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[liberationtech] Human rights activists taught online tactics

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Mon Nov 5 07:09:39 PST 2012


5 November 2012 Last updated at 07:56 ET

Human rights activists taught online tactics

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

An international training institute to teach online tactics for human
rights campaigners is being set up in the Italian city of Florence.

The first students, starting in the new year, will be drawn from human
rights activists around the world - with the aim of arming them with
the latest tools for digital dissent.

As the Arab spring showed, protests are as likely to be about
individuals using social networking as much as public demonstrations.
Street protests have become Tweet protests.

And repressive regimes are as likely to be hunting through Facebook as
they are raiding underground meetings.

There is a dangerous, high-stakes, hi-tech game of cat and mouse being
played - with protesters needing to balance their secrecy and safety
with their need to achieve the maximum public impact.

This training centre, being set up by the European wing of the
US-based Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, wants to
combine academic study with practical skills and training.

Screen secrets

With an appropriate symbolism, the training institute is based in a
former prison building, donated by the city of Florence.

The formidable jail doors, with their hatches and bolts, are still visible.

Federico Moro, the director of the project, says the intention is to
use "technology to promote democracy, human rights and justice".

"The idea is that with social media you can achieve change," he says.

He says campaigners might have passion and belief in their struggles,
but they also need practical knowledge.

"Human rights leaders might dedicate themselves to a cause, they might
give their soul and their life - but you still need the skills to
generate change," he says.

These students will be blog writers and campaigners, who will be able
to study in Florence on scholarships provided by the Robert Kennedy
Center. Recruiting will be complicated by the need to protect the
privacy of people who might be put at risk even by applying.

Mr Moro says the institute will not be partisan in supporting either
right- or left-wing causes - but will act in defence of individuals
facing violations of their human rights, whether it is political
oppression or domestic violence.

Beating the censor

As well as teaching individuals, the institute wants to provide
information for organisations and businesses, advising on areas such
as human rights legislation and ethical investment.

But what does a digital activist - or a so-called "smart dissident" -
need to know?

Chris Michael, from the Brooklyn-based human rights group Witness,
describes the practical steps that protesters are using to stay ahead.

There are websites that allow for anonymous internet access, allowing
people to organise without revealing identities. There are also means
of circumventing censors' attempts at blocking websites.

The Tor project software, an unexpected spin-off from military
technology, is favoured by human rights campaigners.

Mr Michael says there are also "work arounds" to make online video and
phone calls more secure from surveillance.

Another practical development is software that can easily pixellate
faces in video footage, protecting bystanders who might be put at risk
by identification.

In terms of posting videos of protests or repression, Witness is
working with YouTube on a dedicated human rights channel.

It's already hosting hundreds of user-generated videos from a wide
number of countries, at the moment including Syria, Pakistan, Libya,
Burma, Chile, Spain, Russia, China and the United States. There's a
daily update of video reports which include anything from student
protests to forcible evictions.

Selecting and showcasing the most relevant videos is important to make
an impact on YouTube's global audience, Mr Michael says.

"Very few people are going to watch for hours. You might be able to
get their attention for 45 seconds, that's the world people live in,"
he says.

Mobile range

The spread of mobile phones means there is an unprecedented ability
for recording and distributing evidence of violence against citizens.
We're living in a global goldfish bowl.

But is this making the world a safer place? Can cheap video and social
networking defrost dictatorships? To put it bluntly, could Hitler and
Stalin have been exposed at an earlier stage by Twitter and YouTube?

Does a modern revolution really come from the lens of an iPhone rather
than the barrel of a gun?

It's not that simple, cautions Mr Michael, speaking at an event in
Pisa, Italy, debating the impact of digital activism.

"In one word, Syria," he says. There has been video evidence of
wrongdoing and violence, but little sign that public scrutiny is
acting as a deterrent.

"Just because you can document something, it doesn't meant that you
change anything in real terms."

But he says the sheer scale of video and information - and the ability
to keep in touch with those under attack - does make a difference.

"Because so many people are documenting, seeing is not only believing,
we're also able to act and communicate with people who are affected -
and that can be very powerful."

'Slacktivism'

But the question remains whether Facebook really enabled Arab
revolutions, or whether it enabled the rest of the world to find out
more about a revolution that was going to happen anyway.

Stephen Bradbury, a community activist in New Orleans in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina, uses the word "slacktivism" - as a caution for the
idea that clicking on a "like" button is a sufficient alternative to
grassroots organisation.

He also makes the point that while the internet makes so much
information accessible, the power to find it is handed over to the
search engines and their algorithms.

Rana Husseini, a Jordanian activist and journalist who uncovered
stories about honour killings, says the internet has given a voice to
public opinion.

She also shares concerns that digital technology can be used as tools
for surveillance and control as well as openness and investigation.

But she speaks passionately about the way that ordinary people risk
their lives to record video clips on their mobile phones in conflicts
such as Syria.

"This couldn't have happened in the past - and probably this person
will vanish."

But the act of documenting is an important statement in its own right,
she says. The idea of so many individuals making their own video
history in this way is "something new and important".

Outsiders' voices

As an educational project, the human rights training institute project
in Florence is an unlikely collision of influences. It's a highly
individual project.

Inside the sturdy medieval prison walls, in the birthplace of the
European renaissance, there is this hi-tech centre for online civil
rights, awaiting students from around the world.

Into this mix is added the legacy of Robert Kennedy's 1960s idealism.
The foundation was set up in memory of the assassinated senator and is
now headed by his daughter, Kerry Kennedy.

She recently had her own brush with the secret police when she headed
a human rights delegation to the Western Sahara.

A trademark of Robert Kennedy's campaigning was to get information
first hand, often from people excluded from the political mainstream.

And there is some kind of symmetry here - with social networking and
blogging representing an instant electronic version of accumulating
the authority of many individual voices.

They want to harness these new digital technologies to old causes.

Does online technology help to protect the rights of the individual?

It could be a double edged sword. I think it can work both ways
sometimes. It could depend on how much access and material either side
can upload against the other. Online messaging is useful for informing
but cannot replace physical standing up, and challenging the
situation. Though, overall, online media is certainly revolutionary
for telling the story

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