Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes via Creative Commons
By Sylvie Doppelt with contributions from Sarah Kerr
Earlier this month WITNESS’ Raja Althaibani attended The Media for Social Change UnConference at Birmingham City University in England. The UnConference brought together activists, academics and citizen journalists to discuss media and social change in MENA through participant-generated discussion.
In the first of this two part series, we interviewed conference organizer Dima Saber leading up to the event. Following the UnConference, I spoke with Raja about her experience.
Sylvie: What put the “Un” in “UnConference?”
Raja: The gathering was run using the non-traditional “unconference” structure. The topics of the sessions were created and led by the conference participants, instead of determined in advance by the conference organizers. In the sessions, everyone participated by exchanging experiences and work shopping different ways to improve the political, societal and technological systems that we work within. For instance, we discussed ways in which people can verify reports and news from around the world using online verification tools and methods, including those discussed in Craig Silverman’s newly released Verification Handbook.
Participants included individuals with a wide range of expertise – from experts in online verification, to those working on documentation and filmmaking. The structure created an active and energetic environment. It was an amazing learning experience!
SD: Can you share some details about presentation on how video can be used for social change?
RA: We facilitated a session on the multiple ways that you can use video and how to target different audiences with video.
We went over a case study from Bil’in in Palestine with footage from local activists who were resisting land grabbing in their community. During a protest, a protester from the community was shot in the chest with a teargas canister and immediately killed. There were many cameras being used on that day and the event was captured from multiple angles. B’Tselem and Goldsmith’s Center for Research Architecture pulled together all of the clips, which helped verify the authenticity of the videos and pressure the authorities to investigate the case.
It reminded us that while a lot of video content is being created and there are many videos out there documenting parts of an incident, they often lack context needed to verify the time, place, perpetrators and victims.The footage from this case was used in an advocacy documentary, 5 Broken Cameras, which was nominated for an Academy Award and brought global attention to the incident. We love using this case study in trainings because it shows the power of video and the variety of ways in which video can be used for different purposes and with different audiences.
[pullquote]It reminded us that while a lot of video content is being created and there are many videos out there documenting parts of an incident, they often lack context needed to verify the time, place, perpetrators and victims. [/pullquote]This case also demonstrates the strengths and of limitations of video. Although it can be sometimes used in an investigation like this, video is just one piece of the puzzle. This serves as a good reminder that video is not powerful when it stands alone and is generally used to support or corroborate other sources of information and evidence.
SD: What were some of the specific conversations you had about the ways social media is used for activism?
RA: We focused a lot on social media as a tool to mobilize and create dialogue. However, we also discussed the strengths and limitations of social media, including that it is sometimes used by malicious forces to mobilize, recruit, and intimidate.
We also discussed something that we think a lot about at WITNESS, which is how reaching and mobilizing people through social media could potentially marginalize those who are offline. Many people witnessing or experiencing human rights abuses don’t have access to the Internet. We had a lot of conversations during the breakout sessions on how to build that bridge and better engage the offline community to make sure their voices are heard.
SD: What were some of your major takeaways from those conversations and the UnConference?
RA: I have been thinking a lot about the impact of social media and the direction it will take in the future. One of my takeaways is that we still have a lot of learning to do. Social media is new and evolving. I was reminded that we need to constantly educate ourselves on how things are changing online.
It’s also fascinating to see how social media has influenced our behavior in the activist community. We all came to the agreement that we need to take a step back and reflect more on what is being shared online. We continue to lack that time to reflect and look at what we’re doing and the impact it’s making. Social media is such a powerful tool in our lives, and but we also need to remember, it’s just a tool, and there are many other advocacy tactics we should still be focusing on.
[pullquote]Many people witnessing or experiencing human rights abuses don’t have access to the Internet. We had a lot of conversations during the breakout sessions on how to build that bridge and better engage the offline community to make sure their voices are heard.[/pullquote]
SD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
RA: The Birmingham City University team and the Meedan team were great! They are a talented group and did a great job in making everybody feel comfortable and encouraging people to speak and share their experiences. Also, I am very excited about Meedan’s new tool Checkdesk, which helps journalists and citizen documenters share and verify citizen generated content.
Sylvie Doppelt is a 2013-2014 Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and interned with WITNESS’ Engagement Team this spring. Sarah Kerr is the Program Assistant at WITNESS.
Update May 28, 2014: An earlier version of this post incorrectly named the university where the UnConference took place. It is the Birmingham City University, not the University of Birmingham.