December 10 marks Human Rights Day, commemorating the U.N.’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Durable protection of human rights requires institutional frameworks and the rule of law. But with the rise of social media — together with cameras now standard in mobile devices — citizens are gaining tools to bring abuses of power to public attention and demand accountability.
Visual imagery has a long history of documenting conflict and influencing public opinion, from photos taken on U.S. Civil War battlefields to last month’s footage of rebel fighting in Syria. As access to consumer video equipment has increased, so has the opportunity for citizen journalists and bystanders to capture violations they witness: the grainy home-video of the Rodney King beating in 1991 may be the first of this genre, up through the multiple cellphone videos of the Oscar Grant shooting in 2009, and numerous accounts of clashes between protestors and police during the Occupy movement and campus demonstrations in fall 2011.
A number of organizations now provide training and tools for citizens to record confrontations with authorities safely and effectively. Copwatch, founded in Berkeley in 1990, trains volunteers to observe and record police action, and Video the Vote offers guidelines and a repository for footage of voter suppression or irregularities. A mobile app created by OpenWatch and recently released by the ACLU allows cellphone users to record interactions with police covertly and upload them anonymously. The human rights organization WITNESS provides video training, equipment, and support to grassroots advocacy groups internationally.
Most often, video is taken with the intention of supporting victims’ claims, but it is also being used by perpetrators to document their own violence against opposing factions and recruit followers. Footage of human rights violations by Syrian rebels last month complicates international support for their political goals against the Assad regime. (Other perpetrators’ self-coverage is inadvertent, as when a hapless burglar filmed his theft on an iPhone he intended to use only as a flashlight.)
Threatened by demands for accountability from camera-wielding citizens, governments are fighting back with legislation making it a crime to record police action. Spain is drafting the “Citizen Safety Law” that would criminalize photographing or filming police on duty, after October protests against austerity measures turned violent. In the United States, the right to videotape police has been challenged in various states but remains protected under the First Amendment, with decisions most recently in the First and Seventh Circuit courts.
This raises the question, what impact does video have? Its use as evidence is still being tested in domestic and international courts, where forensic technology must address concerns regarding potential tampering and chain-of-custody issues. Whether the footage is ultimately used as evidence, it already plays a role to encourage prosecutors or commissions to investigate alleged crimes and to influence out-of-court settlements. Video can also help exonerate those charged without cause, as was the case when an Occupy Wall Street protestor was wrongly accused. Footage clearly showed he was obeying police instructions, and he was acquitted of the charges. Equally important, video can inform public opinion about contested events; a search on YouTube for “UC Davis pepper spray,” regarding the incident last fall, yields more than 1,000 results, and one clip attracted 2.5 million views.
Technology tools now being developed can increase the effectiveness of collective visual documentation. The Rashomon Project here at CITRIS is developing an online toolkit to synchronize and align multiple video accounts of a single event. It uses YouTube’s face-blurring technology to protect the identities of the activists, a measure especially important in contexts where participation in political demonstrations could result in persecution or death. Complementary tools are being developed by WITNESS and the Guardian Project, whose Informacam and Obscuracam apps will help verify the source of footage and protect the activists shooting it. WITNESS is also curating a human rights channel on YouTube, featuring video that raises awareness of international issues.
Although the signers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not have foreseen the sweeping changes that technology would bring over the next 64 years, they would have welcomed the increased personal agency that technology would ultimately afford to safeguard those rights.
Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.