Using social media to gather evidence of human rights abuses shows the true potential of technology

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Earlier this week, I took part in a panel hosted by WeWork in Moorgate for the launch of their Creator Awards. I’d initially agreed to it out of politeness, assuming it was going to be a pretty standard panel discussion on banking or something equally repetitive, and turned up somewhat reluctantly.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My two co-panellists were inspiring examples of people using technology to tell stories and uncover secrets in their own individual ways.

The first was Eva Krysiak, an audio producer who creates Everyone Else, a “photographic podcast telling the stories of strangers”. The best way I can describe the podcast is Humans of New York account in audio form. She’s helped everyone from a lifelong nudist to a man from the Indonesian island of Siau tell their stories in personal, beautiful ways.

And then there was Eyal Weizman, a Professor at Goldsmiths University and the founder of Forensic Architecture, a research group based out of Goldsmiths. When Eyal arrived for the panel, our host, Yessi Bello Perez from UK Tech News, had to ask him what a forensic architect actually did — a question we all were wanting to ask.

Forensic Architecture work with groups like Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières to uncover human rights abuses across the world, using technology to access the information they need to build a case.

For example, after the Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza in 2014, Forensic Architecture gathered as many photos and videos taken by Gazans during the bombing as they possibly could, primarily from public sources like Twitter and Instagram, to build a picture of what actually happened on the ground. They built a 3D model of the scene by matching bomb cloud patterns between photos and videos taken by different people to reconstruct the impact of theHannibal Directive — “a controversial command designed to deal with captures of soldiers by unleashing massive firepower on persons, vehicles and buildings in the vicinity of the attack, despite the risk to civilians and the captured soldier”.

As a result of this groundbreaking research, Amnesty then published a report titled “Black Friday”, opening up a huge debate around the Hannibal Directive and subsequently leading to its use being significantly curtailed. More recently, Forensic Architecture have investigated a detention centre in Cameroon, the Libyan coastguard dealing with refugees in the Mediterranean and the Grenfell Tower fire, all of which have public reports on their website.

People like Eyal are leveraging the power of technology to resist the ever-increasing powers of state actors. Governments usually have a huge surveillance advantage over normal people, with access to CCTV, satellites and drones; by tapping into the ubiquity of social media, Forensic Architecture are rebalancing those power dynamics.

This is where technology can be a tremendous force for good, in distributing power away from a centralised force and back to individuals. Whether it’s enabling the telling of unique stories or tackling human rights abuses head on, Eva and Eyal are working to decentralise that control in inspiring ways.

And when we all told Eyal how interesting his work sounded, his response: “Is it?”