Police brutality, torture, chemical weapons attacks. Through the lenses of bystanders, witnesses, and sometimes even perpetrators, we were transported to this year’s the darkest episodes of humanity, all with the ease of a click, and the speed of an upload.
We were in Daveyton, South Africa in late February, watching with other shocked bystanders as officers handcuffed Mido Macia to their van and drove away, dragging the taxi driver down the gravel road behind them.
We listened to Haitian earthquake survivors, who testified that officials, landowners, and thugs were attempting to force them out of tent camps and into the streets.
And in the pre-dawn hours of mid-August, we ran through the corridors of a suburban Damascus hospital, witnessing in horror victims as young as babies suffering from what would later be confirmed to be a chemical weapons attack.
In 2013, the Human Rights Channel curated nearly 2300 videos from 100 countries. Collectively, they reveal not only what citizen journalists filmed this year, but how that video was seen and used. Never before have YouTube videos brought egregious abuse to such influential audiences. But as the importance of citizen video becomes clear, so too do the challenges it involves, including the need for verification and the potential of misuse.
World Leaders Moved by Citizen Video
While reporters and human rights monitors have documented the Syrian war for nearly three years, it was citizen videos that moved the world toward intervention this summer. More than 100 videos documented victims of the August 21st chemical weapons attack, reaching online audiences within hours, and President Barack Obama shortly thereafter. It was a montage of these videos, verified by the CIA that was presented to members of Congress as the president made a case for intervention.
But Syria was only one example in a year in which citizen videos moved political and diplomatic leaders to act. After the video of Mido Macia emerged, the president of South Africa and officials from Macia’s native Mozambique spoke out condemning the brutality it exposed. The police officers involved were swiftly arrested.
The Verification Conundrum
However, it can be challenging to respond to citizen video that appears to show evidence of abuse, as it is not always possible to verify its authenticity. The hallmark of a citizen video is that it is taken by an ordinary, often anonymous, citizen, and uploaded online, where metadata is stripped. If a viewer is lucky, visual clues can help corroborate where and when the event occurred, but not if the video was taken in open fields, prisons and private residences.
Such was the case with a video that emerged online in Fiji in early 2013. The disturbing YouTube footage appeared to show Fijian authorities torturing men in the cab of a pickup truck. The uploader’s identity was unknown, as was the location and date of the footage. But if authentic, the video would corroborate a pattern of documented abuse of Fijian prisoners. Despite questions surrounding the video’s origins, it caught the attention of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which, along with neighboring countries, censured Fijian authorities and pressed for an investigation.
In other cases, the inability to verify footage gives an easy out for officials pressed to respond to damning video. When an online video emerged appearing to show a Saudi man whipping his foreign employee, it caught international media attention and sparked discussions about the treatment of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. To that, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry told a newspaper, “there is no proof this is real.”
Citizen footage can and is throwing a spotlight on otherwise inaccessible places such as prisons, war zones, and homes. But given the uncertainties inherent in such footage, reporters and investigators must use it with caution. This year has given us plenty of examples of political activists and just plain hoaxers misleading viewers—intentionally or not—with acted scenes, incorrect subtitles, and digital effects.
The growing awareness that online video cannot be taken at face value is leading to innovative ways of analyzing it for answers. We’ve seen this in crowd sourced video verification projects like Storyful’s Open Newsroom, and Elliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses) using online video to deduce the location of the August 21 chemical weapons attack. In another example, the Bahraini Center for Human Rights asked a medical expert to analyze a video taken inside an interrogation room. Signs of physical and psychological trauma led a doctor to conclude that the video showed evidence of a forced confession.
Activists & Authorities Use Video to Their Advantage
As much as reporters, policy makers, and human rights monitors use citizen video in their work, so too do those involved in the issues filmed.
The type of video we see most often on the Human Rights Channel is protest footage. When an agrarian strike began in the Colombian countryside this year, activists filmed marches and attacks on peaceful protesters. The videos, shared on Facebook and Twitter, garnered support from other towns and large cities, as well as attention from the mainstream media.
The activists were not the only ones to leverage YouTube for their causes. In a press conference, Colombia’s top police officials stated that that they too were watching YouTube. They offered awards to those who could identify protesters in online videos who appeared to be committing crimes.
Citizen Videos Fill Gaps
Beyond documentation of abuse, the videos we watched in 2013 provided something more: a vehicle for repressed or marginalized communities to present their perspective in the face of repression or marginalization.
In Sudan, online videos of an uprising gained international awareness of a mass movement as the government tried to censor local media.
In Cuba, you won’t find stories of dissidents in state media, but you can hear their testimonies and watch their marches on activists’ YouTube channels.
In Egypt, the media collective Mosireen created a counter-narrative to the governments of President Morsi and General Sisi. Their videos documented abuses of the regimes, and were shared on the countless anniversaries of massacres and assassinations in post-revolutionary Egypt.
When al-Sisi’s government erected a monument to commemorate the martyrs of the 2011 revolution, it was received by many Egyptians as a hollow attempt to gloss over the army’s own role in the deaths of activists. Mosireen answered with a video. Under the voice of a government official offering condolences to the martyrs of the revolution, a montage of 2011 footage shows the army itself shooting protesters, leaving the viewer with the words “never forget.” In the face of successive governments repeating the crimes of the Mubarak regime, such determination to cultivate a historical memory resounds with defiance.
“Never forget.” The mantra, in fact, underlies our work and that of citizen journalists uncovering abuse worldwide. To record, to film, is the first step in what may be a long process to achieving justice. But as we have seen this year, it is increasingly serving as a spark for action. Thank you for bearing witness with us in 2013.
As we look forward to 2014, we hope that citizens everywhere raising a lens on human rights abuse will be emboldened by the knowledge that world is watching.