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Sam Gregory replies to Douglas Rushkoff

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Sam Gregory

Hi all - glad to join the conversation!

My perspective is of someone watching the radically increasing capacity of the internet (and increasingly, particularly the mobile web) as a place/space for creating and sharing video and visual imagery, and its impact on human rights work - so I'll focus primarily on video online for my perspective on the internet and fighting repression. When WITNESS, where I work, was founded in 1992, coming out of the Rodney King incident, the promise then was of handicams in the hands of human rights activists as a way to document the reality of what was happening on the ground around the world. But that moment was very preliminary - since in the absence of distribution venues for their footage most of the groups and activists we worked with found it extremely hard to get into the mainstream media (which they assumed to be a primary audience). Gatekeepers were not receptive to many of their issues, or didn't want to reflect the complexities in the stories they allowed to be seen. The internet - for many of the groups we work with - adds the distribution and sharing element that was missing at the start, particularly for rapid distribution outside of a specific local space. So, our partners working in eastern Burma can distribute a video on attacks on ethnic minority villages, and have it instantly in the hands of solidarity groups and activists worldwide - and receive half a million hits on it on YouTube over time (though perhaps with a question on the impact of those views, that may be just as relevant as when we look at broadcast viewing figures on TV and wonder what people did as a result). That's not to say that all of groups we work with use the internet as their primary means of distribution to advocacy audiences (we work with many who still rely on distribution of DVDs, or on using video as evidence or in lobbying behind closed doors), but that it gives them a critical way to either share information privately or publicly that they lacked before.

For best examples, there's alot to choose from - and also noting I think we're all still teasing out the linkages between online viewing/engagement and offline activism, particularly with some many variant and hybrid forms of internet-based video media. Over the past two years, WITNESS has featured many of these examples of what's working in terms of video online on our human rights media-sharing site, the Hub (http://hub.witness.org). Within that spectrum of online video for activism there are well-produced and well-edited short viral videos - some of the best examples include 'The Girl Effect' on the importance of prioritizing education and support to girls (highlighted in examples of using video to stop violence against women) or something as hard-hitting as the Amnesty UnsubscribeMe videos, that would never get played on television as PSAs (though '24' might be close), as well as the types of NGO advocacy material like the Burma video I mention above, that can speak to specific audiences with much greater ease than they ever could before. The internet has enabled (and bearing in mind that there are still massive digital divides in terms of access, digital literacy and participation) the circumvention of gatekeepers' control of access to the 'airwaves' and of editorial and a reduced need to prioritize one unitary voice, allowing instead to show the patterns of what is happening (as for example a tool like Ushahidi enables), or provide multiple perspectives on issues that might not otherwise get attention (e.g. ActionAid Nepal's participatory video work to share children's voices from Nepal on climate change) and at a length that is of the creators' choosing.

Then you also have excellent examples of less produced cellphone and handicam video sharing multiple facets of demonstrations or state brutality in Burma, Egypt, US or Iran - and sparking public activism in country and internationally (Iran), official investigations (eventually in Egypt) or news coverage (Burma). In the case of Burma, there is no way the situation there would have had the same amount of attention for the time it did during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 if it had not been for the capacity of bloggers and video-journalists, and human rights activists in the country to shoot, and share video online (captured so clearly in the Oscar-nominated film Burma VJ). Now, there were also repercussions in terms of that video (as activists were identified and targeted), and also questions about how we assess ultimate impact of the coverage, but that's probably for another stage of this conversation. I also want to echo Nathan's observations on the real-time nature of video shared online, and how it creates instant distant witnesses that can be pushed into other forms of activism.

There's also the phenonemon of unintended and intended consequences of video circulating online and being remixed - in the absence of gatekeepers, and understood in the context rising digital media literacy to share, remix and re-edit. So in Burma, one of the cause celebre videos that has done most to compromise any sense of popular trust and integrity for the ruling military junta was the leaked wedding video of the daughter of the dictator, Than Shwe - that showed opulence and ostentation as the country was heading towards crisis. An example of how the internet (plus digital media literacy, increasing access to capture devices and a participatory sensibility) enables remixing of multiple voices in a structured ways, is the work my colleague Chris Michael did with student chapters of the youth anti-genocide coalition STAND where they were encouraged to remix footage that they shot themselves (of key influencers in their state - for example genocide survivors, religious leaders or community leaders) into short videos of material from key voices at a national level and footage from genocidal situations, in order to individually target their state's Senators with personalized videos that spoke to their particular interest and affiliations, encouraging them to support more effective legislation against genocide. It's discussed in this blog post. I also admire the innovation in the Tunisian Prison Map and related projects where Sami Ben-Gharbia and colleagues working in the opposition human rights movement in Tunisia found a way to embed testimonies from political prisoners and their families in the YouTube video layers on GoogleMaps, circumventing the government's attempt to hide these kinds of truths from their citizens. This, as well as the example of the Targhiz Sniper, are in a recent video '10 Tactics for Turning Information into Action' by the group Tactical Technology Collective, that does a great job of highlighting innovative tactics drawing on new information technologies, including the internet.

A final thought... At the heart of much human rights practice is 'making visible' what is happening. That's not to say that that alone is enough - but it's the start, both within national borders and to create the 'boomerang effect' of international, transnational publicity - both for the type of visible violations of civil and political rights like someone being beaten in public by the police (see this recent example from East Timor), but also for more complex, structural issues like access to water or housing. In order to guarantee other rights, communication rights are absolutely essential - i.e. in order to know your rights, understand them, and communicate, mobilize and organize around them to hold people in power accountable people need to be able to access and share information. The right to communicate essentially unlocks people's agency to demand other rights - and for this the internet has opened up new spaces for many people that didn't exist before. Whether they are successfully able to use that communicative space, and what others also do with that space is another matter!

Looking forward to participating in the rest of this conversation!

--
Sam Gregory
Program Director
WITNESS

Did you know another citizen journalist in Burma was just sentenced to thirteen years in jail? AHRC Urgent Appeal: http://bit.ly/cSzedn

posted February 2, 2010

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