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

February 20, 2013
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.