Human rights in the Video Republic?

[Originally published here on the WITNESS Hub Blog.]

The falling price of digital technology and the capacity to distribute information rapidly have created the conditions for millions of people to record and exchange moving images. […]  … a new theatre of public information has emerged, a loosely connected mass of video creation and exchange.  This activity is being driven by personal initiatives, collective endeavours and institutional interventions.  It includes aspiring professional film makers and amateur vloggers alike.  This is a realm populated by people who are attracted by the idea that video has a unique power to communicate.  It is here where we see opinions, thoughts and feelings turned into video, by people, for other people. […] The Video Republic is situated in the places where people’s opinions and feelings are made public via the language of the moving image.

So say Celia Hannon, Peter Bradwell and Charlie Tims of UK thinktank Demos in their new report Video Republic (Demos, like WITNESS, is a partner in James Nachtwey’s initiative to raise awareness and debate on extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB.)

The report looks at the rise of video as a new and vibrant public space, an alternative channel for self-expression, and increasingly, an alternative means of public deliberation.  Although the authors identify three areas where the Video Republic takes place – television, online video-sharing and public screenings – they focus mainly on the newest area of the three, online.  (Notably, they don’t really look at mobile video at all.)  They’re particularly interested in how video promotes social inclusion (including a video-postcard project on migration and identity run by the very first person I worked for, Marion Vargaftig), and in how the confluence of cheaper technology and more widespread broadband has enabled content that was not possible before.  They end, however, with a warning that the window for truly opening out participation and ownership is not going to be here forever:

It is possible that the redistribution of power currently taking place in the Video Republic will only last for a brief moment of time.

Video Republic is focused on online video-sharing among youth on a local level in Europe (specifically the UK, Turkey, Germany, Romania and Finland), and so doesn’t include or reference many international initiatives like Video 24/7 or the Hub, but they extract lessons for anyone working with video and inclusion anywhere, many of which are at the heart of why we built the Hub.  You can read the full report here, and I run through the main findings as they relate to our work below.  Before you read either, though, watch Demos’ intro video below:

The report pulls out some key messages for those interested in working with online video to facilitate inclusion and participation:

– video can be a powerful tool for under-represented or marginalised groups, but there are barriers to participation
– there is widespread inequality in access to the tools and means to participate in video
– and technology can exacerbate offline exclusion in the online sphere

– there is a widening gap between organised politics and the online realm of video – e.g. falling youth participation in institutions and organisations across Europe
– the authors identify “route-around kids” as key players in the Video Republic, who prefer to “route around institutions rather than oppose them”
– this disconnect means that creativity and energy online doesn’t always translate into social change in the offline world

– video-sharing sites don’t generally tell you why or how something was made, or why the person making it decided to share it (something we have directly aimed to remedy in the Hub)
– good content comes from investment in skills, so media literacy needs to include production of media, as well as consumption
– in the Video Republic, participants play a variety of roles (reporter, commenter, curator, distributor, etc), rather than playing one professional role
– some people wield disproportionate influence in the new online sphere – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…

– this cultural expression is happening largely via commercially-owned platforms that collect incredibly granular data about us
– the rights model has not caught up with the new types of content being created and shared in this space, and still focuses on the economic rights of the rights holder

And there are some concrete recommendations that could definitely resonate for many in the human rights field:

– Training/education – to participate fully in the online video sphere, people need to “become fluent in audiovisual forms of communication from an early age”

– Social responsibility – video-sharing platforms are the main beneficiaries of this explosion of video-making, and should create a fund to “support video-making in parts of the world where there is none, and to improve the quality of videos online and offline” – including a “virtual video-making academy” (we are working on exactly this kind of initiative, as are other key social justice organisations, such as Tactical Technology Collective)

– a re-examination of democratic digital rights…
– liberating archival content, especially public service broadcast material, as Creative Commons-licensed (again, something we’re trying to do with parts of our own human rights media Archive, and that I know the BBC’s Richard Sambrook has looked at in respect of news content).

– develop new, more sophisticated systems for community-led content moderation.  This is particularly sensitive in the human rights sphere and can be rapidly politicised – it’s one of the core reasons why we built the Hub as we have in this beta phase – enabling a mixture of community policing of content and pre-screening.

– video-sharing platforms should collaborate with research bodies to release information about video usage and contribution, while seeking to protect their commercial interests, and the privacy and security of users

– the onus should be on institutions to work out how to connect with and incorporate video as a new space for debate, deliberation, consultation – and in the human rights case, advocacy.  This has been a cornerstone of WITNESS’ advocacy work for the last 16 years, and through the Hub, continues into the Video Republic…

– the sheer amount of video being produced means it needs to be sifted and sorted in new ways, and organisations and institutions have a potential role to play as “information providers” – producing “how to” videos – and as curators, finding videos of interest that would otherwise remain buried or unseen.

– the mainstream media have a role to play in helping their viewers, listeners and readers to understand and connect with this kind of intimate, personal media.


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