broader sense of what is going on on the ground.

There are a lot of reporters, people who are no longer only witnesses but are documenting what is going on in Syria, Libya, and other places. How would you define the problem of this mass reporting and citizen journalism, given that not all of them are citizens, or not even journalists?

I think one problem I have is the way in which social media such as YouTube and Twitter are being used.  A lot of the people who have been picking up on this stuff are those people who want to make a point in an argument. They pick their side and they blog about a video they've seen that proves their point.  They are not trying to look at the conflict as a whole, they are just trying to win an argument on the Internet.  When I saw that it was infuriating for me, because they were imposing so much of their own political viewpoint and it was completely distorting the meaning. So when I started the blog, I wanted to make sure I was more focussed on the content of the video and what it meant as part of the conflict, rather than the question of whether this was good or bad for the opposition.  

I have been frequently accused of being biased towards one side in the conflict. In Syria most of the videos are being produced by the opposition and activists, so there will always be a skew in that when you are writing about social media you are going to be writing about what the opposition is putting on YouTube. But I have always tried to make it very clear that these are opposition videos and there is an inherent bias. Because of the way I try to look at stuff, I try to point out interesting things that may not be what those who filmed the video initially intended you to see. For example when I write about something, I very rarely use anything that is a report from the opposition, or something they have posted on their Facebook page. I want to be able to see the video evidence and I want it to be clear and obvious what it is. I have seen how people will argue against evidence on the Internet, so I'm very aware of what people will say to try to dismiss what I have put online, to claim it is propaganda or not neutral. 

I used to get a lot of accusations that I was too pro-opposition, even though I used to post a lot about war crimes and massacres carried out by the opposition. But what really changes a lot of peoples' opinion was the Croatian arms story, because all of a sudden it was very difficult to make that argument when I was exposing a route arming the opposition. 

What would you say to those people who accuse you of aiding the enemy, of taking sides?

I'm not an activist for any of the sides in the conflict. I'm just interested in making sense of the huge volume of information coming from Syria, from open sources that anyone could work with.  Anyone could do what I'm doing, but at the moment no one really is in a way that's open to the public. So if I wasn't doing what I was doing, a big part of the conflict would go unrecorded.  Nearly everything I do is based on open source information, so if people don't want it written about, they shouldn't put it on the internet.

What role do you see for citizen journalism in reporting?

I think we're at a point now where there's a shift happening in the way news is being reported. There has always been this talk of , but it has been under-used and undervalued. It's just been a buzzword for the media; it's used to get pictures of heavy snowfall and funny cat pictures, or viral videos. It's not really used in an effective way. But there's a lot more to it, but we're in a situation now where people are coming to terms with it. I think there needs to be a way to support that and a way to educate people how to use it - someone needs to take up that challenge. 

You could say these activists working in Syria are citizen journalists. But we need to take that information and make it useable for the mainstream media, rather than it just being one of many random videos that they're hoping will go viral so people will take notice. Sometimes it takes a series of videos over a period of time, and tracking those videos without always knowing where they are going, so that then you come up with a story based on them. 

But I think the way the mainstream media has used social media so far lacks depth. They want people to come to them with their pre-made stories and pre-made news reports and if it's good enough they'll put it on their website. 

And what is the role of activists in this environment?

When we are talking about people trying to record the conflict as an activist or for a human rights group, there are some different things you want to be looking at compared to a journalist. You want people to be giving statements to the camera, you want them to explain what's going on. You want them to have an understanding of what's dangerous to film and not to put themselves at risk to get information out there. In Syria you frequently see people picking up unexploded munitions; I've seen people trying to dig unexploded cluster bombs out of the ground with pick-axes. You want to educate people about how they can help but also about how they can look after themselves in a conflict zone.  

Has anybody tried to make a link between your profession in finance, looking thoroughly at a lot of data and trying to find the patterns, and the work you do now?

I think when it comes to my work in finance and administration, there is a certain thoroughness required. I guess in a small way you can say that translates into the work I do now because I am very thorough and I examine things very closely. But I think this is taking it to a different level, especially when I am working with a medium like video where you are looking out for something very different. For example, now when I watch a video I'll immediately spot anything that looks vaguely like a rocket launcher, while someone who hasn't got a trained eye wouldn't see it. I think a big part of it is training yourself to recognise specific things in the video.

Can you give me a rough outline of the process of creating your blog from scratch.

With Syria, I used to see videos popping up on Twitter and find them interesting, but when I wanted to find an article about the arms that the opposition was using I couldn't find any.  So I started posting about the weapons used by the opposition. I didn't know anything about arms, so I had to find out about the weapons myself. There is a vast amount of information about Soviet-era weapons on the internet, which is useful because that's what Syria uses. Then there was an event called the Houla massacre where a large number of people had been killed and there was a lot of video coming out of the event. I realised that those videos were being posted on channels by specific groups in that physical location. So I started collecting channels where the people using the channels were the original uploaders (you get some channels that re-post videos from elsewhere, which I didn't want to use because you tend to get a lot of noise interference, people put their own titles on them and leave out some of the information from the original video).  I would start systematically going through these original videos. I started with 12 YouTube channels and now I've got about 550 channels I check on a daily basis for new videos.  

That was the beginning of the process of examining the videos. I then started coming across videos showing unexploded bombs and identifying what they were. Again, there are a lot of resources available on the Internet but by that point I was picking up contacts with arms experts who had read the blog. When I discovered the first use of cluster bombs, I wrote to a number of human rights organisations – in the case of Human Rights Watch, I've now been working with them on a database of all the cluster bomb videos used in the conflict so far. 

eliotphotos.png So it started from there. A good example of a video I find would be the assassination of an important Imam, that everyone was saying was fake.  So I took the video, found photos and video footage from before and after the attack, and then matched the different elements in the videos (the position of certain items on his desk, the damage done) to what was shown in the before and after images.  From that I could prove that the video must be either genuine or a really, really good fake.  After that I started looking at the different kind of videos that were being produced, and thinking “how can I prove this is a genuine video?”.  Another recent example was a short video from Egypt showing a woman who was filming the protest being shot in the neck, from a very limited angle.  You could only see a few buildings, but from those few buildings and the information in the video I was able to discover the exact location where it was filmed and even managed to find a photograph of where the people were stood before the attack.  

So for me it has been a learning process. I have also had to build up contacts with people who specialise in certain areas, so I can support my own knowledge. I have learned a lot from them, but there is still a lot I have to learn because there are new weapons turning up all the time. There are thousands of different armed groups in Syria, probably 2000 different groups, and it is useful that there are a lot more people now who specialise in specific areas of the Syrian conflict. For example, I know someone who knows a lot about Hezbollah in Syria, someone who knows a lot about jihadists in Syria, someone who is keeping a track of the armed groups and what they are up to...  so wherever there is a gap in my own knowledge, I can go to those people.  In turn, whenever I am contacted by a journalist and they ask me a question that I think that a person I know might know more about, I contact them and say - “look, why don't you talk to this person and they will be able to help you out much better than I can”.  So as well as building this network of contacts, I am bringing people together with the ultimate aim of improving reporting on Syria.  It benefits me if these people who specialise in different areas are talking to journalists rather than me.

How would you define yourself? Are you a documentarist? An archivist? Are you a journalist/reporter? Are you an activist?

I've always felt that what I'm doing is about documenting the conflict and making sense of what is going on.  You know, I have written for the New York Times and Foreign Policy, but that has always been a way to get the information I have gathered to a wider audience. So I try to engage with journalists.  I try to provide them with the sort of verification they would want before they go ahead and publish something. Often you will have a journalist from a news organisation saying - ”we cannot verify this” - when it's something from Syria, and I want to be able to provide that for them so they can actually do something with it rather than it being just another video that gets forgotten.

What is special about what you do? You say that documenting and verifying does not require a lot of skill, so why are there not by now seventy other Brown Moses' doing this kind of work?

I think because I have a mixed background of an interest in politics and current events, together with an interest in using the Internet and how the media works. In a way I have brought all that together, and now I am getting an understanding of how to achieve what I want to achieve.  

I had an understanding of how journalists work. I know that they didn't want to have to spend hours watching videos, so I did that piece of the job for them. That in turn resulted in me getting more attention from journalists and increased the amount of contacts I had, allowing me to improve my work. I have also noticed that my reputation is really all I have. If I start publishing rubbish, then I'll immediately ruin my reputation forever.  So when I do something I always make sure I am 100% correct because it is really important that people can trust what I'm doing.  So many people come to this sort of thing with the aim of supporting one side or the other, and that colours all their work, but journalists aren't going to be interested in that. 

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