Content shared on social media has ever-increasing potential to be used as evidence of wartime atrocities and human rights violations. However, traditional social media models are stifling activists and burying evidence. There is a need for more tools and technologies built specifically for activists.

User-generated content shared over social media is vital to the advancement of human rights by increasing awareness, encouraging action and providing evidence of abuses so perpetrators can be held to account. Despite the value of this type of media, existing technologies are restrictive of activists and grassroots organizations, meaning there is room for innovation to better accommodate the needs of these communities.

Mobile technology and social media are changing the way stories are told and who gets to tell them. Any protest participant with a cell phone and a data connection can produce a testament to be shared with the wider world. In nations where mainstream media is subject to state influence, the ideal way for anti-government activists to present their content to a wide audience is through social media.

These platforms are valuable tools to modern protest movements, allowing communication and organization between activists. But content shared on social media related to these movements is equally valuable to the traction of human rights campaigns. A compelling piece of citizen journalism shared through a peer-to-peer network can act as a rallying cry, galvanizing supporters and influencing bystanders, creating a ripple of influence that causes others to stand against violations and attempt to change the status quo.

Content shared on social media has increasing potential to be used as evidence of wartime atrocities and human rights violations. And in many cases, citizen journalism is the most reliable means of communicating news to a global audience. Countless examples of first-hand video from the civil war in Syria, uploaded to YouTube and shared via Facebook and Twitter, provide a trove of evidence unparalleled in contemporary conflicts. In Ukraine, pro-government forces and separatist rebels alike have shared posts on social media purporting to show evidence of Russian participation in the conflict.

This raw content acts as an unfiltered record, giving it immense value and the potential to hold perpetrators of human rights violations and the powers that support them accountable. Following verification and forensic reconstruction by prosecutors and human rights advocates, these videos are potential evidence that may one day be brought before an international court.

Despite the impact and influence of social media on the advancement of human rights, existing technologies aren’t doing enough to meet the needs of activists, or to broadcast and preserve the important content they generate.

Twitter has been the primary platform in many human rights campaigns and popular uprisings. However, flaws inherent in the technology have worked to silence activists and prevent the efficient archiving of media. Content can be subject to deliberate concealment: when protesters in Mexico adopted the hashtag “#YoMeCanse” to demand answers in the case of the missing students of Ayotzinapa, bots employed by pro-government entities spammed the hashtag until it was useless in the consolidation of information and the organization of activists in the field. This phenomenon can also happen organically, as is often the case in the progression of a movement, when hashtags meant to amass media are morphed or dropped altogether as a protest becomes a conflict.

Another platform activists rely on suffers from a distinct yet similar set of problems. Facebook’s ongoing crackdown on pseudonyms has created an unsafe environment for activists and whistle-blowers fearing government reprisal, and censorship from the platform’s administrators has resulted in the exclusion of dissidents. In recent years, accounts managed by supporters of the Syrian opposition have been suspended for posting content Facebook has judged to contain “graphic imagery” or “calls to violence.”

Facebook also requires organizations to pay for a “boost” in order for their content to reach every follower. Unfortunately, this tactic aimed at businesses also affects grassroots organizations, which often lack the material means to pay such a promotion. To compound this, Facebook newsfeeds are reliant on an algorithm governed by “likes,” which can result in content from conflict zones being concealed in favour of lighter fare.

These deficiencies of traditional social media mean there is room for emerging technologies built specifically for the needs of activists, taking into consideration user security, censorship circumvention and wide-ranging message reach. In 2010 our organization, Majal, launched, a platform that uses crowdsourcing and crowd-verification to archive and preserve content created by social movements. Users do not have to sign up or provide any identifying information to contribute to these archives. The project has since grown considerably, now including interactive contextualizing features in the form of timelines and infographics.

CrowdVoice has had an impact as a resource for citizen media that can be difficult to access on traditional platforms. Media outlets like The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and UN News Centre have showcased evidence of abuses gathered by CrowdVoice to illustrate a wide range of issues, from the conflict in Syria to the abuse of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf. As a further testament to its impact, CrowdVoice was censored in both Yemen and Bahrain after local activists adopted it to collect evidence of abuses by these governments.

As new citizen media from protests and conflicts is uploaded and shared across the web, emerging and existing platforms must prove they are committed to hosting valuable citizen-generated content with attention to its safekeeping and integrity, careful archiving of media in a way that is searchable and accessible, and no monetary cost to promote visibility. Likewise, we as a global community must safeguard and support those who take risks by sharing this evidence, allowing for anonymity and employing enhanced digital security. Only continued innovation geared towards the needs of the communities generating this evidence will ensure citizen media’s full potential for bringing about awareness, action and justice.

Three Challenges

1. Emerging and existing social media platforms must continually strive to protect user data and identities, and guard against bad actor surveillance.

2. Ongoing government censorship makes it difficult for users in certain regions to access critical media, particularly on mobile networks, where it’s more difficult to bypass.

3. We must find new and better ways to gauge the veracity of content posted to social media. Verification can never be entirely automated, but requiring all content to be checked using manual labour can overwhelm grassroots organizations as they attempt to separate fact from fiction.

Follow the authors on Twitter @ealshafei and @CrowdVoice.

This blog series was edited by Shannon M. Dosemagen, Farida Vis and Claire Wardle, from the Global Agenda Council on Social Media. Read more about the ways social media is changing the world in The Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online white paper with main contributors Shannon M. Dosemagen, Farida Vis, Claire Wardle and Susan Etlinger and other members from the Global Agenda Council on Social Media.