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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:16AM   |  17 comments
socialmedia human rights

Blog written by Sam Gregory, program director, WITNESS, and Patrica Zimmerman, professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Fetival

Part Two: Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing

Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.

This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?

Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.

First, responsibility to the person filmed

Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (vis. the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).

Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?

Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case (slide) where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ (slide) in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.

Secondly, Responsibility to the Story

Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression?

Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.

When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ ( clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExpnE-xPd8&feature=related ) which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in this keyframe, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation. Surferknut23 – one of almost 14,000 people who have commented on the video - notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images: ‘all i saw when i watched this video was people who don't know how to listen getting their asses beaten’ while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: ‘Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.’

‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the ‘memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim’.

Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface. Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war - about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse. Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTube, the Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections and slums to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.

And this curational voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge. In London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images

But in the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website

 And crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’. 

Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond.

WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.

To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.

Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the victim, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.

Responsibility to action

Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this paper - we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ - the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?


17 Comments

Documentary filmmakers constantly face the struggle of reporting the truth. Some say that it is easy to stay objective as a documentary filmmaker because the truth can be visually seen, whereas print journalists have to explain and retell the truth. In reality this is not the case.

Filmmakers have to edit their film. That's what a movie is: a composite of footage to tell a story. The second a filmmaker cuts video they are inserting their opinion.

When a filmmaker puts together a movie they are creating a visual representation of how they feel on an issue. Even if the film does not concern politics and instead is a film about a person's life, the filmmaker is still manipulating the subject’s words and thus portrays them in good or bad ways.

A great example of a documentary in which the filmmaker does not stay objective, is Michael Moore’s "Sicko." The movie is bias, portraying only one side of the country's debate on health care. It's sensationalism!

Moore's opinion clearly shines through the film by his negative portrayal of people associated with the health care industry. He only uses specific subjects with unique cases, who were hurt by the industry. By only using those cases he gives the audience an idea that all people in general have a detrimental relationship with the industry.

People look to journalists and reporters for the truth. It is a reporter’s responsibility to tell the truth. So how do the filmmakers separate their personal opinions from the film? How do filmmakers stay objective?


Thanks for your thoughts about documentary, truth, and objectivity, Rachael. Good points about how documentary filmmakers are continually shaping material through pov and argument. The works and movement that Sam Gregory and I are analzying and researching actually work a bit differently---they are user generated from people involved in the struggles, not works in the traditional documentary sense of a filmmaker going in and filming from the outside. These works are made in an environment of witnessing, often by amateurs involved in the issue. Many of these works that are uploaded and aggregated on UGC sites for human rights are not produced by journalists, but by victims, activists, NGO workers, and others on the ground. So objectivity is not really as salient here as witnessing from the ground and chronicling experience of human rights violations as testimony. I'm wondering how UGC content and production in a circulatory environment might shift some of your points?

I guess I did misunderstand what exactly the analyzation was referring to. When you mentioned responsibility to the person being filmed, story, and action, I used those points to explain and support the documentary filmmaking process.

My opinions on Documentary filmmaking are still the same and I still feel that the entry can be discussed in reference to documentaries. However, after rereading the post I do see it in a new light.

Amateur "filmmaking" is an interesting concept to me because these people are not doing things the within the realm of what professional filmmakers know. They do not have any rules or future plans for what they're filming. Whereas filmmakers have scenes planned, scripts written, and ideas for post-production. Professionals are always thinking about where they're going to do next. But people who are using a camera just to film human rights violations are only thinking about where they are and what they're capturing. They don't have to think about editing or the "mise-en-scéne" of their video. To me, there's something very raw and real about that. As you put it, it is "an environment of witnessing." A viewer knows how real the video is because it is all about the content; no hollywood tricks or complicated shots. Just content. It's quite beautiful to me.

If you don’t mind I would like to jump into this discussion. Although Rachael’s opinions on documentary filmmaking are very interesting I feel her comments on amateur filmmaking are worth discussing. I agree with the point that editing is generally not a worry of the average witness turned amateur, but mise-en-scéne is still relevant to any type of filmmaker. Whether they realize it or not, the person holding the camera is controlling the framing and composition of the video being shot. They may not be consciously considering the blocking of the shot, the position of the “actors,” or important background details, but when they use the camera to crop out an important contextual element of the shot, that’s mise-en-scéne and should be considered when analyzing any type of work. Maybe not in the more traditional sense because of the nature of journalistic work.

Also, while editing may not be on the mind while the video is being captured, it is still prevalent in UGC. If you watch the video “Police Brutality - Police Get What They Deserve” mentioned in the original blog posting you see the editing done in an attempt to give a bad reputation to police officers. But, it is done in a way to remove context and it skews the true message of the video in favor of a more biased one. Small editing has become commonplace with the now packaging of software such as Windows Movie Maker and iMovie coming on almost every single new computer being purchased, and as we know, editing can have a grand effect on a work.

In the end, the raw video being captured is amazing to watch, especially when there is a lot of contextual evidence so that you can watch a truly unbiased view of history. But, there is always some effect placed on it from the original witness and we can’t forget the creator’s point of view when watching some user generated content.

I'm going to attempt a response to the questions Rachael posed at the end of her first response.

If a filmmaker goes out with the idea in mind to film a topic they are extremely opinionated about, it would be next to impossible for the filmmaker to remove his or her bias from their piece of work. I completely agree with Rachael in that, "the second a filmmaker cuts video they are inserting their opinion". When editing, it is difficult not to mess with the original meaning of the footage. This way the filmmaker can tease out the message they want to portray.

I think the only way for a person to stay objective when creating any film is to show the subject in contrasting points of view or in its original context so the viewer can make judgements for themselves on how to respond to the film. Unfortunately, this isn't done in the example given.

Amateur filmmaking is allowed and accepted in this society because we have the freedom of speech, but in my opinion films like this aren't entirely ethical. I agree with Rachael that "people who are using a camera just to film human rights violations are only thinking about where they are and what they're capturing", but I'm going to go a bit farther with that and say it's what they do with that footage afterward that is the true issue. After the film is taken, generally the person will send their video in somewhere or post it online [like Youtube]. When posting it online, it is unlikely the original video will be posted without a title or captions explaining the meaning of the film. In the police brutality video, slightly dark and creepy music is used as background music, which adds to the overall mood the video is trying to convey. A caption is posted at the beginning of the video, defining police brutality so the audience already has a pre-conceived notion of what to look for. After this, a logo is shown for 'United Against Police Brutality'. Obviously, this is now a biased account that is sending out negative messages before the film even begins. This editing drastically changed an innocent observation into a highly opinionated account that can no longer be trusted.

I don't think this is very beautiful at all.

Sometimes I question how possible it is to put responsibility into action. Sure, as documentary students, we are always talking about ethics, and this certainly raises our awareness about our responsibilities to the subjects, to the audience, and to the film itself.

But in the real world, just how much priority is given to ethics and responsibility? Especially when your boss is questioning you about falling ratings, or when your sponsors threaten to pull out unless you feature them in positive light. It becomes a battle where “survival” becomes a primary concern, and issues such as ethics become secondary to that.


The director of a film selects, arranges and links material much like a curator does. So when we talk about the creators of material losing their control of how that material may be repackaged or placed in different contexts, I wonder if filmmakers whose material goes out through social media are slowly leaning into that role? How much of a duty does a filmmaker have to seek to control their work? To follow its journey through social media and other distribution networks and to continue to engage the issues and ensure they find the right contexts?

In a sense, I think that filmmakers, whether amateur or professional, who participate in online or social media driven projects like EngageMedia and Witness, are better equipped to track the conversation their work inspires. They begin in a medium which by nature, encourages dialogue and free dissemination. It makes a lot of sense to me that social justice issues choose this method, to attempt to get closer to the people they want to inspire to action. I'd like to know how far beyond awareness and into action their effects go. Is the paragraph on 'Responsibility to Action' the shortest because this means of connecting to an audience is too young to be able to track its impact?

I agree with Claire that filmmakers actually have increased control over the movement of their material even after it is uploaded online. But I wonder if they bother to take responsibility for what they put up, or that they just want it to spread, regardless where.

For example 15malaysia has no disclaimer or copyrights listed on its site. In fact, its homepage encourages people to download anything they want. This to me is irresponsible, and I wonder if they have ever considered the context they may potentially be re-used in? But then again, I suppose such viral 'documentaries' are generally perceived as less credible, so maybe the audience may not even take them seriously and thus it wouldn't matter how they are used?

I don’t really agree that film makers have more control over the movement of their work. From my personally experience I once uploaded a video on a site and without my knowledge people actually took the video and put it on their own website and in other domains for downloads. Film makers themselves may want their work to be spread widely and non-restrictively if they are not popular and simply want some form of recognition. In this day and age when illegal download is so rampant it makes it all the more harder for film makers to control their work.

Nonetheless I agree that social media sites such as Engage Media and Witness do provide a more credible platform for film makers to upload their work.

In the age of technology I think that it is very hard for filmmakers to fulfill the three responsibilities- to person filmed, story and action. Most of the things we see online are like Police Brutality short, fast and insufficient for the viewers to understand the full story. The audience attention span is vastly shorter online and I believe most would not spend more than 10 mins to view a documentary video much more find out more info.

In my opinion, filmmakers should at least be more responsible and provide background information on how they put together their work even if it’s just a short line of disclaimer. It is wrong to mislead the audience of showing clips of people been beaten by the police when perhaps these people were the one who turned violent first. Similarly if a filmmaker wants to be subjective it is fine as long as the filmmaker make known his intention. Film making is after all a form of art and should not be bound by restrictions for it to flourish.

On the issue of responsibility to action, it seems that currently documentary have quite limited influences over the audience. It could be because in our society we don’t have much freedom of expression or political action. Documentaries are still mainly seen as informative. There needs to be more outline for spaces for actions and solution. For example adding at the end of the documentary how audience can participate through donations or participating in an event etc. Even a famous documentary such as Super Sized Me does not seem to have much effect. McDonalds is still earning billions of dollars. There might have been an initial apprehension and McDonalds did try to make their food more healthy but after a while people have place less emphasis on the documentary.

I'm going to start off saying I'm not even sure where 'bias' really exists within a film - I think people very often too simply tag the term 'bias' to something which they do not agree with, or content which is so partisan in nature that alarm bells go ringing off uncontrollably in their heads - so by extension I don't believe filmmakers (and in this case, amateur filmmakers, witnesses, social media contributors, amongst others) have any obligation to be "un-biased", so long as they do not claim to be pieces of objective journalism, which is really another thing altogether.

I think these apply even to the case of police brutality - even though the manipulation in this case is pretty blatant to the extent of 'dark and creepy' music - which did not really claim to be a piece of responsible journalism, but identifies itself as a video that tries to convince viewers of the horrors of police brutality worldwide. Yes each individual clip might have been misrepresented, but professional documentarians sometimes also often do the exact same things in choosing to obtain views mostly from just one side, the side that best represents the filmmaker's intention. After all, I'd believe that documentary filmmakers aren't bound by journalistic standards which means that all these arguments of whether they are 'bias' or not really has to go out of the window.

I think the third point about responsibility to action deserves much more of our attention, since we are talking about this relatively new animal - social media - of which we all play both the roles of filmmaker and audience/participant.

The nature of the media in itself makes everything so dynamic and unpredictable - how can we possibly hope to predict the effects of content on participants and the effects of participants on each other? To what extent is social media controllable?

To me, the thought of social media's great potential to drive participants to action based solely on emotion is scary. Back the question asked: "To what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers?"

Much of the social media landscape is shaped by us, the participants. In choosing to participate, we become obliged to the draw boundaries for ourselves and others; to respond in a thoughtful manner; to be answerable for the films we put up and their consequences. But how many are aware of this responsibility and how many take it up willingly?

It is too easy to post, re-post and retweet without really thinking through the kinds of messages you are promoting to others.

Although it is only a short paragraph on the issue, the idea that documentary filmmakers have an ethical responsibility to move the audience to action intrigues me. It is the purpose of the documentary to not only inform the viewers about the social problem but to bring about a change to the current situation. One documentary can move the viewers to do something and social media provides them with the platform. Ordinary people are able to whip out their phones to document events are unfolding in front of their eyes and upload them on the web for the world to see. When many people band together for the cause, filming documentaries on the particular social issue, many voices are heard instead of the one lone voice. So that could be a call to action, to stir up the awareness and emotions of the audience to do something about it.

There are probably no simple solution to the social issues tackled by the filmmaker. Sometimes the filmmaker may not even know what is the solution to change the social issue. It's up to us as filmmakers to find that solution or steps that could bring about the change. It could be just me and my moral obligation and desire to help them. But as filmmakers, we would need to set the ethical framework for the audience to act on.

But I question the scope of social media in reaching the masses. Potentially it reaches to people all over the world but the number of people who do know and need to know about the issue is limited. Maybe that's where rationality sets in, the audience who has seen the documentary and are stirred up emotionally to act but don't know how to and the impact of it.

With regards to the question on whether social media moves people to action, I personally feel that that is not the case. With the open space available in social media, there is the problem of information overload and what is important is often overlooked or only stays within certain circles. With the abundance of information (in this case in the form of videos) on the internet, people become really selective about what they think is worth their time.

There seems to be this impulse to share on social media platforms and this could indeed contribute to propagating the message. However what is shared can be stuff that's really good or stuff that's really bad (just so we can all groan at it together). Whatever the case, I feel that people are compelled to spread it in whatever ways possible, but it rarely leads to the intended change or action.

With relation to how footages are used in social media, I believe this brings about some clarity, as there may be the issue of not being able to secure consent due to some dangers, or simply because the people in the video cannot be reached. But I think the guideline of having respect for human dignity helps filmmakers make decisions.

However I do have some questions of my own. As a documentary student, I have gain new perspectives and broken down many preconceived notions about documentaries and documentary making. And, I'm still learning and discovering along the way. Thus, it makes me a little concerned when I see that the guideline of having respect for human dignity comes with some kind of pre-requisites: emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy.

The thing is, how will the average witness-creator know these documentary ethics? How can we prevent people from being re-victimized, when the people who filmed these things down might not even know they are victimizing people? With video phones, cheaper cameras and more online video platforms, there are going to be more and more witness-creators (who do not even know they are witness-creators) who are going to post up ethically questionable videos which will be tempting to use in human rights media because of how vividly it brings across a point and impacts others.

Perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss (for amateurs who do not have an understanding of the consequences) and even if they do not know the proper ethics, we know we can depend on the circulatory networks of social media to regulate such improper conduct, be it through censorship, or through comments. But if we as documentarians, know the possible consequences and proceed callously, we have failed in our duty.

With relation to how footages are used in social media, I believe this brings about some clarity, as there may be the issue of not being able to secure consent due to some dangers, or simply because the people in the video cannot be reached. But I think the guideline of having respect for human dignity helps filmmakers make decisions.

However I do have some questions of my own. As a documentary student, I have gain new perspectives and broken down many preconceived notions about documentaries and documentary making. And, I'm still learning and discovering along the way. Thus, it makes me a little concerned when I see that the guideline of having respect for human dignity comes with some kind of pre-requisites: emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy.

The thing is, how will the average witness-creator know these documentary ethics? How can we prevent people from being re-victimized, when the people who filmed these things down might not even know they are victimizing people? With video phones, cheaper cameras and more online video platforms, there are going to be more and more witness-creators (who do not even know they are witness-creators) who are going to post up ethically questionable videos which will be tempting to use in human rights media because of how vividly it brings across a point and impacts others.

Perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss (for amateurs who do not have an understanding of the consequences) and even if they do not know the proper ethics, we know we can depend on the circulatory networks of social media to regulate such improper conduct, be it through censorship, or through comments. But if we as documentarians, know the possible consequences and proceed callously, we have failed in our duty.

After reading many of the comments on move to action, I too have my doubts about whether documentary is truely capable of this, whether it be online or on the big screen or at some festival. Sometimes, the documentaries which we see talk about issues that occur so far from home we wonder if its even possible that our little actions would make a difference. Sometimes, even if its an issue close to home, can we fight against bigger social and political forces that might stand in our way? Also, what is the notion of move to action? As disccussed in class, can it be considered just the curiosity to google the issue?

Ona separate note, I personally believe that documentarians do not have as much control as to where they want their material to be disseminated online and in fact, have much less control than if they were to send their material to a festival/distribution company/tv network to be screened.

Its just that the internet is so far reaching and advancing that even though documentarians would like to uphold their principles and their belief in ethics, it becomes almost impossible. The original work and intention might be made with these in mind, but when the work gets copied or used out of context what happens then? Although this social network seems like a new and exciting place filled with opportunities, perhaps it is better to thread on the side of caution.

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