Twitter to the Rescue? How Social Media is Transforming Human Rights Monitoring

Syrian youths, inside a vehicle, film a protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with their phones in the northern city of Aleppo.

Syrian youths, inside a vehicle, film a protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with their phones in the northern city of Aleppo on October 12, 2012. (Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Social media is increasingly helpful to not only monitor emerging human rights emergencies, but also to uncover incorrect information. A recent example is when Twitter helped me to spot incorrect contextual information on a newly uploaded execution video from Syria. This is just one instance in which crowdsourced expertise from social media can open up new opportunities for human rights organizations. Having that said, the challenges and pitfalls are numerous. I thought about these issues a lot while preparing for a Truthloader debate last week on how citizen journalism is changing the world. Current case in point is the upcoming elections in Kenya, which are probably the best (citizen) monitored elections in history.

Of course, citizen journalism is not a new phenomenon―think of the Rodney King case in the early 1990s, to name just one well known example. However, it is the digital revolution and the emergence of social media that has significant implications for human rights work. I have previously blogged examples of the use of social media for mobilizing and about the use of video to document possible war crimes in Syria. Today, I am assessing the general value of social media for monitoring and documentation (the issues highlighted below are by no means comprehensive).

The crime scene at your fingertips

Similar to journalists, human rights researchers cannot cover all places at once and may be denied access to a potential crime scene altogether. The surge in citizen journalism and social media platforms over the last decade has led to a torrent of potential evidence of human rights violations. Combined with powerful tools such as Google Earth, investigators now have hundreds of potential crime scenes at their fingertips (see examples).

In early December, a gruesome video came across my screen that depicted a child taking part in a beheading, reportedly the weekend of December 8, 2012, in Homs. As previously mentioned, turning to a curated Syria Twitter list quickly led me to discover that the scene was at least several weeks old, and that the reported location may have been incorrect. To be clear, these new findings do not diminish the crime; however, identifying the place and time of an incident is crucial for determining International Humanitarian Law compliance. This video has also been mentioned in the official UN inquiry into war crimes and human rights violations in Syria, which was released earlier this week.

Social media as evidence

Mark Little identifies three central steps in Storyful’s (a social media news agency) curation process: Discovery – Verification – Delivery. In human rights research and advocacy, there is strong overlap with the first two steps of this process (discovery and verification). However, I would argue that there is a clear difference to journalism around the final step (delivery). While journalists look at how to turn that content into stories, we are looking into turning stories into evidence for use in advocacy and courts. While a YouTube video showing Syrian rebels shooting down a helicopter might be a newsworthy story, it is of less interest to a human rights investigator, as the depicted scene is likely to conform to the rules of armed conflict.

Videos that are directly relevant to a human rights investigator are ones such as a series that document the assault on a Syrian army checkpoint near Idlib. The videos conclude with the summary execution of the captured soldiers by armed opposition fighters, which depicts a possible war crime in progress. At Amnesty International, we were quick to publicly deplore this act. Unfortunately, the amount of videos coming out of Syria is quite overwhelming, and a lot of footage is difficult to verify.

Using such content in court is a different game altogether. First, there is an urgent need for guidelines on the reliability and admissibility rules of social media and video evidence. Second, we need to develop tools and apps that record metadata―such as exact location, time and date―in order to increase the value to human rights investigators and prosecutors. Luckily, some progress is already underway on both fronts: More people are looking into admissibility questions, and thanks to Witness, a groundbreaking prototype for a photo and video authentication app (InformaCam) is currently under development. A related mobile app (by Physicans for Human Rights, DataDyne and InformCam)will equip doctors and nurses with critical tools for collecting, documenting and preserving court-admissible forensic evidence of mass atrocities including sexual violence and torture.”

Limitations

We have to be careful not to view social media (and accompanying mobile apps) as a universal solution to tackle the challenges of human rights monitoring. In fact, disparities in infrastructure, access to technology and state surveillance can easily lead to the underreporting of human rights violations. Relying excessively on citizen journalism and social media thus bears the risk of overlooking abuses―just because it doesn’t show up in my Twitter feed doesn’t mean it’s not happening. One of my current projects is focused on political prison camps in North Korea. You can imagine how challenging (and dangerous) it is to provide and collect citizen provided content from there.

However, there are some workarounds to circumvent restrictions even in such closed countries as North Korea―more on this in my upcoming blog posts over the next weeks.

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9 thoughts on “Twitter to the Rescue? How Social Media is Transforming Human Rights Monitoring

  1. I'm glad somebody is working on tools used to get dates and time and location for videos. It will help us all . The public of countries in trouble have no say and their videos are all they have to ask for our help.

  2. I'm very happy people are thinking -and many times, using- these tools to work against human rights violations. I believe that the citizens can be very useful to this work…but, I also wonder how, an organization like Amnesty, so big, can check the veracity of the information. Today, more than before (and that happen because the existence of social media, I think) we need work very fast and sometimes, rapidity doesn't match with stringency. I think, this is the core that organizations like Amnesty has to work on if they really want use social media as a tool.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Thanks all for the feedback and comments. @NeydaC: I totally agree that careful validation has to be at the core. At Amnesty, we have a very rigorous research process for all evidence we are collecting, which applies to both traditional information and content that comes through social media. For example, if we collect testimony from an eyewitness, we are looking for additional information to corroborate the story. The same applies to content shared via social media. The caution is justified, as a lot of incorrect or fake information is shared through social media. What is a bit different are the tools we have available to validate content from social media. To give you just one example: Last year a picture emerged – and widely shared on social media – that claimed to show victims of the Houla massacre in Syria. Using reverse image search tools such as Google Images or TinEye allows you to trace back other instances of that image. It turns out it was a picture from Iraq from 2003. A bit of background on this case here: http://bit.ly/XrUiDb So the most important thing is to be correct, rather than being fast.

  4. It is so great to see that new technologies are being harnessed for the good of mankind. The internet is very quickly become an alternate world, with almost everything that's available in the real world, available online. If we can ensure that the internet has a predominantly positive impact on our world, then we should be heading in the right direction generally; towards peace and unity.

    Social networking is a great tool in helping to support social justice, and social discovery is now also proving to be a useful tool in supporting activism, protest and numerous other positive movements.

    Great article.

    Thank you very much.

  5. We’re a gaggle of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done a formidable task and our whole community will be thankful to you.

    • Social social networking is a useful gizmo in assisting to support public rights, and public development is now also showing to be a useful device in assisting activism, demonstration and several other positive motions.

  6. I think this social media revolution for societal awareness started in Twitter. If I remember it right, tweets soared when some Iranians protest against the "unfair" re-election of Pres. Ahmadinejad years ago. There are political tweets before that, but this seems to made a huge effect.

  7. Social media is speeding up the process of people understanding problems and coming together to face them. Social media has made it harder for states to cover up any type of injustice.

  8. Dear all,
    Thank you so much for speeding up our insights into current issues. I'm a PhD candidate working on the role of social media in promoting human rights. Would you please provide help of any sort such as references…?thx