Last October, Eliot Higgins, a 34-year-old resident of Leicester, England, lost his job. With time to waste, he turned to YouTube. Now, he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on the flow of illegal weapons into war-torn Syria. Huh?
Higgins’s unlikely story was covered recently in the Guardian. "Before the Arab spring I knew no more about weapons than the average Xbox owner," he told the paper. Now, thanks to a steady stream of videos that have leaked out of the country and onto the web, he knows more than just about anyone without a security clearance, keeping a blog under the alias Brown Moses that has served as a vital resource for reporters and human rights activists alike.
The conflict in Syria has been extremely difficult and dangerous for conventional media organisations to cover. But the slew of YouTube footage from citizen journalists has opened up a new way of monitoring what’s happening for those such as Higgins who are dedicated and meticulous enough to sift through it.
'Brown Moses is among the best out there when it comes to weapons monitoring in Syria,' says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who worked with Higgins to document the use of cluster bombs in Syria. He represents an important development in arms monitoring, which used to be the domain of a few secretive specialists with access to the required and often classified reference materials.
'He’d be the first to admit that he is obsessive compulsive in his attention to details. He gets his facts right, and has become an indispensable resource.'
The idea of an armchair weapons expert is an incredible one, but it’s the type of thing that will only become more common in the future. With the decline of print media, newsroom staffs are leaner than ever. Add a deluge of crowdsourced reporting, and it’s not surprising that there’s important stuff out there waiting to be processed—be it YouTube videos of trafficked weapons or secret bases on Bing Maps.
In one sense, citizen analysts are a natural next step after citizen journalists. And while few will be as thorough as Higgins, his example sheds some light on a strange new reality. In the future, as our world becomes better documented by smartphones and satellites alike, many more secrets will be hiding in plain sight, right on the web.