The Face of a Revolution: Debating Privacy in the Digital Age

Posted on March 11, 2012 by WITNESS

By Kim Howell

You probably know a 26-year-old woman. Is she your sister? Friend, or daughter? Perhaps she’s fiery and stubborn. Perhaps she takes singing lessons. Perhaps she’s engaged to be married.

And perhaps she was shot dead on a street in Tehran at a protest over a rigged election.

Neda Agha-Soltan was all of these things.

Cell phone videos show the 26-year-old bleeding and dying after having been shot in the chest by government forces. The video raced to mobile phones in the Middle East, living rooms in the United States, and news studios everywhere. Hers became the most widely viewed death in history.

But what does her death mean for activists–for their privacy, their safety, and their ability to make their voices heard? Was it an illustration of the power of their message and the volume of their voices? Or was it an illustration of their vulnerability and need to be protected?

(c) Jacques Brinon, AP. This photo illustrates protesters in Paris using pictures of Neda’s face to cover their own, speaking out against the 2009 Iranian elections. From this BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8176158.stm

An Argument for Transparency

Time magazine called Neda “the face of the revolution.” Only because Neda was an individual, a woman with a face and a name, was she able to become a symbol and a martyr. Dozens before her had died namelessly, and were forgotten. Because people related to Neda herself, they were inspired to learn, to believe, and to act.

Had Neda’s privacy been the primary concern, the video might not exist. Or it may have come out weeks later, and the momentum would have been lost. It may have come out with her face blurred, and would have lacked the emotionality that made it viral.

Neda would have died anyway, but her death would have been in vain.

Technology has been a powerful tool in activists’ hands. Syrians stream photos and videos of bombings that they world cannot deny. Iranian activists started a website that allows protesters to upload photos and videos of plain-clothes police operatives, allowing normal citizens to log on and identify them. Without this technology, activists would be divided and conquered; with it, they can unite, coordinate, and fight back.

Activists know that they are risking themselves when they go to protests in repressive regimes–that knowledge is what makes their presence powerful–and by focusing on privacy rather than content and immediacy, we risk losing the powerful videos without significantly boosting activists’ safety.

When engaging in a protest, and taking a stand against a perceived abuse, the scrupulous protection of privacy can harm to the goals of the protester.

The Pro-Privacy Argument

Media can be a critical tool for protesters–but videos, photos, and social media sites can also make protesters even more vulnerable to arrest, torture, and death at the hands of the government. When we’re talking about human lives, our first concern has to be safety. Discretion and technological safeguards are the primary tools we have to save them.

Protesters are often powerless, and many are tracked down by the government and returned—bearing marks of torture—in a body bag. Governments find activists through the very videos and photos protesters upload to get their story out. In Iran, crowd-sourcing, facial recognition software, and a government “Cyber Army” are tasked with identifying activists, monitoring communications, and blocking transmissions. The Syrian government has used YouTube. There are non-state ‘bad guys,’ too: in Mexico, armed gangs murdered at least four advocates for speaking out against the drug cartels.

Safety is the primary concern, but there are others. Neda’s mother didn’t know of the video until four days after Neda died—by then, strangers across the world had been watching her daughter die.  A 2009 blog on the Hub does an excellent job of outlining concerns about respect for her family’s wishes and safety. Her family has since gone on record against the Iranian government—but that’s a decision for them to deliberate on, and not one that we have the right to force on them.

Activists are putting themselves at risk for the sake of a cause; we can’t imperil them with irresponsible media.

Join the Conversation

This issue is critical for activists, but it will ultimately be decided by those who post, view, or re-post the videos and photos.  What do you think? Is the safety risk outweighed by the opportunity to spread the facts about oppression, and to bring distant audiences into the cause? Comment here, on Facebook, or on Twitter (@witnessorg).

We are presenting on several panels at South by Southwest including “Recognize This! The Ethics of Mobile Face Tagging” and “How to Run a Social Site and Not Get Users Killed” and follow us on Twitter here @witnessSXSW.

Kim Howell, intern in WITNESS’ communication department, is a human rights activist with a background in West African affairs, women’s empowerment, and international development. You can get more updates via her Twitter feed: @itskimplicated.

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