A new generation of human rights investigators turns to high-tech methods

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we near the gruesome sixth anniversary of the war in Syria, daily documents of the carnage there now flood the Internet. Photos and videos posted by both civilians and combatants catalogue the shocking depths of human cruelty and possible war crimes.

Now human rights investigators are increasingly turning to the Internet to track what's happening, not only in Syria, but in other conflict zones.

As part of our Breakthroughs coverage of invention and innovation, special correspondent Cat Wise reports on a new university program training students to become human rights investigators in the digital age.

And a warning: This story contains some disturbing images.

CAT WISE: For decades, human rights investigators have relied on tools like shovels and backhoes to uncover mass graves and mass atrocities in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Rwanda. But in today's smartphone-filled world, videos and images of people killed or suffering thousands of miles away take only a couple of clicks to find on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.

The front lines of human rights work have shifted in the digital age, and a new generation of investigators is beginning to employ high-tech tools.

STUDENT: We can probably screen-shot that.

STUDENT: Yes.

STUDENT: And reverse-image it.

STUDENT: Yes.

STUDENT: And we should look up the name of that pharmacy.

STUDENT: Can anyone translate that?

CAT WISE: These students are part of the recently launched Human Rights Investigations Lab at the University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center.

The university and partner organization Amnesty International are training the students to verify videos and other publicly available social media content coming out of areas like Syria, where human rights violations have been occurring.

For the first time, students are using open source investigation methods used previously by journalists and human rights professionals.

YOUSTINA YOUSSEF, Student: Oh, those are uniforms.

CAT WISE: Youstina Youssef is a 20-year-old political science major in the program. She's become a highly skilled digital detective. And her native language, Arabic, also comes in handy. Youssef grew up in Cairo, Egypt. She and her family are Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt. They came to the U.S. in 2010 shortly before the revolution began.

YOUSTINA YOUSSEF: I didn't have a minute of hesitation about this. I jumped right on it. I think it has a lot to do with my background of coming from Egypt, being a regular person, and then being affected by the political scene in the country, and having your life upended.

This project gives me an outlet, gives me a way to feel like I am contributing in some way.

ALEXA KOENIG, Executive Director, Berkeley Human Rights Center: Welcome to the spring 2017 launch of the Human Rights Investigations Lab.

CAT WISE: The 60-plus student volunteers are a diverse group from different majors and the law school. They speak more than 20 languages.

Alexa Koenig is the executive director of Berkeley's Human Rights Center. She says the lab was a natural progression for the organization, which has been advancing human rights work, around the world, for more than 20 years.

ALEXA KOENIG: We have noticed over and over that there are a number of front-line human rights advocates that are really trying to figure out, how do you ensure that the videos they're getting from survivors on the ground are what they purport to be?

So, one of the things we were thinking is, couldn't we leverage our position here to provide the labor that so many of these organizations really can't afford, but also provide a pipeline of students who are skilled in an area that's increasingly in demand, front-line human rights workers?

CAT WISE: And it appears the human rights movement is eager for help. Since the lab began in September, students have been asked by Amnesty and other groups to look at material coming out of Yemen, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar. But the bulk of their work has been focused on Syria, specifically Aleppo.

HALEY WILLIS, Student: This is very deep in Aleppo.

CAT WISE: Haley Willis is a sophomore in the program from Texas. She showed me one of the key methods she and the other students use to verify videos.

HALEY WILLIS: Geolocation is essentially, did this take place where it says it took place? We're really used to being able to say, here's this store, and you type it into Google, you get an address, and you're done. In Syria, there's not easily accessible addresses. There's no Google Street View.

In this particular video, the thing that stood out to me the most is a white dome sticking out from behind this building right here.

CAT WISE: Oh, I see that.

HALEY WILLIS: That is a good place to start for geolocating, because a dome is round. That's a very distinct shape that you will be able to see from above.

CAT WISE: Wills then began looking for a needle in a haystack: a tiny dome in pre-war satellite images of Aleppo.

HALEY WILLIS: I combed through this neighborhood, and I basically looked for every white circular object that I saw. I ended up narrowing it down to about two. You can't always be 100 percent sure, and you should never say you're 100 percent sure unless you are.

CAT WISE: After getting as far as they can, the students turn over their research to the partner organizations for final analysis.

Screening hours and hours of disturbing images can obviously take a toll. It's an issue that's taken very seriously within the program.

SAM DUBBERLEY, Amnesty International: The most important thing you can do to look after yourself personally is just have awareness, understanding how you normally respond to things and how are you responding after spending a couple of hours looking at and verifying videos.

CAT WISE: Sam Dubberley works for Amnesty International. The lab partnership with Berkeley was actually his idea. He's now running three similar programs at universities in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Canada, and each group is required to go through regular resiliency training.

SAM DUBBERLEY: Just watching a video without sound is actually less distressing than watching it with sound. And very often, the audio is not necessarily important for verification.

It's very important to us to make sure the students are trained and given a safe environment, so that they do not suffer any adverse effects of trauma. The reality is, the world of human rights investigation requires you to look at this content today. So, if in two years' time, three years' time, you want to move into that field, I think it's very good for them that they actually understand the skills and the resiliency required to do this job.

CAT WISE: Under that guided leadership, the students have been cranking away, more than 1,500 hours of verification work thus far. And some of that work has even made it all the way to the United Nations, according to Syrian activist Hadi Al Khatib.

HADI AL KHATIB, Syrian Activist: The students found a specific type of cluster munitions that has been used in Aleppo City and its countryside. And this has been all included in a verified data set that we have sent to the U.N.

CAT WISE: Al Khatib runs an organization called the Syrian Archive. He and his colleagues are creating a large database of verified videos documenting human rights violations on all sides since the start of the Syrian civil war.

I spoke to him on Skype about why he asked Berkeley for help.

HADI AL KHATIB: With the archive, we have about more than 3,800 videos that have been verified. We still have a backlog of more than 30,000 of videos that we need to go through. So this is why we need the help of Berkeley university students.

CAT WISE: But the big question, of course, on the minds of both the students and others doing this type of work: Will any of it actually be presented in an international court of law one day? Could a YouTube video lead to the downfall of a leader?

BEN TAUB, The New Yorker: If there is no geopolitical will to actually help people, then you can have all the videos in the world, and it won't actually garner support to save people's lives.

CAT WISE: Ben Taub is a contributing writer at The New Yorker who has written extensively about human rights violations in Syria. We caught up with him recently on the Columbia University campus, where he talked about the pluses and minuses of open source evidence.

BEN TAUB: It's extremely useful for advocacy. It's also extremely useful for putting the crimes before the international community to try to garner the kind of political pressure that could result in a trial taking place to begin with.

But it doesn't necessarily link the actor that you're trying to prosecute to the crime. Footage of, for instance, a hospital being blown up doesn't show that that was ordered by Assad or by his highest-level security committee. The kind of evidence that really would get them would be a document, an order, something that's signed.

CAT WISE: That's an issue that is very much on the mind of the Human Rights Center's Alexa Koenig.

ALEXA KOENIG: One of the biggest hurdles about using these new methods is that they are so new. So, judges often don't know how to evaluate, and give any kind of weight to information you're pulling off Facebook, or Twitter, or these other platforms.

One of the things we're hoping to do for kind of investing in the long-term use of these methods is just begin to build an international standard for how to evaluate what constitutes an effective and a good investigation.

CAT WISE: In the months ahead, the students will continue their work on Syria and start new projects in Africa and Central America.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Berkeley, California.

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