From Rodney King to Burma: An Interview with Witness’s Sam Gregory (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with human rights advocate Sam Gregory, who I met at USC’s DIY Media event earlier this year. In this second part, Gregory explains why Witness is creating its own video distribution site, discusses the role of remix in the realm of human rights activism, and explores what it might mean to “do it with others” rather than “do it yourself.”

Tell us more about The Hub. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of creating a platform specifically for distributing human rights videos as opposed to tapping into the power of shared or general portals like YouTube?

The Hub, WITNESS’ most recent project tries to address what’s missing in the online media sharing ecosystem for human rights activists. It’s in Beta at the moment, and launched on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2007. In our first four months of quiet beta, we’ve had in the region of five million views of media, and going on eight hundred items of media uploaded.

It’s envisioned as the human rights channel for the online community, as a place where anyone can upload human rights-related footage, share it with others and self-organize into affinity groups, comment on material there, and most importantly access online tools for action, and guidance on how to turn their video into compelling advocacy material. It places a strong emphasis on security both for the uploader and for those filmed, on providing contextualization for imagery wherever possible, and also seeks to provide normative leadership around the impacts of participatory media creation and distribution in oppressive contexts. For me, that option to act is critical. There’s nothing worse from the activists’ point-of-view than risking your life to film a piece of footage, and to then to have that experience dismissed. From the viewer’s point-of-view there’s nothing worse than being exposed to scenes of misery, and to have no way to take action. It’s deeply draining and de-motivating for people to watch and not be able to act, it misses the opportunity to engage support, and it contributes to the compassion fatigue that we all already experience.

We’re not in favor of walled gardens, and to create something like that would be to waste so much of the potential of the networked online environment. So why not just use YouTube? (or Daily Motion? LiveLeak? etc.). In fact, many of the videos on the Hub have also been placed by activists on YouTube (it is possible to use YouTube or any other commercial or non-commercial site to host content, and then embed it on the Hub), and in many cases we can see real value in drawing on the mass public reached by YouTube. The power of YouTube is that it is increasingly becoming the most prominent platform (at least in the global North, and for English-language media) for video online – although finding an appropriate human rights video can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. From an advocacy perspective, we can see how IF a video achieves either prominent placement, or takes off virally on YouTube it can take off in terms of public prominence. Similarly for many non-governmental advocacy organizations that are trying to engage a general public either with a single video or via a channel, YouTube is likely to be the first place that public will look. And we also recognize that YouTube is a pushing-out point for footage that finds homes in many other subculture-specific media systems, including human rights, where it is embedded and re-contextualized – I particularly appreciate Michael Wesch’s commentary on this.

However, we see some significant current limitations on YouTube as a platform for human rights activism. For some publics – namely concerned citizens on a global scale concerned about security, looking to ensure that their footage galvanizes action, and suspicious of corporate and government surveillance, it may not be the best choice. These issues of concerns include questions of being a small fish in a big pond raised by the Center for Social Media’s report last year, opportunities for meaningful community and to generate action, and the dilemmas raised by the Transmission network and others of commercial exploitation of human rights imagery, safety and security for the uploaders and filmed, surveillance by corporations and state, inflexibility in redistribution, downloading and sharing, and where editorial control is vested.

To illustrate one of these points, human rights video is generally among the least-viewed content on YouTube amidst the proliferation of music videos, parodies and commentary. A March 2007 Center for Social Media study found (though this was before the launch of the YouTube Nonprofit Channel which has increased slightly the visibility of social issue videos, and the pro-active work of the Citizen Tube editor at YouTube), public-issue videos find themselves ‘small fish in a vast sea‘ . The most popular social/public issue video in the Center for Social Media study had 150 times less viewers than the most popular video on YouTube, and the terms on which they must compete for the public audience are the co-option of the characteristics of humor, celebrities, popular culture touchstones and music that are most common in the top-ranked YouTube videos. You yourself talk about the vaudevillian aesthetic of online video in which ‘the best YouTube content is content that is so unbelievable that it has to be shared’. Some human rights video can play in this field. A powerful example is the ‘Waiting for the Guards’ video developed by Amnesty UK for their Unsubscribe-me campaign that feature a recreation of the stress position enhanced interrogation technique used by the CIA, as the center-piece of a web 2.0 campaign focused on action via social networking sites. But with some exceptions much human rights material is not immediately powerful performance, and may not be most effectively or honestly presented in that mode.

Another aspect is what happens to grassroots human rights video on YouTube if it does secure viewers. WITNESS’ own experience with YouTube has included two videos that were very fortunate to be picked as Editor’s Picks – ‘Shoot on Sight,’ produced by partners Burma Issues documenting military attacks on ethnic minority civilians in eastern Burma, and picked during the height of the crisis in Burma in autumn 2007; and ‘Awaiting Tomorrow‘ highlighting lack of access to HIV/AIDs treatment in Democratic Republic of the Congo, produced by locally-based partners Ajedi-Ka, and placed on YouTube’s homepage on December 10, 2007, International Human Rights Day. Both videos received reasonably high viewer levels (approximately 380,000 and 225,000 as of now) and significant levels of comments (‘Awaiting Tomorrow’ ranks among the top forty most-discussed ever videos in the Non-Profit and Activism Channel with almost 1,400 comments before comments were disabled preventing further belligerent commentary). These levels of viewership are great in terms of reaching an audience that would know little about ethnically-targeted violence in eastern Burma, or access to anti-retrovirals in the Congo. However, the comments ranged from the constructive to the racist, and conspiracy-theory obsessed, and the framework of the YouTube page does not lend itself to using individual videos to focus action of the type WITNESS or local human rights advocates seek, or to foster discussion.

From the point-of-view of human rights advocacy, it was very hard to turn a transitory audience into an engaged public, or to measure the transition from viewing to action or impact. For human rights activism you want a community oriented towards action, recognizing also that online environments where no-one ‘listens’ to others and responds constructively are the opposite of the empowerment of voice that grounds WITNESS. As Howard Rheingold has observed in relation to youth participation online, in an analogy that could easily be extended to over-stretched, marginalized human rights advocates, “it isn’t “voice” if nobody seems to be listening”. Our experience illuminated the need for a channel dedicated to human rights and related action.

Recognizing that YouTube should not be viewed solely as a single site, but as a nexus of content that circulates in more detailed, niche contexts, I should note that the most effective uses of the YouTube version of ‘Shoot on Sight’ were in blog postings where it was embedded in additional context, commentary and recommendations for action, and in its use by venues such as the Facebook ‘Support the Monks in Burma‘ action group.

As additional factors to consider — in contrast to many commercial platforms — the Hub carries no advertising, does not track IP addresses and advises users on how to avoid surveillance, and will soon include functionality allowing downloads so that people can use it in the most appropriate setting to generate action. Although we do currently have an editorial process to ensure fit of videos to guidelines, our hope is that the community will eventually monitor, rate and control the content that is on the site; and WITNESS does not claim ownership on the footage and allows the user to choose a Creative Commons license that will exactly lay out how they would like their work to be used

What, if any, kinds of remixing are appropriate in the space of human rights video? How can we reconcile this mash-up aesthetic with the evidentiary claims made for traditional documentaries?

Remixing is one of the most powerful aspects of the new participatory culture. From a human rights advocacy point-of-view, the positive dimensions of this are clear: the narrative possibilities of remixing footage are extensive and build on an increasingly reflexive contemporary media literacy, and there is a possibility to benefit from the creativity and capacity of a distributed network of peer production which can rework the ‘raw’ audiovisual material to appeal to diverse communities of interest, and within which the opportunity to be a ‘co-‘producer rather than just a user may promote sustained engagement.

Some of the most powerful political commentary in the US over the past 5 years has featured powerful remixes of news, archival and user-generated footage, especially around President Bush and his actions in Iraq, and groups WITNESS have worked with at a local and regional level around the world have used karaoke remix formats to communicate effectively around human rights issues. One example of the karaoke remix style I’ve seen in Southeast Asia is a video by one of our Video Advocacy Institute alumni, Dale Kongmonts’s from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers. The rub is in how this remix culture relates to a human rights culture that is concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors, and the role of ethical witnessing. We love seeing George Bush remixed, but where would we draw the line? For me, that’s a bigger concern than the evidentiary aspect. I think we have to recognize that the process of narrative creation is always subjective.

The remix question raises the underlying problem that bothers many human rights advocates when they consider visual imagery. WITNESS has wrestled for years with how to try and ensure that people filmed in human rights contexts understand how the video will be used, and the implications both positive and negative (we produced a whole chapter on ‘Safety and Security’ in our recent ‘Video for Change‘ book), emphasizing model that relies on presenting worst case scenarios for impact, to enable genuine informed consent to be given. Simultaneously, human rights culture emphasizes the value of the integrity and dignity of the individual survivor of abuse on the basis of the first principle that every human being is possessed of ‘inherent dignity’, a concept which runs through every right articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A particular concern in the victim and survivor-centered human rights model is to avoid re-victimization either directly or indirectly (as can happen when an image is distributed and exploited inappropriately). The most graphic issues – of violent attacks, or at the most extreme, sexual assault – is seen as the material that most easily translates into a loss of dignity, privacy, and agency, and to the potential for real re-victimization. Individuals featured in videos who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also understood to be in positions of vulnerability and risk.

But that’s a practice that’s difficult enough to promote in the ‘professional’ documentary world, and impossible to sustain in an online participatory media culture of user-generated citizen media. How do we support emerging norms in the emerging online culture that, promote respect, tolerance and an understanding of risks? Over at Internet Artizans Dan McQuillan talks about “propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice” and suggests “writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service”. I think this is really one of the key tasks ahead for a concerned community online, only brought home more and more as we increasingly experience global human rights crises – Burma, Tibet – via imagery circulated online. The urgency of this normative work is clear if we think about the implications of increasing live eventcasting from cell-phones facilitated by technologies like Flixwagon and Qik. These technologies will have powerful positive implications for sharing footage and engaging constituencies immediately, but at the same time consent and security norms become even more critical once more video is streamed immediately rather than edited/uploaded after the fact?

You are an advocate of a “DWO” (Do With Others) approach to video production.

Explain. What value does collaborative production and distribution bring to the field of advocacy and activism?

The biggest concern for human rights activists is how video can be deployed to create real change. Alongside renewed opportunities for individual production and targeted advocacy both online and offline, I think collaborative production, distribution and advocacy offer powerful new possibilities for a network-centered video advocacy.

This DIWO (Doing It With Others) recognizes the advocacy possibilities of drawing on some “audiences” as collaborating publics both between themselves and with you, and as co-producers and not just as consumers or passive distributors of advocacy video. This means attention to how to facilitate meaningful and responsible ways in a many-to-many environment for people to speak to each other and create locally-specific and contingent media.

Collaborative production, distribution and advocacy allows for the possibility of drawing on all the potential resources in a given advocacy community. At the most simple format, it includes efforts like the video collages created by campaigns including 24 Hours for Darfur, which gathers expert, citizen and refugee voices to speak out on the situation in Darfur and join an online montage of voices, that was also screened at the UN. It also includes the YouTube and MoveOn.org approaches to user-generated or citizen-generated video contests, and what Greenpeace did last year in the environmental community, where it provided a stock of footage to supporters and encouraged them to “… Download our footage from the e-waste yards in China and India to edit and use in your video. Use it to make your own video about e-waste and how Apple should be a leader in helping tackle this problem…only limitations are please use the logo provided, a positive campaign message and the website URL somewhere in your video”

What is often most effective in advocacy are trusted voices, and often advocacy videos are blunt weapons in terms of finding a trusted voice that will speak to a broad and divergent audience. You either do it by finding a powerful story of a non-famous individual and find ways to engage your audience emotionally, or you take a default option of going with figures with a broad-based of ‘authority’ or just plain recognition, such as a celebrity. But with collaborative production of advocacy video you can go beyond that – you can mix together, say the footage from Burma or Darfur with the most trusted voices for a specific audience, to create locally-specific advocacy videos.

As a concrete example of this approach, I am currently working with the US Campaign for Burma, which has student chapters across the country on how to facilitate student action around divestment campaigns in universities. One idea in involves collaborative video editing, in this case using a software called Kaltura. At an online editing site they will find a set of stock clips of what is going on in Burma, including some interviews and visual footage as well as tips and advice from the coordinators and their peers about how to construct an effective advocacy video. They will then shoot their own material (for example, someone at University of Iowa could include a clip from a supportive academic or community leader) and create a localized video. All these clips, as well as the contingently finished films are shared online for all the student groups, so that another group has the option to borrow a useful video from others in the campaign, use it straight or remix it, or if they like just one of U-Iowa’s local-specific clips borrow it for their own.

This is an example of a situation where collaborative production produces a range of advocacy videos, each locally-specific and targeted. We see the potential here for pressuring at a local level, by using shared footage and adding material that taps into local power dynamics – drawing on influencers and authority figures with specific resonance, or who have the ‘ear’ of a key person – and by making calls to action as specific as possible. You could also imagine collaborative production being used to produce one product that drew on the capacity and collective knowledge of many to create a more effective advocacy strategy

This approach – which relies on dense information connections to allow individuals to draw on and act with networked, shared resources has been termed ‘network-centric advocacy’ by Marty Kearns. As he defines it, network-centric advocacy differs from traditional advocacy in the strategy used to ‘form and deliver an argument as well as the methodology used to build alliances across stakeholders’. Where traditional advocacy involves the advocate organization picking and packaging an argument for delivery to an audience, a network-centric approach ‘asks the network to find, package and select the arguments (think MoveOn Bushin30Seconds example). The network picks the message.’ Similarly whereas a traditional advocacy campaign has a core communications team at its center ‘managing’ the campaign, a distributed network campaign trains ‘many spokespeople to speak their own voice’. We’re seeing this in political campaigns in the US – see for example the excellent analysis by Connect US (which is doing work on doing network-centered advocacy here in the foreign policy community in the USA) of Obama’s campaign.

Comments

  1. Thanks Henry! For anyone interested in following our work on the Hub do visit our blog at humanrightsvideo.wordpress.com. Sam