When WITNESS was founded in 1992, we wanted to get cameras in people’s hands. This wasn’t an easy task- at the time, cameras weren’t in every household, they weren’t cheap, and it wasn’t instinctive for people to reach for their camera. Now, video is everywhere, and it’s being made by everyone with a cell phone. By 2019, video will make up 80% of the traffic on the Internet. Video is changing (and has already changed) the world. From Charlottesville to Burma, people are capturing human rights abuses and life changing events, and they’re doing it with their cell phones. WITNESS has been at the forefront of video for human rights for 25 years now, and things are changing quickly. 

That’s why we’re trying out a new monthly blog series,“Last month in video.” We’ll be covering video news each month, highlighting the impact of video to shift narratives or document human rights abuse. We will also help you stay up to date with security and technology news that relates to video.

If you have a tip for a story, please feel free to reach out to us at feedback@witness.org  In the meantime, check out August’s post. There was a lot of news. A lot of it was hard to read– but the impact of video on these events is important and undeniable.

August 1: YouTube blog post “An update on our commitment to fight terror content online

In June of this year, Google announced that they were using machine learning to detect extremist material as part of a new initiative. On August 1, YouTube published a progress update on that process. It lists four steps it has taken, and will continue to take:

  1. Redirecting people who search for certain keywords they will be “redirected towards a playlist of curated YouTube videos that directly confront and debunk violent extremist messages.”
  2. Adding more groups to its “Trusted Flagger” program.
  3. Putting certain videos that don’t clearly violate guidelines into a limited state where they cannot be monetized, are harder to find, and don’t have features like commenting.
  4. Increasing the removal and detection of videos using machine learning.

The WITNESS take: We’re interested in seeing how 1-3 play out. Unfortunately, it’s already clear to us that the increase of automated detection results in the removal of videos that contain important human rights content. More on that below and in our longer blog post about the removal of videos from Syria. In the meantime, if you have any concerns about what you’re posting on YouTube, adding context to your video if it contains graphic content for a human rights purpose– for example “This video shows human rights abuses by the police against activists”. You may also want to consider archiving video, on YouTube and other platforms, to defend against content takedowns.


August 2: Baltimore Drops Dozens of Cases After Video Casts Doubt on Officers

In July, body cam footage from Baltimore showed what appeared to be a police officer planting drugs on suspect. It seems clear from the video that the police officer believed he turned the camera off, planted the drugs, and turned the camera on again. On August 2,  the New York Times reported that the State Attorney’s office was dropping dozens of cases that the officers were scheduled to testify in, and reviewing more. All in all, “The three officers in the video had been scheduled to participate in 123 cases.”

The WITNESS take: When the Obama administration announced federal funding for body cameras in 2014, many public officials seemed to believe the devices would be panaceas for police violence. As we’ve said many times since then, we believe body cams are no substitute for civic witnessing. In fact, body camera footage can be manipulated to support an officer’s version of a story- an issue that has only been exacerbated by harmful local policies that allow police officers to  view footage of incidents before making any official statement, amongst other problematic provisions. It appears that’s what the officer was attempting to do in this case–by capturing his “discovery” of drugs on camera he seemed to think his camera hadn’t captured the initial scene showing him planting the drugs.


August 9: YouTube AI deletes war crime videos as ‘extremist material’

Shortly after Youtube published its update on Google’s fight against extremist content, it became  apparent that the site is flagging and removing thousands of videos showing war crimes from Syria. This is happening at an astonishing rate, unsurprising given that YouTube notes “[o]ver 75 percent of the videos we’ve removed for violent extremism over the past month were taken down before receiving a single human flag.”  WITNESS and the Syrian Archive teamed up to get some of these channels reinstated, and to work with YouTube to understand and fix the problem– but in the meantime, channels and videos continue to disappear.

The WITNESS take: All companies, not just YouTube, need to ensure that they don’t rush to implement policies without considering potential detrimental effects such as losing evidence of war crimes. That’s why we’re continuing to work with social media and tech companies to advocate on these issues and encourage better policy and design decisions.


August 14 / August 21: Eyewitness Shares Footage of White Supremacist Attack on Protestors in Charlottesville, and shortly after receives death threats

Trigger warning for violent imagery and screaming: Brennan Gilmore, an eyewitness to the vehicle attack on protestors in Charlottesville that left Heather Heyer dead, shared his footage via Twitter, after realizing that the media framed the event as a possible accident.

A week later, Gilmore revealed the threats that have been made to him and his family since he shared the video and wrote about it. White supremacists are putting his parent’s address on message boards and making death threats against him.

The WITNESS take:  The thought Gilmore put into sharing these videos serves as an example for other eyewitnesses.  He noted that he shared his video with the police first, and did not share it publicly until he thought about how Neo-Nazis could use it, talked to friends and family, and assessed what the video would add to the conversation. There is no question that his video changed the tone of media coverage around both the protests and the real danger of white supremacy. The dangers of being an eyewitness are very real, especially with the online attack squads organized by neo nazis in the US and other governmental and non-governmental parties. If you have eyewitness video, check out our checklist for ethical sharing, our Video as Evidence guide, and our guide to Getting Started With Digital Security.


August 17: And So It Begins… Social Media Evidence In An [International Criminal Court] Arrest Warrant

As a part of ICC’s new 2016-2018 Strategy, they’ve adapted existing evidentiary practices to open sourced video and changes in technology. We’re already seeing the changes into practice. On August 15, the ICC issued a warrant, the first of it’s kind, for the arrest of Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli for crimes in Libya, based entirely on 7 videos obtained on social media.

The WITNESS take: The warrant notes the data that was available about videos used for this arrest. We encourage activists who are taking video themselves to create the most verifiable video, by following our tips and by using ProofMode, a lite app that adds data to your media. Even if you are uploading video from someone else- videos created by perpetrators of crimes are increasingly being used as evidence of those crimes- you can still add data about the video when you upload it. Any details, including location, time, and names of perpetrators, can help. Our Video As Evidence team will continue to monitor and update our resources as developments in international evidentiary practices manifest.


August 18:  The Commmunity of Paujiles in Honduras denounces police attacks

Despite the incredible danger they face for their work defending the environment, communities continue to peacefully protest pollution caused by hydroelectric projects. On August 15, the police violently broke up a camp on the highway that has been put in place to prevent the movement of the machinery being used to carry out the project. The police operation used tear gas and other mass deterrent tools, and five people were arrested, including a pregnant woman. As the video caption notes,” In spite of the repression, the [sic] more than 20 communities organized in the defense of the territory maintain the camp.”

The WITNESS take: The Paujiles community is one of many examples of rural communities who have organized and taken their fight for land rights directly to the companies and governments who impede them, and they’ve used video to share their message with the world. Although charges have been dropped against two of the Paujiles activists, and indigenous communities in Mexico have scored legal wins, the interests of foreign national companies continue to be a dangerous and credible threat to activists.


August 21: Introducing YouTube’s Updated Blurring Feature

YouTube has launched an improved version of its existing blurring feature. While YouTube’s blurring feature has existed since 2012, last year they introduced a feature that allowed uploaders to blur any area of a video. This month’s announcement marks the first big change to how face blurring works, and it’s a substantial improvement! This new version makes it much easier to select individual faces in a video to blur. In the old version, you could blur all faces or select specific areas to blur. In the new tool, your video is processed and all the faces detected are shown on a grid. All you have to do is click any face on the grid to blur it throughout the video.

The WITNESS Take: We’re incredibly excited to see this feature updated. As we’ve noted, protecting identity of targets of human rights abuses is incredibly important. This tool makes that easy. Keep your eyes on our news page for an updated release of ObscuraCam, an app that allows you to blur faces easily right on your phone.


August 23: Death of Philippine Teenager Stokes Opposition to Duterte’s Drug Crackdown

The killing of 17 year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos by police officers during  “ a “one-time, big-time” crackdown on drug dealers and addicts in the capital and several sprawling suburbs” could have been one of the thousands of killings that have taken place as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. But this killing was captured on camera. Police claimed that as they tried to arrest him, he ran, and then pulled out a gun and started shooting, but CCTV surveillance footage showed him being dragged to the location where his body was later found. Until now, Duterte and his war on drugs had popular support. This video has spurred a sea change in public opinion, a Senate investigation into drug war deaths, and murder and torture charges against the police involved.

The WITNESS Take: As we’ve said before, although video of police violence against Black people in the United States has been misused and ignored in court rooms, we believe it has  also changed the conversation about police in the United States. Filming human rights abuses in the Phillipines is dangerous- Duterte “told the police, on camera, to shoot human rights workers who “obstruct justice.” But Duterte has been able to get away with this because of popular support. We hope this video has made a lasting change.


August 25: Video surfaces showing police in Charlottesville standing unmoving while a white supremacist fires at a black man

Trigger warning for gun violence: The New York Times shares a video that shows a white supremacist very clearly taking out a gun and shooting at a counter protester. The video is credited to the ACLU of VA, and it says in the article that “someone in the crowd” filmed it and turned it into the FBI. As the article notes:

“To make his escape, a video recording shows, the armed protester strolled past a line of about a dozen state police troopers who were safely positioned about 10 feet away behind two metal barricades. None of them budged.”

The WITNESS Take: This disturbing video shows the potential complicity of the police in protest violence. Details about the identities of nearby police officers would have been very valuable (although hard to capture in that terrifying moment). Check out our tips for filming protests and the police. And keep in mind- in protests and many other situations, violence can happen very quickly. Practice filming, and be prepared- but know that no human being can capture everything.


Remember, if you’re using video for human rights, be safe, be ethical, and be effective. Check out our resources, and tune-in next month for our September blog post.

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