By: Ben Rissler
As technology develops at an increasingly rapid pace, the world is becoming more and more interconnected. Digital media has evolved quickly, becoming more simple to use and more accessible to audiences. Various human rights movements have utilized social media platforms to raise awareness for their causes, linking dedicated activists to individuals eager to learn more. With the launch of Invisible Children’s film KONY 2012, for instance, the rights group brought global attention to Joseph Kony and his militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Over the past 28 years, Kony’s militia has abducted more than 66,000 children and is responsible for over 100,000 deaths. Time magazine called KONY 2012 the most viral video of all time, receiving over 100 million views. Over the span of six days, 3.7 million people pledged their support for efforts to arrest the notorious African warlord. As Invisible Children stated, “It proved our theory that if people only knew what Kony had been getting away with, they would be as outraged as we were.”
The KONY 2012 campaign exemplifies the powerful nature of social media, demonstrating how it can be an effective tool in human rights advocacy work. The video prompted a bipartisan Congressional resolution (S.Res.402) in the U.S. that condemned the militia’s perpetration of mass atrocities, called for an enhanced U.S. effort to protect civilians, and urged former President Barack Obama to use funds authorized by Congress to execute his LRA strategy. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stated that the video’s success was a “breakthrough on the foreign policy front,” linking the Invisible Children campaign with the use of Facebook and Twitter to spark popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. This campaign also contributed to a significantly less powerful LRA. As a 2015 Enough Project report shows, the militia has been weakened to an unprecedented level where only around 120 armed fighters remain in its ranks.
Aside from the work of Invisible Children, there are many other uses of digital technology to combat atrocities and human rights violations. For example, the eyeWitness to Atrocities project uses digital technology to work toward achieving its goal of ending impunity for perpetrators of atrocities. This group’s mobile app securely captures photos, videos, and audio recordings to provide evidence of crimes. The app issues a timestamp to validate the footage and GPS location services record the coordinates of the incident. Once the user is in a safe location, he or she can upload material for further examination by legal experts to decide if the footage can withstand evidentiary challenges and be admissible in judicial proceedings. This app builds upon recent innovations, such as using video evidence in international criminal tribunals to prosecute perpetrators of egregious human rights violations. eyeWitness to Atrocities is a step in the right direction for establishing a new norm for seeking justice.
Although social media provides a powerful tool for raising awareness of human rights abuses and atrocities, like any tool, it can also be used to achieve negative outcomes. Anyone with an internet connection can use mediums such as Facebook and Twitter to proliferate hate speech. In conflict situations this practice can prove deadly, as inflammatory speech is often a precursor to outbreaks of mass violence. The Dangerous Speech Project analyzes the connection between hate speech and the prospect of conflict, even long before the age of social media.
The initiative states that speech is indicative of any form of expression, including images, drawings, photographs, and films. This is an important point. A case in point is the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which Hutu officials showed a heavy dependence on mass media to encourage violence against the Tutsi minority. In fact, the project states that an estimated 51,000 perpetrators—10 percent of the overall conflict—can be attributed to the Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM). A 2009 statistical analysis by David Yanagizawa further highlights the effects of radio propaganda on systematic ethnic cleansing, indicating that the killings were a staggering 65 to 77 percent higher in Rwandan villages that received the RTLM signal. Playing an integral role in the genocide, the radio demonstrates the immense impact that mass media technologies can have on heightening conflict.
Conventional methods of inhibiting violence must be modified in the wake of advanced digital threats posed by armed militias, states, and citizens. Although social media is effective at raising awareness for pressing human rights issues, its function may serve negative ends as well. As the dynamic of armed conflict continues to evolve, defense and conflict resolution strategies must adapt to these changes. With millions at risk of violent conflict, it is vital to closely monitor dangerous speech on social media platforms and to build resistance and resilience to counter its effects.
The future of digital diplomacy depends not only on its positive uses of outreach, advocacy, and evidence collection, but also on curtailing its use to instigate violent conflict and mobilize actors to commit atrocities.
Ben Rissler is a recent graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. with a BA in International Studies, specializing in Global and Comparative Governance. His diverse background includes studying European security at Germany’s Freie Universität Berlin, interning for Africa-related atrocities prevention NGOs, and interning for a public policy think tank in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is interested in human security, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and political violence.