The Ethical Engagements of Human Rights Social Media

Posted on November 22, 2010 by Sam Gregory

The Ethical Engagements of Human Rights Social Media: Spreadable, Contagious, Viral, Malleable, Fluid, Ubiquitous, Dangerous?

The explosion of digital media on human rights pushes us all to rethink how documentary film ethics apply in a more networked, social media-driven era.

This summer at the Visible Evidence conference in Istanbul I had the opportunity to share ideas with leading documentary film academics on how WITNESS is thinking about ethical dilemmas with human rights social media. This is part of our efforts to contribute to a new consensus understanding on how we handle the growing ubiquity of human rights video, and accompanying concerns about safety, authenticity, contextualization and effectiveness (for more background on this see this recent ‘Cameras Everywhere‘ article).

I share below an excerpt of a paper that I co-wrote with Professor Patricia R. Zimmermann of Ithaca College, focused on some key principles underlying changing ethical norms in human rights social media. To read the full paper scroll down! And please comment with feedback!

“There is now occurring a change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).

Some provisional principles might include:

  1. An image uploaded, bluetoothed or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped, and all ethical assumptions should be based on this.
  2. Consent – emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics, and social science, and grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground – is central, but needs to be re-grounded in new communities of practice such as exist in spaces like YouTube
  3. Respect for human dignity, emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy, is central.
  4. Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer/re-user, reliant on internalized and externalized context
  5. Aggregation offers us an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fits preconceived ideas, yet require new frameworks of aggregative ethics and questions about how to generate ‘responsibility to act’
  6. Ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware  – and their engagement is critical to this project”

Patty and I welcome any comments or feedback as we work out how to re-frame our understandings of ethics in a world of ubiquitous and free-circulating human rights media.

*************

The Ethical Engagements of Human Rights Social Media: Spreadable, Contagious, Viral, Malleable, Fluid, Ubiquitous, Dangerous?

This post is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media.  Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts.  Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’.  Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.

Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions
Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe is increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons. The visual is a dominant mode within it.

The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:

  • A move from a fixed, singular media object to more circulatory, generative, remixed works that multiply in many forms and iterations, and where analysis is required of patterns of circulation
  • Shifts from specific images moving to memes circulating
  • A move from montage of different images remixed within the frame to remix outside the frame via the multiplication of comments and ideas, engagements and consequent endless and contingent reframings of context, meaning, use, histories
  • A move from push out media practices (make it and the audience will see the light) to pull-in media practices of aggregation, curation and sense-making that function more as convenings and collaborations for generative engagement
  • A challenging shift from a documentary work offering a specific, fixed, argument or politics to the work as part of a dynamic process between issue, work and audience, shifting day-to-day – for example in the constant discursive re-framing of a YouTube comments section.
  • A shift from the ethics of the filmmaker/subjects/audience to an ethics of networks and malleable contexts, i.e., a networked ethics.  In documentary studies, we accept the triangle of filmmaker/subject/audience, but now, with social media, we are confronted with a three dimensional sphere that is rotating, layering, and constantly realigned.
  • A shift from the witness as a position assuming empathy to the witness in the social media landscape as chronicler, remixer, networker, viral seeder, often within a global middle class that has re-engineered the construct of the digital divide into a digital dimension comprised of uneven power, layers of practice, nodes and paranodes, flows and stoppages. This is a shift from a notion of the empathetic first-person witness to empathetic engagement.

This is a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous. At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.

These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian WinstonTom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing. As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?

Part Two:  Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing

Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.

This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary’ in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?

Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to purposeful and (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.

First, Responsibility to the Person Filmed

Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (for example, the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).

Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up, how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?

Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case  where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups, journalists and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.

Second, Responsibility to the Story

Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression[1]? And simultaneously onto its indexical value as evidence of a violation?

Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.

When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in the keyframe below, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation.

Surferknut23 – one of over 15,000 people who have commented on the video – notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images:  “all i saw when i watched this video was people who don’t know how to listen getting their asses beaten” while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: “Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.”

‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the “memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim.”

Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface.  Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war – about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse.

Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTubethe Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.

And this curatorial voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge.  So, although in London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators and activist bloggers painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images.

In the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website:

On this they crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’.

Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond

WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.

To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.

Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the person, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.

And of course both responsibility to the person and responsibility to the story, as well as the complexities of safety, security and consent are made more acute as we move into an environment of livecasting video direct from a cellphone, webcam or other mobile device as human rights media. In the clip we’re watching Kevin Sandler, the man on the left, who spent five days barricaded into his house in Toledo, Ohio after he was foreclosed on and evicted.

He used his livestream to publicize moment-to-moment what was going on, and to respond to questions, interact with a growing community of support online that reached up to 5,000 people, and ultimately document the moments we see now, as a SWAT team enters the living room where he and his supporters are camped out. But livecasting is also being used from situations where real retribution is also a possibility – for example from protests in Honduras. So how do we think about the ethical challenges of livecasting? These technologies will have powerful positive implications for sharing footage and engaging constituencies immediately, but at the same time ethical questions and consent and security norms will become even more critical once more video is streamed and interacted with immediately outside of the broadcast media.

Third, Responsibility to Action

Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this post – we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ – the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?

PART THREE: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles of  Social Media and Human Rights

Overarching all these questions of ethical responsibility – to the person, to the story, to action – is the change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).

Some provisional principles might include:

  1. An image uploaded, bluetoothed or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped, and all ethical assumptions should be based on this.
  2. Consent – emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics, and social science, and grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground – is central, but needs to be re-grounded in new communities of practice such as exist in spaces like YouTube
  3. Respect for human dignity, emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy, is central.
  4. Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer/re-user, reliant on internalized and externalized context
  5. Aggregation offers us an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fits preconceived ideas, yet require new frameworks of aggregative ethics and questions about how to generate ‘responsibility to act’
  6. Ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware  – and their engagement is critical to this project

 

To conclude: We live, work, and create in a world of purposeful witnesses, of casual producers, documentary producers and advocacy producers, of governmental, corporate and non-governmental promoters of technology as panacea, of curators and aggregators, of citizen participants in projects of collective voice, and of re-mixers, re-purposeful witnesses and casual sharers of the spreadable and viral. As citizens of and engaged participants in this new technological topography, we need to move beyond machines and images and into a collaborative, on-going discussion about ethics.  We hope you will join us in this journey.


This paper was initially developed during a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

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  3. Theresa Dawson November 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

    There are some really useful tools for thinking through producer ethics: I have found the interactive modules on the BBC's Safeguarding Trust to be a really powerful tool for thinking about producer ethics/trust: http://www.bbc.co.uk/safeguardingtrust/ Pat Aufderheide's Honest Truths http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/making-your-m… also very timely — however you are absolutely right, very little guidance out there as to what happens when images circulate/get re-purposed/detached from their original context.

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