Read the original post in Spanish by Indira Cornelio.
Translated by Natalia Guerrero.

This blog is part of WITNESS’ global campaign ‘Eyes on Internet Shutdowns: Documenting for Human Rights’. As we face a rising number of internet shutdowns across the globe, this post highlights tactics employed by our friends and allies across Latin America.

Internet Shutdowns in Latin America

In recent years, in Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile, and Colombia, governments have responded to social mobilizations by using disproportionate force. Demonstrators have even recorded illegal practices, such as the use of certain pointed weapons with the entire purpose of seriously injuring those who are protesting, in images and video.

“Without free internet there is no democracy” – Redes de Ayuda from Venezuela

In these contexts, the urgency of widely disseminating the evidence of these human rights violations is met frequently with a series of obstacles, such as the blocking of certain web pages that share such content, inability to access certain services or platforms, low capacity to access connection (throttling). These types of internet shutdowns are also compounded by other obstacles that have been detected within social media platforms, such as the suspension or closure of accounts, the reduction in the scope of publications, and the removal of content.

Fundación Karisma, an organization based in Colombia focused on digital and civil rights, affirms in its report Guns Against Cell Phones, that these state interferences to internet service prevent citizens from expressing themselves, participating, or informing themselves, in addition to obstructing the reporting and documentation of human rights violations. This was the case during the demonstrations of the National Strike (#ParoNacionalColombia) that began in April of 2021.

Given this context, those who are protesting take various measures so their voices are heard, to counteract false narratives that seek to stigmatize the protest. They call for international solidarity actions, and show the different faces and forms that resistance has, to expose the truth and share their hope for justice.

In this blog, we compiled some of the initiatives by organizations, collectives, and the media, as well as strategies that activists have used to face internet shutdowns in Latin America.

Outwitting the algorithm: avoiding censorship on social networks

During #ParoNacionalColombia, people using social networks to share images, videos, stories from the demonstrations, experienced difficulties on internet platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 4 of the “Podcast with K” about the report ‘Guns Versus Cellphones’

“Everyday content is blocked, taken down, and the scope of accounts and content is canceled or reduced when they do not comply with these platforms’ use of terms. It is necessary for these companies to adjust the mechanisms to protect communications and prevent their community norms from being a barrier to expression or suppress the reporting of serious human rights abuses like the ones we experience in Colombia.”

Many responded by adjusting their ways of publishing on social networks by:

1) using popular music as soundtrack for videos,
2) including stickers within the stories,
3) asking their contacts to try to respond to videos or images with “positive” emojis even if they contained police violence content, and
4) avoiding the use of certain words or change some letters in phrases such as 3L P4R0 N0 P4R4 instead of El Paro No Para (‘The Strike Hasn’t Finished’).

Video posted by Primeralineacol on Instagram

To ensure that the content remained on platforms, social media users strived to deflect the attention of algorithms that would limit the scope or remove important evidence of human rights violations.

Check out the report and guides by Article 19 on how to avoid the removal of content on Twitter, Facebook.

#SafeGuardEvidence

Similar to previous occasions, in Colombia, we also saw the @ArchivaColombia bot very active on Twitter. The bot works to secure the evidence found online. People could tag that account in tweets that had audiovisual content, and it would be backed up in a Telegram account.

Bot @ArchivaColombia in Twitter
Other ways to preserve evidence

Due to the censorship in social networks, organizations such as Fundación Karisma used alternative services such as archive.org or Wikimedia Commons to share images, videos, or audios to their community after the protests.

TembloresONG, campaigned throughout the National Strike in Colombia to collect complaints, including audiovisual materials of police violence. Similar work is carried out by Testigo en Línea in Chile. Check out their guide: ‘Considerations for working with Digital Evidence for Human Rights’.

The need to have independently run spaces to preserve this type of evidence is growing. Faced with the possibility of losing valuable evidence that could be crucial to seeking justice, groups and collectives are organizing to gather videos and images that are being recorded and shared on social networks.

In Latin America, a region where the free software community has been active for many years, there are now several collectives and organizations that offer alternatives for file management in solidarity with organizations and movements. Check out the Autonomous Replicable Servers tutorial from the Laboratorio Popular de Medios Libres.

Document to understand internet shutdowns

In Venezuela, the organization Redes de Ayuda registered in its 2020 report, 73 events between power cuts, fiber optic cuts, and others that affected Internet connectivity throughout the national territory:

“In Redes de Ayuda we document, analyze and report annually the digital events that threaten freedom of expression, the right to information and access to the internet; we also analyze the important role that the internet plays in facing complex humanitarian emergencies, and economic, social and political crises, as fundamental elements, to understand the Venezuelan reality in greater depth.”

‘Guns Versus Cellphones’ Report by Fundación Karisma

And last but not least, we recognize the importance of the work of journalists and organizations throughout the region that have been demanding information from governments and documenting, with all the difficulties that it implies, the technological tools that the State has been using for the purpose of restricting internet access in protest contexts. In many cases, they are also demanding reports from telecommunications companies on their practices.

This work of putting the pieces of the puzzle together is necessary to understand what each country is facing. Much like Fundación Karisma has done in Colombia with its recommendations in the report ‘Guns Versus Cellphones’, other digital rights organizations throughout Latin America are calling their government to account, to be more transparent in the use of technology, and demand greater respect for human rights.

WITNESS’ #EyesOnShutdowns Online Huddle

You can learn more strategies by watching this live broadcast by WITNESS. Listen to the experiences of frontline documenters from countries such as Kashmir, Uganda, Nigeria, Western Sahara, as well as Colombia and Venezuela:

Other resources:

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