Our reflexive research integrated into our design (and vice-versa) allows us to bring insights to the sociological understanding of technology as well as to incorporate sociological approaches into our technologies. Our research in the digital human rights space critically considers topics such as knowledge controversies, voice, strategic resistance to technology, knowledge and power as well as the post-truth phenomenon. As sociologists and technologists, this reflection is crucial to our work. Read more about our thoughts below.
Why human rights practitioners resist tech:
While human rights practitioners do aspire and, in some cases, plan to use digital tools, they often use relatively low-tech practices rather than more advanced digital tools when gathering, verifying or tracking information from sources — despite the inefficiencies and difficulties that may attend these low- or no- tech practices.
While the view exists in the technology, development and philanthropy sectors that existing low- or no-tech practices are evidence that this space is a market opportunity for technology, we instead understand these practices as strategic resistance. This strategic resistance is based on (1) fears that the use of digital tools will eclipse existing norms of human rights practice by feeling extractive and transactional rather than reciprocal, warm and trustworthy; (2) the diverse needs and digital literacy levels of the communities in which practitioners work, which are incompatible with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tools; and (3) practical concerns about the resource demands and security risks of implementing new technologies.
We recommend that techno-optimism about the use of ICTs for human rights, still rife in parts of the development, technology and philanthropy sectors, be tempered by the understanding that tools for practitioners must be developed in local contexts, aligned to the specific needs of their users – a ‘slow-tech’ approach. We recommend this reflexive and collaborative method to emphasize that knowledge about sociopolitical context and day-to-day practices is critical to the development of useful tools, especially in the ever-changing human rights landscape. Furthermore, failure to take these into account properly may not only result in the building of unadopted tools — a significant waste of resources — but also reproduce the inequalities inherent to existing techno-hegemonies.
What is a knowledge controversy?
A knowledge controversy can occur when previously settled and taken-for-granted practices of knowledge production (like the human rights evidence produced through the practice of fact-finding) are unsettled and questioned because of the introduction of a novel element in the form of new participants, data, methods and/or norms (Whatmore 2009, Barry 2012). The rise of open source investigations is part of a knowledge controversy in human rights fact-finding. This particular knowledge controversy is driven by the adoption of new technologies in the production and evaluation of human rights information for evidence in advocacy and courts.
What are the risks and opportunities of the knowledge controversy in human rights fact-finding?
In identifying this moment as a knowledge controversy, we show that new actors bring new data, methods and norms to describe what human rights knowledge should be; the resulting clash is a knowledge controversy where power, authority and pluralism — the variety and volume of voices that can be heard — are very much at stake.
New technologies have afforded significant new, exciting capacities and expanded spaces for opportunity for new actors to participate in human rights knowledge production. Nevertheless, these new opportunities are materialising in a context where the precedent has been to provide a narrower space for negotiation over the interpretation of that knowledge. This precedent has dovetailed with a troubling trend, which is that spaces for negotiation may be narrowing in the relatively new practice of open source investigation as well. This is because norms that have arrived with new technologist and technology actors – such as efficiency, quantification, and objectivity – can clash with the practice of negotiation. Not only are new, efficiency-oriented practices edging out spaces for negotiation, including reflection on information interpretation, but they are also depreciating negotiation as a norm of knowledge production – despite its benefits for pluralism.
Ultimately, we conclude that the knowledge controversy in human rights fact-finding is above all an opportunity, and one that practitioners should not rush to close. The suggestion to dwell in the openness of the knowledge controversy is not solely aimed at practitioners: The Whistle team has taken it as part of our research mandate as well. By identifying struggle over the primacy of norms and areas of inequality, we hope that our work may help producers, practitioners and others to imagine how this controversy might be settled differently rather than reproduce existing inequalities.
Our third paper (in draft) is a reflection on the research-development process of the last three years. This paper integrates our research-development dual-data model, the concept of a ‘slow tech’ approach, and our focus on the opportunities of this moment of knowledge controversy in human rights fact-finding (and, potentially, in truth-claims generally) to argue for the benefits of practice-based sociological methods, and to discuss some of the challenges and difficulties in this rewarding but intensive method.
In our fourth paper (underway), we turn to a detailed examination of knowledge-related norms among student fact-finders in Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps. Based on 19 interviews and two focus groups with student participants, this work explores how everyday citizens understand and evaluate facts in the digital age, and how this changes as they are trained in and utilise professional fact-finding methods. Early findings indicate that the more users are exposed to and deliberately practice techniques for the evaluation of facticity, the more subjective their understanding of truth becomes. We also note that users feel very conflicted about participating in mediated human rights projects. On the one hand, they are very engaged with the possibility to ‘do something;’ on the other hand, they feel alienated by their distance and relative privilege.