The Power of Citizen Witnesses
How WITNESS is Strengthening Their Impact
The power of the citizen witness was where we began. WITNESS was founded in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident in 1991, when an unarmed African-American man was beaten repeatedly by the Los Angeles Police. The incident was captured on video by George Holliday, a local resident, from his apartment window.
Citizen witnesses are the people on-the-scene with cameras in their hands who share evidence of wrongdoing, make a call for action, and often try to mobilize their communities and others to work for human rights change. At WITNESS we want to support millions, if not billions, of people to be citizen witnesses.
From police violence in Brazil, to the conflict in Gaza and Israel, to the events in Ferguson, Missouri and to the other ongoing and pervasive violations of people’s civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights across the globe, we see millions of citizen witnesses choosing to share images and information over the Internet and social media.
We want to empower citizens to better document, tell stories and share video safely, ethically, and effectively. We’re also thinking about the systemic impediments to people’s ability to do this; and how others who engage with the content that citizens create (often called user-generated content UGC) can do so to ensure injustice is seen and responded to.
To do this we have to think holistically across the chain of creation, sharing, media management, preservation and usage — while always keeping an eye on key ethical questions.
I’m going to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges we see in enabling you to be a citizen witness, and what WITNESS is doing to address them.
Helping citizen witnesses shoot better video
The best way to improve the chances that citizen video can achieve impact is to engage directly with the citizen-shooters on the ground, and with people who are in touch with them in particular situations. To that end, we’ve been developing training and guidance materials to help you to gather more effective material, including:
- The WITNESS Tip Sheet series: Quick tips on everything from filming protests and police brutality to obscuring identity, interviewing techniques and more. These resources are available in multiple languages.
- How to Video Series: Our videos cover topics like How to Film a Protest and introductory Guides to Video Advocacy to help people think about audience and usage beyond the initial moment of filming.
- Materials on specific issues such as the Guide to Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender Based Violence, a written guide and 6-part video series provide tips from activists, survivors and experts on preparing and conducting interviews in a safe, ethical and effective manner.
Sometimes, the challenges are not skills challenges, but technical barriers. For the past three years we’ve partnered on the development of technical tools with the Guardian Project. These tools enable content creators to have more control in protecting vulnerable people through giving users control over key choices about how to share and display their data and metadata. Our first app, ObscuraCam, allows people to strip out identifying metadata and blur faces in their media. We are also currently working on InformaCam, an app which helps the user to enhance the verification, discovery and evidentiary value of mobile media.
We also collaborate with others on discussions aimed at identifying and solving ‘pain points’ at the intersection of citizen witnessing and professional human rights investigation. The footage and information collected by a citizen witness at the scene of an incident is typically quite different from the information that would be collected by a professional investigator for later use in a court of law. We are working on materials for citizen witnesses who are increasingly filming for the purpose of justice and accountability. These materials focus on filming techniques and preservation workflows that will increase the likelihood that their footage can be used in judicial proceedings.
Building workflows between citizens, media collectives, journalists and lawyers
Workflows are not sexy but they are key in the fight for justice and human rights. We need to think about how footage and information travels between people who do not think of themselves as “human rights activists” and professionals/human rights groups. WITNESS increasingly has been looking at these flows in mass atrocity contexts. Examples include the ongoing abuses in Syria and civil protest situations like those in Brazil. Activists there are using a Google form to document instances of police brutality during protests. Through this work, we have been developing simple workflows to add additional information that enhances the possibility that citizen footage can be used in legal or journalistic spaces.
And on the Human Rights Channel (our partnership with the social news-gathering pioneers, Storyful and YouTube) we try to verify and contextualize citizen footage for human rights and journalistic purposes.
Finding and trusting citizen footage
In an age where the technology provides for constant information overload, it is important to focus on questions of how to both find patterns and also how to find and verify/trust the proverbial “needle in the haystack,” the one piece of media that is crucial evidence or makes an important argument about an incident. We need better and more rapid ways find that important image or critical pattern. Otherwise we have the potential for false images and stories to inflame, distort and jeopardize the credibility of many genuine, courageous witnesses on the ground; and for the material to be lost.
Recent examples from Venezuela and Gaza and Israel remind us that we need to be able to confirm that a piece of video really shows what it claims to show, has not tampered with, and was actually shot by who claims to have filmed it, at the time and place it claims to have been shot.
We’ve been working on modeling how to do this via our Human Rights Channel and through collaborations like the Verification Handbook, which was written by journalists and verification experts from the BBC, Storyful, WITNESS and more. This resource provides tools, techniques and step-by-step guidelines on how to determine the authenticity of citizen videos.
Another critical tool in this area has been developed by our colleagues at Amnesty International USA. The Citizen Evidence Lab walks viewers and analysts through the steps of how to verify video found online. In addition, one of the pioneers in this field in Syria, the blogger known as Brown Moses, recently launched bell¿ngcat, a new website to share expertise on “citizen investigative journalism.”
Managing, archiving and preserving the evidence
It is also critical to discuss how to preserve this material. In a place like Syria where 100,000s of citizen videos of human rights abuses have been uploaded and shared online during the three-year conflict, this is particularly difficult. At WITNESS we recognize that one of the biggest challenges when it comes to long-term justice and accountability for human rights violations is keeping track of, managing and preserving the footage that counts.
We’ve been drawing on our own expertise managing a human rights video archive to develop the award-winning Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, which aims to help improve the management of volume of media by human rights groups and media collectives.
Protecting privacy, enabling consent and ensuring ethics
In an age where cameras are everywhere, privacy is a huge issue. At the intersection of mobile video and the Internet, these issues are particularly important since each of these technologies is in and of themselves structurally privacy-compromising.
The human rights community has always had strong concerns about how to protect vulnerable people who document violations, and those who speak out. How can thinking about informed consent be translated when people are amidst a crisis and the easiest thing to do is pull out a camera and record what is going on? Translating these traditional journalistic practices into the world of citizen witnessing is extremely challenging. We’ve worked on this in the context of specific situations like gender-based violence but we’re still thinking hard about what more we can and should do.
We’ve also worked on engaging news organizations on the ethics around using citizen-witness footage as it relates to informed consent — for example around how they shared images from social media of violent abuse of LGBT individuals in Russia and publicizing images of sexual assault from Egypt, as well as engaging allies on a variety of other broad ethical issues.
Using video to make a difference in advocacy and evidence
We continue to work on how citizen-generated video and new media is used by formal human rights groups for advocacy (for example, here at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), as well as how to manage a large volume of citizen footage of a singular incident or similar types of incidents and how this might come together for advocacy purposes. A recent example of this is one I shared above of groups in Brazil gathering many different citizen videos of police brutality.
Curation (including verifying, contextualizing and circulating) of citizen human rights footage may now be as important a role for human rights groups as going out and documenting abuses themselves. In addition to our Human Rights Channel, we share approaches to curation by other human rights groups — for example gathering together and presenting as human rights advocacy of citizen and advocate-generated footage and stories about forced evictions in Rio in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics, in order to capture the scale and diversity of people affected.
We’ve also been collaborators on projects for how technical tools can help manage scale of video — for example the UC Berkeley Rashomon Project, which looks at how to represent multiple video sources of a single incident, and our aforementioned InformaCam project. We’re also excited about new initiatives at Carnegie-Mellon University that will focus specifically on video forensics and its surrounding problem set.
Dealing with the ‘unseen actors’: tech companies, policy-makers and spies
So much of citizen witnessing relies on using the mainstream tools and platforms that we use to share cute cat videos, “like” our friends’ posts, and tweet our point-of-view. If we don’t pay attention to the unseen protagonists, the technology actors whose platforms and tools are used by millions, then the majority of people will still face structural blocks to easily and safely share human rights-related content. These are the companies and policy-makers whose decisions on mobile and Internet privacy set the ground rules for how people can use tools and others can inhibit them, watch them or suppress them. For example, in a situation like Ferguson, MO we need to vigorously protect the ‘right to record’ for both journalists and ordinary citizens.
Over the past few years we’ve focused on how to engage with technology providers on how innovations or changes in their platforms could impact positively or negatively the ability of millions to use them for human rights purposes.
We engage directly with YouTube on areas such as developing and launching a blurring tool on their platform and are currently advocating to them and others around introducing a ‘proof’ mode based on InformaCam. Here, we are recognizing that there is a category of citizen witness who films something critical only once in their life — the accidental witness like George Holliday, who filmed the Rodney King incident is a good example. For these witnesses, we’ll never reach them with skills and training if we can’t mainstream an ‘ABC’ of citizen witnessing literacy into high schools (not yet a reality), so the tool for them needs to be the ‘witnessing’ function or ‘proof’ mode on their mobile phone or on their video sharing or social media platform that they’ve used before in a less crisis situation — to document an insurance claim, or to capture something cool that they need to prove happened.
We’ve also joined others in taking positions in support of human rights values and protections on the Internet, such as the Necessary and Proportionate Principles on human rights and communications surveillance.
All this needs to happen in concert with other stakeholders in the human rights landscape — many of whom are also users of citizen footage. We’ve collaborated closely with Amnesty International USA, Benetech and Human Rights Watch, Article 19 in Brazil as well as many local NGOs and media collectives. We are also proud to be part of the discussions that UC-Berkeley has been hosting on new forms of scientific and technology-enabled evidence in the international criminal justice system. And of course, here on our blog we share insights from staff and WITNESS allies about new technologies, tools and how activists and citizen journalists are using video to document and advocate against human rights abuses around the world.
Looking for new ways to make citizen video count
We need to find new ways of engagement such as using live video, co-presence and immersive media that move people to action in more powerful ways, and give viewers of footage concrete ways to act both in real-time (for example, as they watch a live streamed video) from a distance. And with all this volume of video, we need to make sure that these videos documenting injustice don’t fall into an accountability gap — neglected or dismissed by mainstream journalists and press, or ignored or not heeded by governments or judiciaries.
At the heart of the work has to be a constant attention to how citizen video translates into actions for protecting and promoting human rights: confronting spurious prosecutions, acting as evidence in war crimes tribunals, forming critical elements in advocacy campaigns, or contributing to community mobilization against injustice.
This post originally appeared on the WITNESS blog.
Featured image courtesy of Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr.