Your cell phone can change the world
As the leader of WITNESS, a human rights organization that was rocketed into existence 20 years ago by a piece of media (a bystander’s videotape of Rodney King being beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department), I firmly believe that visual media can accelerate social progress. We have proven that a personal, visual story is an effective human rights tool and has the power to change policies, laws, and behaviors.
Personal, visual stories created with our partners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped put a warlord behind bars and caused a decline in the mobilization of children as soldiers in armed conflict. In those days, our tools of choice were a projector, a generator, and a white sheet on which we screened our films at community meetings. Today, our tools are smartphones running advanced software. As an entrepreneurial nonprofit that operates at the intersection of media, human rights, and technology, we have learned to adapt quickly when opportunities surface because of new technology or advances in digital-media literacy.
Our experience training grassroots activists in the use of video to achieve their social-change goals has shown that visual media must be infused with “superpowers” to live up to their potential as change agents. First, technology that can be used to authenticate digital-media records of human rights abuses is needed. Citizen-shot video sent to newsrooms, human rights organizations, and courts of law often lacks vital information needed to authenticate the story, such as who shot it, the surrounding context, and reliable data that can answer the question, “Is this for real?” That’s why we worked with our software-development partners at The Guardian Project to create InformaCam, the first mobile app designed to authenticate digital media.
Second, there need to be policy environments where citizen media are valued and accepted. For example, the International Criminal Court is currently flooded with video records of atrocities in Libya and Syria, mostly shot by citizen observers on the ground. Yet the court still lacks a clear, consistent standard for accepting citizen media as evidence. To address this problem, we are promoting a metadata standard for video that we hope will incline courts worldwide to trust video evidence provided by eyewitnesses to human rights abuses.
Third, important stories must be preserved and distributed to the right people. In partnership with YouTube and Storyful, we’ve launched the Human Rights Channel, a customized space where citizen videos are curated and contextualized. We’ve also urged YouTube to incorporate functionalities that protect the safety and anonymity of all its users, including human rights activists. YouTube has taken steps to address these concerns in the latest release of its online-video editor.
The fourth superpower is digital-media literacy skills that help citizen witnesses use media more safely and effectively. There are many organizations working in this space, including MobileActive and Tactical Technology Collective. Here at WITNESS, we’re developing training materials such as tip sheets and short videos and making them available online.
Here’s why these super powers are so important: today, when a young citizen climbs on a rooftop and pulls out her mobile phone to capture video of security forces murdering her neighbor, her access to media doesn’t by itself create accountability or lead to a more just society. Quite the opposite: if she or the location from which she uploads the video is identifiable, that data may allow the regime to arrest or even kill her. In a country like Syria, the mere fact that she is holding a camera makes her a priority target for snipers with orders to shoot citizens who film.
If she’s lucky enough to survive and find a way to distribute the video, it might end up on YouTube or on a Facebook page. That piece of media may galvanize a public outcry against the atrocities that are happening—on our watch and in real time—particularly if amplified and distributed by mainstream media outlets such as CNN or the BBC.
Even from that point, though, there are many stumbling blocks on the way to social progress. If our observer’s online video account is compromised, the results of her bravery may be lost forever. Her service provider might remove the video as a violation of its terms of service. The video could even be taken down at the request of a repressive government invoking one of the many laws that curtail free speech worldwide.
Let’s assume her video makes it to a platform where it can, theoretically, be seen by millions. How will the video emerge from the melee of visual images that hit our retinas every day? If we do see it, how will social progress happen from that moment on? The answer is not always clear. For example, the jury is still out on the impact of the infamous “Kony 2012” video, which exposed the numerous atrocities perpetrated by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and garnered millions of online views last year.
For any citizen video to achieve maximum impact, it needs to reach the right decision maker: a court, a body of the United Nations, or a mobilizing movement of young voters. Then it can change the hearts and minds of people with influence. When all these conditions are fulfilled, citizen videos can become powerful catalysts that move people to act, thus realizing their enormous potential as tools for human rights and social progress.