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Social Media and Human Rights


Human Rights Practice in the Digital Age Workshop 

mobiles filming cropped

by Ella McPherson  

How are human rights practices changing in the digital age?  How are witnessing, documenting and advocating responding to digital technologies, and how might we understand and theorise these responses?   

On 27 March 2017, Sam Dubberley (of the University of Essex's Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project), Cohen Simpson(Research Associate on Cambridge's Social Media and Human Rights project), and I hosted a workshop oriented around these questions.  This workshop brought together scholars and practitioners working in a range of disciplines (computer science, law, media and communications, political science, and sociology). We divide up the day into four themed sessions: fact-finding innovations, representing and advocating human rights in the digital age, clashes between new technologies and existing practices, and risk and human rights practice. 

Human rights fact-finding innovations in the digital age 

In this first session, we heard about cutting-edge developments in human rights fact-finding, some of which are underway and some in development.  One is crowd-sourcing from digital platforms during crises, and the session explored how to think about this practice's implications for power relations between citizens and states. Another innovation is training computer vision to support the identification of human rights violations in online images.  Algorithms are increasingly good at identifying objects, but not good at figuring out the story behind them – a key element of human rights evidence that still very definitively requires expert human judgement.  The issue is similar for the automatic detection of hate speech on social media, which is highly context-dependent and therefore poses challenges for machine interpretation. (Side note – an alternative use of technology to counter online hate speech could be the deployment of bots to nameshame and generally overwhelm abusive users.)  Instead of bringing in more machine power to deal with the volume and verification problems of potential digital human rights evidence, some fact-finders are looking to use technology to bring in more people power.  The session addressed a case of such collaboration between practitioners and scholars Amnesty's Digital Verification Corps and Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab.  Amnesty has benefited from greater capacity for the time-intensive verification process, and the students have had the opportunity to participate in applied human rights work as well as to gain skills valuable for citizenship in the digital age.     

Representing and advocating for human rights in the digital age 

This session addressed how human rights activism, representation and advocacy practices are changing – as well as the implications of these changes.  We heard how the techno-optimism around the role of social media for social movements in the Arab Spring has been tempered by subsequent events, including the state infiltration of these online spaces.  Just as human rights situations are changing, how we measure them is as well; we are increasingly able to document violations, but this uptick in documentation should not necessarily be interpreted as an uptick in violations.  This fallacy turns on the 'information effect,' namely changes in the data being related to changes in methods of measurement rather than changes in what is being measured. We learned in this session about how one can use sentiment analysis to test for potential information effects across time in human rights reports.  The third presentation was on how persuasion might work over social media as part of human rights advocacy work – a pragmatic recognition of what it might take to pursue human rights accountability in the era of fake news and in contexts where the traditional discursive method of naming and shaming has diminished impact.   

Clashes between new technologies and existing practices 

Presentations in this session focused on what happens when new technologies meet existing human rights practices, often resulting in unanticipated and even undesirable consequences.  Speakers explored reasons why human rights NGOs can be slow to adopt technologies – including because existing practices relying on face-to-face communication bring affordances unmatched by digital communication, such as trust and reciprocity.  Furthermore, human rights defenders are worried about security issues and about new technologies' possible obsolescence.  For human rights defenders who do incorporate digital evidence into their fact-findings practices, a significantly detrimental consequence is secondary trauma, namely trauma experienced through witnessing others' trauma via digitally-mediated images and videos.  This consequence – as we learned in this session – is also significantly under-acknowledged, both by fact-finders themselves and by their employing organizations.  The third session speaker addressed the digital representation of subjects of human rights violations in advocacy, which raises new ethical concerns that often seem at odds with the highly-visual and fast-paced culture of social media.         

Risk and human rights practice in the digital age 

Having started the day considering the opportunities at the boundaries of human rights and technology worlds, we finished it by focusing on the risks, including how they are talked about and perceived.  We heard about how human rights practitioners undertaking digital security training encounter the practice of threat modelling, which is borrowed from the tech world.  This practice can have its drawbacks, such the individualization of risk.  We also hear about how risk can be silencing for human rights defenders – not only because of risks actually manifesting for these defenders, but also because of what defenders do in anticipation of these perceived risks.  One such category of cases covered in this session was the experience of conducting digital rights advocacy in Africa in the context of internet shutdowns 

This workshop was made possible with support from Cambridge's Centre of Governance and Human Rights as well as from two ESRC-funded projects, the University of Essex's Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project and my Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability project, which is hosted at Cambridge's Department of Sociology. 

We are currently working towards a journal special issue on the theme of 'Human Rights Practice in the Digital Age' (stay tuned!) and invite all our workshop participants to submit their papers to the Centre for Governance and Human Rights Practitioner Paper series. 


Image: 'mobiles filming' by Osvaldo Gago via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

About this website

This is the website for Ella McPherson's work related to her 2014-17 ESRC-funded research project, Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability.