“There should be a dozen Brown Moseses”

“There should be a dozen Brown Moseses”

Der britische Blogger Eliot Higgins alias Brown Moses ist einer der bekanntesten Vertreter des Bürgerjournalismus. Sein Blog analysiert den Einsatz von Waffen im Syrischen Bürgerkrieg und wird auch von traditionellen Journalisten als Quelle herangezogen. Wie seine Anfänge aussahen, auf welche Story er besonders stolz ist und was für die Zukunft geplant ist, verriet er uns in einem Interview.

eliot-higginsGigaom recently published an article about you with the catchy headline “The rise of Brown Moses: How an unemployed British man has become a poster boy for citizen journalism“. Have you ever expected to become poster boy for anything?

I started the blog as a hobby; really just a place to gather my thoughts on things I thought were interesting. I was my own audience in a way, so there I just wrote about things that interested me. I didn’t expect any of this, but I’m making the most of the situation I find myself in.

Reading about you, I get the impression of a man spending his whole time in front of a computer screen analyzing weapons used in the Syrian conflict. Could you describe the typical day in the life of Eliot Higgins, who is also husband and father?

Usually I’m woken up by my daughter, so I sort her out before starting my work, with my wife looking after her while I work. I’ll be constantly checking Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and sending and replying to emails, hunting for something worth looking into. Once I have that, then I’ll start digging through various sources of information, trying to find out as much as possible.

What was your motivation for your Brown Moses Blog?

To begin with it was just to write about stuff I found interesting, but after two years my big focus is on learning to use this vast resource of information in the most effective way possible, and teaching other people to do the same. It’s not just about Syria, but the way social media is becoming an incredible resource when studying conflicts, and many other events.

“I’ve developed my various processes and skills as I’ve gone along”

brownmoses-blogYou started from scratch, having no journalistic training or mentionable expertise in weaponry. For people interested in becoming a citizen journalist it will be interesting to know more about your beginnings.

I’ve developed my various processes and skills as I’ve gone along, so my earliest blog posts on Syria were really just random collections of videos I thought were interesting. Then I started to collect them together in themed posts, and as I learnt more about what I was seeing I could write about them in more detail. I started to search through videos in a more systematic fashion, and developed my investigation technique as I tried to find out as much as possible from the videos as I could. As I was doing all this, I was also building up a network of contacts, that included experts in various fields, and they were a great help.

How did you attract readers?

I built my audience through using Twitter to promote my work, as well as posting it on various sites and forums, and I just stuck at it and built a following. The first post I had that really went beyond my audience was my post on the Houla Massacre, which was pretty much a live blog of the reports coming in after the attack. That was picked up and linked to by another site, and that gained me more followers. After that more and more of my work was linked to by journalists and on various websites, and that started to increase my readership, and it just went on from there.

“Your reputation is all you’ll have”

Which advice could you give others?

Find one topic you find really interesting, and stick with it. Learn everything you can about it, know your limitations, and assume no-one likes you, has any respect for you or your work, and accept they’ll steal all your best work until you’ve established a reputation. Your reputation is all you’ll have, and people will remember your mistakes for a lot longer than your victories, so do your best not to make mistakes.

At what point did you realize that you’ve become an important source in your field of research?

Probably after the Croatian weapons story, where I helped uncover a smuggling operation where Saudi Arabia was buying arms from Croatia to send to the opposition in Syria. Since then there’s been an ever increasing interest in the way I work, not just what I’m finding in Syria, so I’m very keen on exploring that, and writing about it, rather than just specific topics like Syria. Really, there should be a dozen Brown Moseses looking into every topic, because there’s a huge amount of information out there that’s not being put to good use.

Are you proud of anything specific you were able to publish?

Apart from the obvious, like the Croatian weapons story, and my extensive work on August 21st, I was very happy with the way in which my investigation into DIY barrel bombs worked out. A lot of people claimed they would never be used by the air force, yet my work eventually proved they were, and helped bring understanding to a confusing situation. I was also very pleased with my investigation into the Saraqeb and Sheikh Maqsoud chemical attacks, which was mentioned in the final report to the UN on chemical weapons in Syria it’s interesting taking that UN report, then comparing it to my work, and looking at the similarities, as well as the additional information. The UN didn’t have much on Sheikh Maqsoud, but it’s clear from the open source information I collected on both attacks there were some very interesting links between the two attacks that strongly suggest Sheikh Maqsoud was a Sarin attack, despite the lack of information in the UN report.

Weapons “look the same in any language”

Arabic is – from a grammatical point of view – a very difficult language, which I can tell from my own experience. Have you mastered the language?

I speak no Arabic, I rely on translators whenever I need that done. That’s why I started out focusing on weapons, they look the same in any language. Recently I’ve been using a professional translator, so that’s allowed me to do more in depth investigations.

Do you sometimes wish to visit Syria yourself?

Not really, it’s incredibly dangerous for experienced and well connected journalists, so I’d probably be kidnapped, shot, or arrested the moment I crossed the border.

Your Alter Ego Brown Moses supposedly derives from Frank Zappa’s song “Brown Moses”. One line goes “Ol’ Brown Moses now have spoke! Could ya lends me ’bout a dollar? I’s a tiny bit broke”. What are your financial prospects for 2014?

Very good, I’m launching a new website that’s fully funded, I’m working on consultancies, as well as other projects, so I’m going to be very busy indeed next year.

What will you be spending your energy and time on when the Syrian civil war comes to an end?

My focus next year will be my new website, which is bringing together a lot of writers who do the same kind of work I do, but on a variety of subjects, and using open source information. I’m also going to be writing about how I do my work, and exploring new ways of using open source information, as there’s a massive amount of interest in it from journalists, NGOs, think-tanks, humanitarian organisations, etc.

“I’m often asked how I make money from what I’ve been doing”

Recently I’ve written about the Indiegogo campaign from the british platform Uncoverage

I’m often asked how I make money from what I’ve been doing, and until now I’ve struggled to come up with a good answer. Fortunately, the timing of everything has been rather good, because the new website Uncoverage, a crowd-funding site for investigative journalists, offers the solution I’ve been looking for. On my new site each contributor will have their own link to their Uncoverage profile, so readers can contribute to their favourite writers.

Have you considered taking up journalism as a full time job? Did you receive any job offers so far?

In later 2012 I applied for the BBC Journalism Training Scheme, and I was approached by a company to work as an analyst, but things have worked out rather well otherwise.

 

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