The origins of The Whistle

How can we make it easier for citizen witnesses of human rights violations to capture the attention of journalists and human rights defenders? This was the question underpinning the digital platform that Meredydd Williams from the Computer Laboratory and I began to develop during Cambridge’s inaugural Critical Coding course in June 2014.

In this digital age, the documentation of human rights violations by bystanders is facilitated by mobile technologies, and the dissemination of this documentation is enabled by social media. The result is that journalists and human rights defenders have a ‘torrent’ – as Christoph Koettl of Amnesty International described it – of information at their fingertips purporting to shed light on violations. This torrent must be filtered, and a key filtering mechanism employed by journalists and human rights defenders is verification. Our digital platform supports this verification by enabling citizen witnesses to supplement their digital reports of violations with corroborating information.

We designed the platform with two fundamentals of communication in mind – fundamentals that have also surfaced in my research on human rights reporting:

1) Consuming information has a cost (money, time, or otherwise), and low-cost information is more likely to be consumed than high-cost information given fixed resources. Information subsidies – Oscar H. Gandy’s influential concept – are ‘efforts to reduce the price faced by others for certain information, in order to increase its consumption’ (1982, p. 8). Verification is time-intensive, so this platform aims to facilitate witnesses’ generation of information subsidies to make it faster (cheaper) for journalists and human rights defenders to verify their reports of violations.

2) The verification of information usually depends on an assessment of content credibility as well as source credibility. A source’s credibility is related to her resources – or forms of capital, in Bourdieu’s (1986) terms. These include reputation (symbolic capital), networks (social capital), education levels (cultural capital), and the financial capital that in part determines the levels of these other forms of capital. Capital creates information subsidies; specifically, a reputation of credibility in shared networks facilitates source verification, as does digital literacy about what information should be supplied to speed verification. The problem is that digitally-enabled citizen witnessing is often unanticipated, and, therefore, its witnesses are often unknown and may not know much about verification. This either means that verifying the information of resource-poor witnesses disproportionately drains the resources of human rights organizations and news outlets, or it means that these witnesses’ information is less likely to be used. We therefore wanted our platform to help level the source resource playing field with respect to information subsidies for verification.

Operationally, the platform consists of an interface for the citizen witness to upload her digital information and then enter details about its metadata and content – such as time, place, and source and subject identity. The platform would then draw corresponding data points from a variety of digital databases, such as those identified in the Verification Handbook’s ‘Chapter 10: Verification Tools,’ and would display them side by side with the reported data in an interface targeted at consumers of the information. For example, the platform would pull the Google Maps Street View corresponding to the reported location, which journalists and human rights defenders could then compare with the landmarks in the uploaded video of the violation.

The idea is that citizen witnesses and the platform itself take on much of the verification busywork around gathering other sources of information for corroboration. The human rights defenders and journalists would still have to ultimately make the judgment as to the veracity of the information – it is unlikely, in any case, that we will ever be able to automate this fundamentally subjective practice – but the consolidated output of the platform should make it faster for them to do so.

The platform should also help level the source resource playing field by reducing the cultural capital discrepancy of citizen witnesses. As one of my interviewees at a human rights organization explained it, for example, some Syrian activists had thought at first that just uploading a video of a violation to YouTube was enough, and it was only with time and experience that they learned that they needed to also include information about its time and place. By prompting for this sort of metadata, the platform boosts citizen witnesses’ digital literacy concerning verification.

The platform also moves towards redressing the relative paucity of symbolic and social capital among citizen witnesses and the knock-on effect of complicating the verification of their information. It does this in two ways – first, by collating a wealth of corroborating information related to the reported information’s content credibility. This allows the information as much as possible to speak for itself rather than depend on its source’s reputation for credibility (to be clear, this is not about having a good versus bad reputation, but rather about having the opportunity to generate a reputation at all in the right places – which depends on resources). Our platform’s emphasis on verifying the information’s content rather than focusing predominately on its source is ultimately why we decided to call the platform The Whistle rather than The Whistleblower. Second, by encouraging the source to gather together corroborating information about her identity to present in the platform’s output, The Whistle allows her to build up her symbolic and social capital in the networks of human rights reporting.

In sum, the hope is that, by supporting citizen witnesses’ generation of information subsidies for verification, our platform will increase the possibility that these reported violations receive attention and resources deployed towards their mitigation. In other words, by increasing the pluralism of human rights reporting at the source level, The Whistle aims to boost the pluralism of those who have access to the accountability mechanism of human rights reporting.

by Ella McPherson, cross-posted from Social Media and Human Rights