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Human Rights, Technology and Movement Building Around the World

Community & Social Media

Most of us see technology an essential tool,something that helps us do our jobs, implement our programs and reach our supporters; it is a tool that allows us to influence change. But rarely do we stop to think about technology as more than a tool, but as itself a powerful mechanism of change.

Last week’s Net Tuesday, presented by Christopher Tuckwood of The Sentinel Project and titled “Human Rights, Technology and Movement Building Around the World,” delved into this topic and explored some of the ways that new technologies present both opportunities and risks for people working on social change.

Christopher began the session by introducing us to The Sentinel Project, an organization using innovative technology to connect with threatened communities worldwide in an effort to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. Some of their projects include the world’s online repository of hate speech, Hatebase, and the Twitter monitoring tool, Hatebot. Using these tools and others, they are currently monitoring “situations of concern” in Azerbaijan, Burma, Colombia, Iran, Kenya and Indonesia.

After introducing the work of The Sentinel Project, Christopher, posed an interesting question to the audience - “Why is technology relevant to human rights?”

As it turns out, technology presents opportunities and risks for both defenders of human rights and violators of human rights which is why, as a defender, it’s important to know how to both leverage technology to your advantage and use it for protection. Defenders of human rights can use technology to achieve a number of important objectives, including:

  • Mobilizing populations
  • Documenting abuses
  • Maintaining freedom of speech
  • Understanding a crisis
  • Giving a voice to the voiceless

Interestingly, Christopher pointed out that technology has always been the means by which oppressed populations have pushed back, even before the age of Facebook and Twitter. Long before Twitter and Facebook became important tools for opposing government oppression in Iran and Egypt, the French resistance was using underground newspapers to spread their message (1940-44) and leaders of the India Independence movement (1942) relied on secret radio stations to mobilize the masses. Although the tools have changed since then, technology continues to provide a critical path for oppressed population to achieve their objectives.

Christopher was quick to point out that there are some key principles to keep in mind whenever using technology to advance human rights objectives:

Consider your audience

In today’s world, even the most remote and isolated populations have access to some form of technology. What technology is prevalent within the population you are looking to support? Do they use mobile phones/SMS regularly? Or are they more likely to check Facebook messages?

Identifying prevalent technology is the first step however, it is also important to understand the level of trust associated with each technology. For example, if it’s common knowledge that a country’s government monitors Twitter and its citizens are uncomfortable using the technology for that reason, perhaps it’s not the best tool to relay your message or offer support.

Behavior is more important than tools

Technology is a great way to mobilize large groups of people, but the only way that real change occurs is if behavior changes. Using of technology should be part of a bigger strategy to further change.

Assess and manage risks

In some cases, a tool may create more danger than benefits. Christopher used the example of Haystack, a tool that was intended to allow users to circumvent internet censorship in Iran. Unfortunately, the tool turned out to be full of security holes and could have put many Iranian dissidents at risk, had it been widely adopted.

Before using any tool ask yourself if you fully understand the vulnerabilities of the tool and take steps to ensure that users are protected.

Take a people centred approach

It’s easy for technology to take centre stage, however it is critically important that technology never becomes more important than the people the technology is intended to assist. Keep the community at the heart of your campaign.

Link technologies to real world action

We’ve all heard the term “slacktivist” - or slacker activism. Any campaign the users technology as a communication tool is bound to come up against a wall of slacktivism at one point or another. That’s why it’s important for any campaign you undertake to be grounded in the real world, with actions and outcomes that create true change. How you do this is up to you and will be completely different for each and every initiative; be sure to consider this principle early and revisit it often. 

Ensure redundancy, safety and security

Security, security, security. Ensuring user safety is paramount, especially when working in human rights, where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Christopher’s presentation offered a number of fascinating examples that typify the principles mentioned above, from crisis mapping in Egypt to citizen journalism in Iran.

He ended the session with a quick overview of future technologies, including satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicles and big data, that are sure to have a huge impact in the human rights space in a few short years.

If you want to learn more about the intersection of technology and human rights Christopher is offering a course on the topic. Learn more at:

Presentation slides: