Recent developments in technology — and a UN Human Rights Council Resolution — highlight the growing potential of social media’s role in international justice. Tools for citizens to report or document serious crimes are increasingly available and easy for non-specialists to deploy. The seminal crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi, created during the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008, has inspired the creation of other user-generated applications to counter violent crime and corruption.
Still, every technological advance in promoting accountability and human rights seems matched by an equal and opposite innovation that threatens privacy and activists’ safety. Last week, in an effort to protect the identities of those caught in the frame, YouTube launched a feature for automatically obscuring faces, something human rights activists have been advocating since footage of protests taken on individual smartphones began proliferating on the Internet. Although the tool is not yet foolproof, it is a step in the right direction and will help raise awareness of the need for reducing risk of identification and retaliation for those on the front lines.
At the same time, facial recognition technology is rapidly advancing with little regulation of its use. From law enforcement to Facebook, increasingly sophisticated databases can catalog, recall and identify faces for tracking suspects or tagging photos of friends. In a July 18 hearing of the Senate subcommittee on privacy, technology, and the law, Senator Al Franken quizzed Facebook’s privacy manager on the complicated steps required for users to protect their visual identities, and asked the Federal Trade Commission’s representative whether the agency could require companies to make the facial recognition service only available as opt-in. She will take the request back to the FTC for consideration.
Much has been made of social networks’ capacity to mobilize citizens to protest repressive governments abroad. Images of youth in the streets with mobile phones and cameras, and the instant fame of Facebook’s Wael Ghonim characterized enthusiastic coverage of events during the Arab Spring. But a more nuanced picture emerges in a recent study by the US Institute of Peace, which suggests that new media acted “like a megaphone more than a rallying cry.” Although online tools served as an important bridge to mainstream media and diplomats outside the region, social media took a backseat to more traditional organizing techniques to spark participation for direct action on the ground.
Indeed, social media has failed to bring justice to the thousands of victims of repressive regimes. Take Syria or Yemen where no international investigation has yet been launched. The International Criminal Court, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, was created to investigate war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity and prosecute those most responsible. But few countries in the Middle East signed the agreement creating the court and are not subject to its jurisdiction, short of a referral from the UN Security Council, where allies like China and Russia would likely veto such a motion.
With sufficient evidence, the ICC Prosecutor could open an investigation on her own, and eventually, crowdsourced footage of human rights violations may be admissible in court. Until then, social media can raise awareness of atrocities, but the persuasive power of online tools must be matched offline by the political will to demand accountability.