Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World explores the promise of open source investigation, taking viewers inside the exclusive world of the "citizen investigative journalist" collective known as Bellingcat.
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Simon Lereng Wilmont
Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World explores the promise of open source investigation, taking viewers inside the exclusive world of the "citizen investigative journalist" collective known as Bellingcat. In cases ranging from the MH17 disaster to the poisoning of a Russian spy in the United Kingdom, the Bellingcat team's quest for truth will shed light on the fight for journalistic integrity in the era of fake news and alternative facts.Written by
Informative documentary, also showing risks and counter forces. Only touching some problems needing a solution in the long run
Seen at IDFA 2018, the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam. It provides for a good understanding of what Bellingcat entails, and it is more accessible than I had imagined beforehand. I had feared ample techno babbles and screens full of gibberish that frighten people on average, turning them away from the subject at hand. The film makers even left out the seemingly inevitable images of busy data centers, flashing lights and network cabling as usually shown on IT-related news item.
By showcasing a number of well-known high-profile cases, the movie succeeds in keeping any viewer interested. The film makers are also honest in discussing counter forces that go at any length to discredit their initiatives and thus downplay their reports. They attempt to portray Bellingcat as amateurs or armchair investigators, using any argument to suggest their results cannot be relied upon. And with powerful adversaries against you, mostly state supported actors or with deep pockets, this is not something to ignore. In passing, some of the personal risks for the contributors (and their families) are mentioned, which is not to be neglected and can be a deterrent for new volunteers to participate.
A nice example of what they can accomplish was their investigation of a photo showing the aftermath of an apparently regular car bomb explosion with many dead/wounded lying around. They established that it was a fake, starting with a car exploding on an empty square, after which the "bodies" walked in to be randomly scattered around, all ready for a shocking picture to be taken. Of course, the original (fake) was picked up by the media, and it took a lot of effort to let the news outlets (like Reuters, CNN etc) retract the original version. And even when publicly withdrawn, the damage to the public opinion cannot that easily be repaired.
There is one thing that worries me. The movie mentions it yet without badly needed emphasis: how to archive all material so that it will sustain a court case, and cannot be dismissed by lawyers?? The underlying information can disappear, due to being deleted by the author, on his own initiative or due to pressure. Or it can be removed by the platform (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc), due to being too graphical or not politically correct. It should actually be sealed (as I call it loosely) to prevent it from being altered, and this "seal" has to be resistant against critical lawyers when the case is presented in court at a later stage.
(Full Disclosure.) As a former (now retired) IT-consultant, I may not be the perfect judge to state (see above) that this movie is devoid of techno-babble. Apart from that, I applaud every movie that succeeds in spreading information about contemporary developments like these, where new "media" take over from the established news outlets. Contrary to the well-known news media, these volunteers have no legal counsel behind them, and neither can they build on a tradition of many decades. They also lack the authority that the usual news media have, so are burdened with an extra task to guard their credibility. One talking head in the movie maintains that transparency is the answer, but it will not be sufficient. (End of Full Disclosure.)
All in all, this movie offers a fascinating insight in recent initiatives, where technical knowledge, lots of time and ample motivation to chase for the truth, is invested in fact-checking. This is desperately needed as powerful parties and even state sponsored actors do their best to create their own "fake" news that better serves their interest than real facts. However, there is also such a thing as responsibility to protect your sources, like witnesses and leaked documents, and premature naming and shaming of alleged perpetrators and their family, who have done nothing wrong but can be threatened or involuntarily damaged. And finally, can Bellingcat ever be wrong, in spite of their good intentions?? I don't have the answers, and neither has the movie.
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