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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:04PM   |  12 comments

Blog posting written by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

For the last two years, we (Sam Gregory and Patricia R. Zimmermann) have been collaborating on theoretical and analytical research, protocols, and best practices  in the burgeoning world of international human rights social media.  We've  published some essays, we've organized panels at the Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary,  we've written several papers, and we've participated as featured guests on the <Empyre> new media art listserv, moderated by digital theorist Tim Murray and digital artist Renate Ferro.  

In our current project (recently presented at Visible Evidence in Istanbul, Turkey), we are interested in upacking the ethical engagements of human rights social media in international networks.  We ask, are these forms spreadable, contagious,  viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, dangerous? Or all of the above?

Our work here is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media. In the hopes of generating a more international conversation, we've decided to post our recent work on the Open Spaces blog, to crowdsource ideas, debates, and best practices in the international human rights and documentary communities about social media formations and practices.

Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts. Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’. Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.

Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions

Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe are increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons.

The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:

  • A move from a fixed, singular media object to more circulatory, generative, remixed works that multiply in many forms and iterations, and where analysis is required of patterns of circulation
  • Shifts from specific images moving to memes circulating
  • A move from montage of different images remixed within the frame to remix outside the frame via the multiplication of comments and ideas, engagements and consequent endless and contingent reframings of context, meaning, use, histories
  • A move from push out media practices (make it and the audience will see the light) to pull-in media practices of aggregation, curation and sense-making that function more as convenings and collaborations for generative engagement
  • A challenging shift from a documentary work offering a specific, fixed, argument or politics to the work as part of a dynamic process between issue, work and audience, shifting day-to-day - for example in the constant discursive re-framing of a YouTube comments section.
  • A shift from the ethics of the filmmaker/subjects/audience to an ethics of networks and malleable contexts, i.e., a networked ethics. In documentary studies, we accept the triangle of filmmaker/subject/audience, but now, with social media, we are confronted with a three dimensional sphere that is rotating, layering, and constantly realigned.
  • A shift from the witness as a position assuming empathy to the witness in the social media landscape as chronicler, remixer, networker, viral seeder, often within a global middle class that has reengineered the construct of the digital divide into a digital dimension comprised of uneven power, layers of practice, nodes and paranodes, flows and stoppages. This is a shift from a notion of the empathetic first-person witness to empathetic engagement.

This topography constitutes  a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous.

At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user-generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.

These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian Winston, Tom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing

As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?

Stay tuned for Part II and Part III.  Until then, we hope you'll join the conversation here on Open Spaces.


This is incredibly important work that you are doing. I completely get the idea that fragmentation, multiplicity of platforms, and omni-directional communication now govern our media landscape. The classical documentary of a single, unified point of view is no longer tenable, because that form is constituted through exclusion, gender bias, class distinctions, and the privileges of education. In a world where every cellphone camera has the power to witness and document terrible atrocities and incredible acts of human kindness, every human is both a producer, consumer, and mediator of human communication.

I worry however that the act of continuous remixing, reformulation, and remastering will create a culture of total relativism. If every communication in the social network is subject to modification, then the notion of moral parameters falls by the wayside. However, if we believe that there is such an idea as human rights, then we must also agree that there are at least some parameters for morality and that some images and words cannot be subject to continual modification through equally weighted commentary.

Human rights social media has become more a part of everyday life with the widespread use of cell phones (as stated, “one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons”), cameras, and social networking. The major creators of this media have always been professional and controlled in their work, but with the creation of the prosumer there is a new section of unchecked and wild media. And to answer the first question, these forms are “spreadable, contagious, viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, [and] dangerous.” But, is that bad?

I think that it isn’t all that terrible. Some of the most important work ever done was groundbreaking and against all the social norms. This is a new form of media that is exciting and can change the world. Eventually, it will need to be controlled, but right now I feel like we should all be adding flames to the fire. Let this grow and expand until it really is pushing beyond all current boundaries before we move to control it.

However, we should all be responsible in how we utilize it. The power of the media is evident with the current masses of biased media causing uproars and distractions in society. But, is it really the fault of the creators? I think that it is mainly the job of the viewer to make sure what they are seeing, listening to, or consuming in any other way is factual and trustworthy. Would you instantly trust all the claims that a commercial makes? Generally the answer is “No.”
However, we should make sure that our work isn’t just false information thrown out there merely to confuse or can that be a legitimate goal to have when producing a work?

But back to the main point being made, the first question shouldn’t be what are the responsibilities we have, I believe the first question should be “Who has the most responsibility?”

Social media and human rights are two subjects that in the past decade or so have really blossomed into something that not only everyone can get their hands on, but everyone has the potential to make something whether it be a video or something else of the sort. According to this blog every 1.5 persons has a cellphone account. In this day and age, about 95% of those phones probably are equipped with a digital camera that record video as well. This means that of those every 1.5 persons, each of them has the capability to produce something that they can post on youtube in the social media. Some of these videos become what are known as "viral" on youtube, or other sites like it, where the amount of people who watch the video skyrockets with the video's popularity. Sites like Youtube have changed the way people access information, the news, and any trendy new thing to hit the world. But is that a good thing?

While it is good to be able to access an almost infinite amount of media at the click of a mouse, how much of the information you are getting (most of which on these types of sites are user edited) is actually factual? Since these sites are publicly edited and usually have no official supervisor of what gets put on the site, someone can post whatever they want about whoever they want and the rumor may spread based on popularity of said media. It can be used for good, we just have to govern the way it is used.

The power of this social media can be shown through the amount of reactions and frequency we start seeing things posted on the web. For instance in association with human rights, there is a video that was posted on Youtube of a cop punching a woman in the face for what appears to be resistance to arrest, or obstruction of justice. The cop is trying to arrest a woman for something we don't know according to the video, and the woman is pushing the cop to keep her friend form being arrested, and her turns and punches her in the face. All of which was caught on a bystander's telephone camera. This made national headlines and is a viral video on youtube. We also see videos of kids being jumped by a group, beat up, and sometimes killed, one infamous case is a case where a group of girls invited a girl to one of their houses only to video record them beating her. However, while it has it's bad side, the social media has also done a lot of good for individuals as well as organizations. The debates of the 2008 election were streamed live on youtube, allowing anyone access to seeing the debates. On a personal level, a video made called "Ryan vs. Dorkman" was made into a viral video, which caught the eye of George Lucas. The video is of a lightsaber fight between two guys, but the visual effects that the guy who played Ryan created got him a job working on video games for Lucas's StarWars series.

So I feel that the social media medium is one that will be in a controversy for many years to come, but if monitored and used properly, is a key way of spreading information to the mass public. But as our dependence on this media grows, I leave you with this, what if at some point in time, there is a mass crash of all the social medias? Where will people go then?

The media industry is an ever-changing medium that should be utilized. One must embrace new technology rather than suppress it. As film makers and advocates, it is our duty to jump on the internet and technology bandwagon and use it to our full advantage, rather than resorting to the old. The morality of such a broad and expansive medium may be diluted at times (a bad reputation of web culture); however, efforts should still focus on pushing boundaries and furthering the new age of cinema.

I agree with what Joe Grasso says in his comment – everyone has the potential to make a documentary because of rapidly advancing technology in the form of digital cameras and smart phones. With this technology and the Internet revolution, it is so easy for anyone to document anything that he or she comes across.

Now the general public can be their own documentary film makers. But they may not even think about ethics. The average person on the street can record visuals, edit them without even considering ethics of any sort, and post them up online.

Wikipedia works in the way that anyone can edit information on the pages, and people who come across the page just accept the information as factual when it could be a non-fact.

Similarly, now that anyone can document their lives and happenings and film and edit their own documentaries, how much of it is going to be real? How do we know what to believe? Is the whole story shown or is there going to be a misrepresentation? (Eg. Someone can take a video of a teacher harshly disciplining the student, but does not show what happens before the teacher disciplines the student. We do not get to see the other side of the story – what exactly did the student do to deserve the punishment? Hit the teacher, etc) What about human rights? With the above example, I doubt the student nor the teacher agreed to be in the documentary.

On a side note, I chanced upon the story that was posted today (12 Nov 2010) about how a Japanese man streamed his suicide to the world via the Internet. Indeed, when it comes to human rights, he has the rights to decide what he wants to show about himself. But is this an ethical decision to show the world how he dies?

Read the whole story here:


I personally think that with the current state of play, the pros of social media outweighs the cons. Like what you mentioned, it create many chances for the public to take part in the process of documenting an event. Many times in the society, social media is the channel where we are able to obtain the "freshest" news because these people are the ones who are present when and at where the event took place. This is important and is definitely a leap in technology, and like what Shawn Steiner mentioned, we should be excited and embrace this instead of putting it down.

Sadly, we being human, there definitely will be cases of the lack of authenticity and factuality, as people blow up their story or recreate one in order to gain popularity or viewership, which brings me to your question of what responsibilities do we have then. I will not agree with Shawn's argument to let it grow and expand till it push beyond the boundaries before we step in to control this form of media. If the world is able to master the use of the social media, it will be a potentially dangerous and effective way of communication, but the same applies if it is to be used in the negative way. So i think that it is important for anyone who is involved or who likes to be involved in this filmmaking/documentary community to understand the ethics and responsibilities bound to it. Making it a form of practice or unspoken rule, just like how we adhere to the underlying rules of a society/culture, instead of advocating it, might be a better way to approach this.

But having said that, I will think that viewers themselves play a major part in this and should hold the responsibility to distinguish fact from fiction. They should display levels of maturity and interpretation skills when watching a film instead of taking in everything like a sponge. They should be responsible to themselves of the things they watch too, instead of pushing all the blames and responsibilities to the filmmaker. If the filmmaker isn't responsible in the things he/she produce, should one be irresponsible too, to just believe everything that flashes before your eyes? My answer will be no, and that to me, is a choice, a conscious choice and decision that viewers have to constantly make throughout the film. Just like how the famous saying goes, "It takes two hands to clap", this responsibility goes two ways too.

There is a strong presence of social media on the World Wide Web, with much content generated and shared with the rest of the world. In cases like youtube or personal blogs, many posts remain uncensored until they receive attention of the authorities due to racist remarks or infringement of human rights. While social media sites are good in that they allow individuals or organisations to voice their opinions, it can go haywire if the information flow goes out of control.

When that happens, such social media sites are not longer praised for encouraging social interaction and sharing of information around the world but come under much criticisms of the public ¡V from that of bringing positive change to the country or the disempowered to that of presenting unchecked ¡§facts¡¨ or unethical content, simply disseminating information in different parts of the world, just to generate some ¡§hype¡¨.

When The Hub (by Witness), once a User Generated Content site removed the function to upload videos by the public, it signals a move to refrain activists from the unethical use of the website, hoping to ¡§protect the safety, dignity and human rights of all¡¨. While some videos may be presented in a different context as to what was being filmed, there are many others who may depict pressing human rights issues. As mentioned on its website, the mission of Witness is to ¡§empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice promoting public engagement and policy change¡¨. How can such change be possible when uploading function is no longer made available to the people? What else can be done to ensure that a particular social media site is full of useful content and not something that is pure fakery or contains the distortion of truth but still enable users to upload their videos?

Social media like EngageMedia enables users to upload their videos. However, it works on a clearly stated editorial policy. On its website, EngageMedia states that it will publish videos that are ¡§well researched, well produced and edited, focuses on the Asia-Pacific region, aids in the development of social movements, innovative, engaging or entertaining and constructive, critical of the status quo or highlights key issues¡¨. On the other hand, videos that ¡§promotes sexism, racism or homophobia or discriminates against dis-empowered members of the community, contains advertising or advertorial content and overtly promote the interests of any particular religion or religious groups, governments or corporations as a primary purpose¡¨ will not be accepted. With such a guideline, working as some sort of a gatekeeper, may work best in advancing human rights causes. One, it does not bar activists from launching their social media campaign. Two, it makes sure that there is controlled flow of information.

However, this brings me to think about the fact that the restrictions on the content of productions before they can be streamed on certain social media and garner the responses of the public, may lead to the subversion of voices. If I am from a minority race and I feel marginalised from the community and would like to voice it out through social media campaigns on EngageMedia or even 15Malaysia, to what extent will it be allowed for it to even be approved by the editors and the moderators before my videos can be placed online? (For some countries, especially in mine, any issues on race will immediately be deemed ¡§sensitive¡¨ and the creator may even be brought to court for making racist remarks which may lead to destabilising of the social fabric.)

As mentioned in part 3 of the above blog post, ¡§ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware¡¨. How much responsibility should they have for the videos posted on their sites and how much say should they have in determining that a video should or should not be streamed so as to protect the ¡§rights¡¨ of others? While the use of social media as a platform of campaigning for various causes remain in trend, a grey area still exists on the responsibility of users (film makers), audiences, subjects and technological operators, to maintain the integrity of these sites and push the people above (the government or NGOs) to take action.

From the viewpoint of a communications student, I find this project completely breath-taking and eye-opening on so many levels.
I was really taken aback by the word 'topography'.

As a documentary enthusiast, I always thought that it was the role and responsibility of documentary to monitor and vocalize social concerns. However, this post basically made me realize that the media is evolving so fast that there is fog of uncertainty over what documentary or media is in general.

I was very intrigued by how even images and memes are being researched. Now that I look at it, when I look at the internet, it is one whole big documentary in itself. It documents history, thoughts and emotions.
This is even more relevant with so many cell phones in circulation right now.

I do recommend the film Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country by Anders OStergaard. It is a documentary of compiled footages from hand-held cameras, handphones and amateur cameras. It won the recent Oscars.
This film is just the tip of the iceberg when we are dealing with the media and its relationship with users and social issues.

There is a whole new media world with a seemingly endless horizon. Before we run out blindly, it is important to know what we are running into. This project, if successful will become a tographic map for not only documentary film makers but everyone in general.

Is anyone as excited about this as me?

In current times, we are witnessing the adoption of the title of 'filmmaker' by just about anyone who has access to a video-recording device, editing software and the Internet. The ability to make video content for public viewing (and discourse) is no longer restricted by paper qualifications and formal training.

Your observation of the ever rotating, layering and realigning nature of the filmmaker/ subject/ audience relationship in the realm of social media intrigues me. As a social media enthusiast myself, I frequently witness (and at times participate) in the viral spreading of videos on social media platforms. In such instances, we see an example of the audience changing with every new sharing. It is also interesting to see how the content of the video is somewhat framed by the short description written by the person sharing (with Facebook as the medium in reference). Although the description does not alter the content as extensively as re-editing and reworking does, it does prompt the audience on how they should view and react to the content. Do you feel that users have ethical responsibility in the way they share and present the content?

In my opinion, the ethical responsibilities of the filmmaker, subject and audience does not change in the social media. What changes is the role that every person takes and hence the responsibility that comes with it.

As the filmmaker, one has to be aware of how one's content is being used if it is circulated. Anyone who would like to reproduce or rework the content would have to first seek the originator's permission. This is somewhat practiced in YouTube where some content uploaders ask that permission be sought before their videos are used elsewhere. It is a way of ensuring that the content is not misused in any way; a way of protecting a filmmaker's subjects. Unfortunately, it is not enforced by many users.

Audiences, of course, are always encouraged to be discerning and not accept everything they see as truth. Ideally, we would expect the audience to take action if they come across anything unethical. However, how often do people do more than just leave a disapproving comment to show disdain? In an environment where one is exposed to so many videos within a short period of time, how much reflection or action is taken before one moves on to the next?

Great site, and a well written post

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