With contributions from Sam Gregory, Dia Kayyali, Palika Makam, and Dalila Mujagic
2017 was a challenging year for most of the world, and the exceptions (Trump, white supremacists, nationalists in multiple countries, religious extremists, greedy corporations) are the ones responsible. But the oft-repeated maxim that these forces are fighting so hard because their positions of power are being threatened is not wrong. Video had a big role to play in 2017. Some of it was good, some it was bad, and we saw some new developments that we are keeping our eye on to understand better. Here’s our take on video in 2017.
Video was key to holding police officers in the US and Brazil accountable
In 2017, despite multiple disappointing verdicts in court proceedings that included video as evidence against police officers in the United States, we also saw cases where video was key in court cases and administrative proceedings. In the U.S., Michael Slager, the officer who shot Walter Scott, was sentenced to 20 years after pleading guilty. In Brazil, our incredible partners Papo Reto celebrated an important victory, when a collection of video footage was used as evidence in court to indict two high-level commanders for their responsibility in the unlawful invasion of private homes.
YouTube introduced a new blurring tool and responded to critiques about how its new policies are affecting human rights material
In August, YouTube launched a new and improved face blurring tool that makes it easier than ever for anyone to protect identities in videos. At the same time, we collaborated with our partners the Syrian Archive to discovere that YouTube’s new machine-learning system—meant to detect extremist content— had been deleting hundreds of thousands of videos depicting human rights abuses in Syria.. We were able to get tens of thousands of videos restored, and continue to push YouTube to fix their broken system.
Video- and especially livestreaming- amplified the voices of millions of people around the world demanding justice
Video created by activists was key to showing the incredible organizing by water defenders at Standing Rock, independence activists in Catalonia, protesters rejecting disputed election results in Honduras, and most recently the unprecedented protests in Iran. In each of these cases, the in-depth documentation carried out by activists and their smartphone cameras thrust a powerful international spotlight on police and military repression that could have otherwise gone largely unnoticed.
Courts in the United States upheld the right to record the police
There has been no Supreme Court decision in the United States that ensures that the right to record is respected in every judicial district. However, courts of appeal (“Circuit Courts) in two districts held clearly that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects the right to record the police. The decisions in Fields v. The City of Philadelphia and Turner V. Lieutenant Driver strengthen the right to record in the United States even further, and set a good precedent not only for cases in the United States, but for this important issue of freedom of expression worldwide. The United States has one of the most strongly enshrined bodies of law on this issue, and we hope that other countries start to follow suit. We believe it’s not just the First Amendment that supports the right to record, it’s Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Indigenous Communities in Mexico Won a Land Rights Victory in Federal Court
The Júba Wajiín and advocacy group Tlachinollan, after years of video campaigning in judicial decision-making spaces and public awareness raising,secured their biggest victory to date. Last summer a federal court ruled the Mexican state has a constitutional obligation to respect indigenous land rights, and that mining operations cannot continue without input from the Júba Wajiín community. Though the federal government appears to disagree with the court decision, the Júba Wajiín and their allies continue to use video advocacy and powerful community organizing in order to ensure their land rights.
Video exposed human rights defenders and at-risk communities
As more and more people get in the habit of whipping out their smartphones to document activism and human rights abuses as they happen– and immediately posting them to the Internet– more and more at-risk people are getting exposed by these videos. Sometimes the consequences are lack of privacy and embarrassment, but sometimes the consequences are worse- after a video depicting people waving rainbow flags at a concert in Cairo was posted on social media, Egyptian security forces arrested seven people in what was the beginning of the worst crackdown on LGBTQ people in decades.
YouTube’s New Machine learning deleted tens of thousands of human rights videos
In June, Google announced it would be using machine learning to “detect extremist content.” Only a few months later, our partners alerted us that tens of thousands (the count is in the hundreds of thousands now) of videos showing human rights abuses in Syria, as well as the channels that feature these videos, were being removed. Open-source investigations- investigations that use such publicly-available material- are one of the only pathways to justice for the millions of Syrians that have had their lives torn apart or taken away by the Assad regime and ISIS. Not only is this bad for Syria, it’s a troubling precedent that could affect documentation from places like Burma, and we will continue to fight it, especially as companies come under pressure from the European Commission to remove objectionable content in 120 minutes.
“Fake news” caused chaos around the world- but it also unfairly called into question citizen journalism
The term fake news became a huge buzzword this year. We continue to defer to the excellent taxonomy of misinformation created by Claire Wardle at First Draft News. Regardless of what you call it, there is no question that people were manipulated by bad actors, and the consequences– such as the election of Trump and the resurgence of white supremacists and nationalists all over the world-were real. But citizen journalism has become collateral damage in the fight against misinformation. One particularly troubling example of both sides of this issue is the human rights abuses being committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Even as official government channels put out patently false information, reports coming directly from citizen journalists, as well as Rohingya news services like Rohingya Vision, were successfully depicted as fake news by the government. We continue to believe that citizen journalism cannot be so easily dismissed, and we will push platforms like Facebook to understand that and work with partners across the world to disseminate and refine our resources on making media verifiable and reliable.
WITNESS has been skeptical about bodycams since they started being touted as a panacea for U.S. police violence in 2014– especially since we have seen so many localities adopt harmful policies that actually exacerbate the problem. But this year, we learned that fortunately, police officers don’t necessarily understand when and how bodycams turn on, resulting in compelling evidence that officers are planting evidence on suspects. In Baltimore, the State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of cases after body cam footage showed what appeared to be a police officer planting drugs on suspect, and in Los Angeles Officer Samuel Lee was pulled from duty after a video appeared to show him doing the same. At the same time, the Salt Lake City District Attorney ruled that the fatal police shooting of Patrick Harmon as he ran away from police- as shown on bodycam-was justified.
The use of video from social media as evidence mushroomed
In a historic first, on August 15, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli for crimes in Libya, based largely on 7 videos obtained on social media. We also saw Sweden, Finland, and Germany use videos from social media in prosecutions and investigations. As Human Rights Watch points out these prosecutions are, unfortunately, focused on terrorism-related charges instead of war crimes prosecutions against Assad’s regime-partly because of ISIS’ predilection for filming itself committing human rights abuses as propaganda. We are working to ensure that such evidence is understood and used appropriately.
Video created by the perpetrators of human rights abuses
Syria remains the greatest example of how these videos can shape the fight for justice, while also being used as propaganda. As noted above the ICC and state prosecutors are using such videos. And aggregators like the Violation Documentation Center in Syria relies on such videos as well. Such videos have also exposed abuses in other places, for example myriad videos showing abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, posted on social media by perpetrators who clearly don’t fear reprisal. However, Facebook Live has been used in countless cases by people to livestream abuse and even murders. Video on social media is also being used in places like Kyrgyzstan to intimidate and sometimes bribe the LGBTQ community. We’ve written about the ethical concerns around using perpetrator video, and we are keeping a close eye on this issue.
As an organization and individuals embedded in the fight for human rights for multiple decades, we believe that 2017 was a wakeup call for those who haven’t been paying attention. Looking forward, our Executive Director Yvette recently wrote “In 2018, WITNESS is committed to partnering with marginalized and vulnerable communities, and building capacity for people to use video and technology to put an end to injustice. And from time to time, this year, no matter how deep the crisis or how urgent the need, we will take a moment to listen, to learn and to ensure that our efforts and those of our partners will be more impactful than ever.”