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Posted by Katharina Oemmelen on

Season 4, Episode 2 – Investigating Raqqa: Amnesty’s inquiry into the coalition’s military campaign

From June to October 2017, the US-led Coalition launched an aggressive and highly destructive military campaign in Raqqa, Syria to oust the so-called “Islamic State” from the city. Amnesty International and the Digital Verification Corps came to Queens’ College, Cambridge for the opening of an exhibition featuring photographs, interactive screens, and even a Virtual Reality experience. This episode of Declarations explores the event, giving you an insight into the panel discussions and visitors’ impression, and thus uncovers a unique perspective on the impacts of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) occupied Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city, in March 2013. From then on, the city’s 250,000 – 300,000 civilians suffered under the powerful presence established by the ‘caliphate’, which was ruling through oppression and violence. In 2017, a coalition headed by the U.S., the U.K. and France launched a military attack that encompassed four months of heavy shelling, with disastrous consequences. 1,600 civilian lives were lost and many more were injured. Those that survived the attack were left with a city in ruins – more than 80% of the city was destroyed via aerial bombardments – making healthcare, education and employment inaccessible. While the coalition has promised to reconstruct the cities’ infrastructure, civilians are left on their own in their efforts to rebuild their homes and lives. 

“Even though these actions were regarded as legal in the international sphere, they do not reflect a way of life that we would want for ourselves”  

Jing, Producer of Declarations 

The situation in Raqqa needs to be paid more attention, for several reasons. Firstly, it sheds light on the role that the Coalition – led by some of the most heavily-equipped military actors – played in the Syrian civil war. While former defence secretary General James Mattis claims to have done “everything humanly possible” to “avoid civilian casualties at all costs”, witness testimonials and on-the-ground research shows otherwise. Furthermore, the war in Raqqa represents a global trend of modern urban warfare, painfully revealing some of its most destructive features: Artillery strikes launched from up to 40 km away. As a result, no American soldier risked their lives on the ground nor witnessed the impact of their action. Simultaneously, however, the use of artilleries is “inaccurate to the point of being indiscriminate” (Amnesty International). Each shell has a marginal bearer of more than 100 meters, being launched into neighbourhoods where 5 meters can make the difference between a military base and the home of an innocent family. 

“In five months, they fired 30,00 artillery shells on ISIS targets… They fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa than any other Marine artillery battalion since the Vietnam War.”

Sgt Major John Wayne Troxell, November 2017 (Source: Amnesty International) 

In order to create a holistic picture of the city-wide destruction of the military campaign, Amnesty carried out one of the most ambitious research projects. One important facet of this was the Digital Verification Corps – an open source investigation conducted by university students from South Africa over Hong Kong to Cambridge. The podcast discusses the vital contribution that this new strategy of data analysis has made possible, with comments from both Amnesty staff and students. Amnesty’s investigation was also supported by the ‘Strike Tracker’ project, in which the public could assist in analysing satellite images of Raqqa. Such forms of coalition are mutually beneficial to Amnesty and the researchers, contribution to fighting human rights violations and increasing awareness of these issues. 

“It is ultimately very easy to show destruction, rebels and victims, really easy to feel emphatic about that. But it is very difficult to get a sense of understanding, to really grasp intuitively the scale of destruction and responsibility, which should be extended more broadly across societies in the world.” 

Max, Producer of Declarations

What you can do to help: 

Links for further information

Posted by Katharina Oemmelen on

Season 4 Episode 1 – Welcome to Season 4

In the first episode of this seasons’ Declarations podcasts, the new team of panellists sets the stage for a discussion of some of the human rights issues that do not receive enough attention. The podcast gives rise to a dialogue around the very principles of human rights, informed by the panellists diverse geographical backgrounds and personal interests. Through their experience with human rights issues in NGO work, academia as well as their personal lives, they problematise some aspects of human rights while highlighting its immense potential for positive change. 

To kick-start the discussion, the panellists outline human rights issues which we do not speak enough about, covering a broad spectrum of questions from environmental over political to philosophical topics. In particular, the panellists address groups that often find themselves on the margins of society, such as people with disabilities, inmates or refugees. This reveals how the rhetoric and discourse used in relation to human rights is crucial in shaping both public debate and response to such issues.  

The ensuing debate brings out voices of optimism alongside scepticism. This involves the difficulty of bridging the North-South divide while staying conscious of the lasting legacy of colonialism felt by the citizens of the Global South. With the painful reality that a universal access to human rights is a distant dream for many people in the Global South comes the recognition that “whenever these is a crisis, there is an opportunity to create something new”. As a way forward, the panellists look to the emergence of human rights through bottom-up movement while recognizing the importance of strengthening these through national and supra-national institutional frameworks. 

Finally, the panellists offer their motivations and plans for tackling some of these issues. Though different in experience and perspective, they come together in their quest to understand how  human rights are manifested in the lived experiences of everyday people. In order to do so, they set out to demystify the concept of human rights by showing how it applies to everyone, how it is encountered on a daily basis on the streets of Cambridge as well as in the media, and how we can contribute to make a change.

Posted by Katharina Oemmelen on

Season 3 Episode 8 – Organ harvesting and trafficking of Chinese minorities

This episode explores the issue of organ trafficking and transplant abuse in China, with a particular focus on its impact on minority groups. The first part of the podcast gives insight into  some of the practical aspects of Dr. Matas’ research on the rapidly growing business. We then consider the ways in which the UK and the rest of the world is implicated in these grave human rights abuses. 

Until 2015, China harvested organs from prisoners on death row. The State has adopted an official policy that all organs must come from voluntary donations. Yet research suggests that there is a large discrepancy between the official Chinese government’s statistics on organ transplant rates in China and the reality. When combined with the ongoing repression of ethnic and religious minorities by the State, this raises questions about the origins of those organs.

In the podcast, Dr. Matas explains the laborious and time-consuming research process of estimating the number of illegally transplanted organs, which that forms the backbone of his research. His research has been detrimental in providing evidence of the mismatch between official organ transplant statistics (10,000 per year) and his estimate of the number of organs transplanted (60,000-100,000 per year).

The conversation then turns to the implication of ethnic minorities play in China’s illegal business. It is estimated that a large number of organs are sourced from the mass killing of prisoners of conscience, which are held in detention camps around the country. Dr. Matas book explores the role of Falun Gong, a religious spiritual philosophy that became popular in the 1990s by filling the ideological gaps that the dismantling of communism had created. Since the early 2000s, there has been a rapid increase in the sourcing of organs from Uyghur, a Turkish minority group living in the Western province Xinjiang. However, due to a lack of attention and awareness to the issue there exist thus far no laws, either within China or internationally, which criminalise the murder of innocent people through organ transplant.

With China’s increasing involvement of global systems of trade and exchange, the atrocities committed effect the UK as well as other countries. For instance, an exhibition of plastinated bodies recently held in London has been put in connection with the illegal organ trafficking in China. Action has now been taken to fight the trade of organs, such as the drafting of a Council of Europe convention which has yet to be ratified by the UK.

Key links: 


Dr David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Canada and co-founder of the International Coalition To End Transplant Abuse In China (ETAC). In 2009, he co-authored a book with David Kilgour titled ‘Bloody Harvest: Organ Harvesting at Falun Gong Practitioners in China’. For his human rights work he has won various awards, and was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Price. 

Posted by Joseph Brandim-Howson on

Season 3 Episode 7: Change in the Niger Delta: Oil Extraction, Greased Palms, and Petro-Capitalism

West African oil is of increasing strategic importance globally, and Nigeria— the largest producer in the region —is at the centre of this petro-capitalist industry. In this episode of Declarations, Dr Elias Courson is in conversation with Mary-Jean Nleya andL’myah Ross-Walcott. Together, they explore the history and contemporarysignificance of the Niger Delta for Nigerian politics and petro-capitalism.

Elias begins by offering a summary of Nigeria’s long history of resource exploitation, mostly centred on the Niger Delta – the fertile coastal region of land sitting directly on the Gulf of Guinea. For European powers, the Niger Delta was a key site during the slave trade, providing a gateway from West Africa to the Atlantic and onto sugar plantations in the Americas. Palm oil then took the interest of the British colonial administration, going on to become the most consumed edible oil in the world.

Oil was discovered in 1956, and the infrastructure developed by the British colonial administration passed into Nigerian hands with the country’s independence in 1960. Since then, Nigeria’s oil has become the country’s main source of income. It is the key resource in national, regional and international politics. However, the powerful interests involved in Nigeria’s petro-capitalism and its immense profits mean that there is little interest in the needs of Niger Delta peoples and its environment. Whilst Nigeria’s oil economy is run by its independent government, the distance between national elites and Niger Delta populations mean that ‘For us in the Delta, we see an external imposition in the region’.

International oil giants also have a strong interest in the region, with most of the extraction and production of oil taking place through licenses to corporations such as Shell, Texaco and ExxonMobil. The relationship between these corporations and the Delta peoples ‘has been one of conflict’. Through expulsions and massacres the Nigerian state has smoothed the road for extractive industries. Now, with intensified large-scale crude oil thefts, or so-called illegal bunkering, oil companies are increasingly turned to private security firms to guard their profits. However, these forces, supported by the state’s Mobile Police unit, are also repressing local activists and dissenting voices. Elias invokes the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental activist, public intellectual and member of the Ogoni people who was assassinated in 1995 for his non-violent resistance to oil extraction in the region. Since Ken’s killing, the exacerbating levels of repression have provoked local groups into adopting alternative means of retaliation.

Focusing on the present-day situation in the Niger Delta, Mary-Jean asks about the environmental destruction involved in hydro-carbon extraction. Amnesty International reports flag the Niger Delta as one of the most polluted areas in the world. For Elias, this is an understatement. The region has now passed from ‘polluted to uninhabitable’. People who live in the Niger Delta are regularly dying of conditions caused by polluted air, water and soil.

L’myah is keen to know what role the Niger Delta played in Nigeria’s elections cycle in early 2019. Elias describes how contemporary political struggles for control over the Nigerian state are really a fight for control over Nigerian oil and so, the Niger Delta. Despite a federal structure, individual states have little control and power at the federal level passes between elite groups. This strong central power means that the Niger Delta populations have little involvement in the decisions being made about the future of the region.

Looking to this future, Elias believes a push for alternative energy sources will be crucial for the Niger Delta. If oil can be unseated as the key source of profit and power, then there will be space for alternative voices in Nigerian politics. Elias also sees an urgent need for dialogue between different groups and interests in Nigeria, and for the state to realise that it cannot respond to civic demands with violence.

You can subscribe to Declarations on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @DeclarationsPod to continue the conversation about human rights.

Key Links:


Dr Elias Courson is a lecturerin the Department of Philosophy at Niger Delta University, Nigeria. He hascarried out extensive research on the oil induced crisis in Nigeria’s NigerDelta and is currently part of a research team that received an APNCollaborative Working Group grant in 2017. Dr Courson earned his PhD inGeography from the University of California, Berkeley and is a former postdoctoralfellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge.

Posted by Christian Ruhl on

Season 3 Episode 6: Race, Political Representation, and Human Rights in the United Kingdom (with Simon Woolley)

As Operation Black Vote turns 24 years old this year, Simon Woolley begins the podcast by reflecting on the organization’s history. Woolley frames his work as a continuation of the work of the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, seeking to change legal and political institutions shaped by white supremacy. Operation Black Vote, in Woolley’s words, wants communities to be able to demand equality and rights, not just ask for them.

Next, the conversation turns to representative democracy. Woolley notes that black politicians in the Conservative party largely represent white constituents, whereas black politicians in the Labour party tend to represent largely black communities. L’myah supports this argument with demographic statistics. Importantly, Woolley adds, BME politicians have a dual burden. They not only represent their own constituents, but also speak for ‘the millions of people who do not have a voice’. Progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. When Operation Black Vote began in 1996, there were only four BME MPs. Now, there are 51. Nonetheless, high minority unemployment and discriminatory policies like stop-and-search persist.

For much of the podcast, Woolley focuses on the importance of strategic rhetorical framing. He does not, for instance, use the language of ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘black faces in high places’, as he finds such language tends to make people less receptive to the arguments behind the slogans. Thus, Woolley argues that we have to tell these stories through ‘facts, evidence, and data’, which frame racial equality not as a zero-sum game but as positive-sum arguments about effective policies to communicate that ‘we’re all better off if we have diverse decision-making tables.’

After a discussion about including as much of the political spectrum as possible in conversations about racial equality, Woolley ends the podcast with a call to action for our listeners. It is important to explain to people the complexity of black politics through podcasts and social media, but it is just as important to go out into communities to speak and to listen. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a disciple of MLK with whom Woolley has worked, was only in his early twenties when he became an activist. Thus, Woolley concludes, it is never too early to get involved.

You can subscribe to Declarations on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @DeclarationsPod to continue the conversation about human rights.

Key Links:


Simon Woolley is the Director and a founder of Operation Black Vote, which seeks to promote greater racial justice and equality throughout the UK. He is the former Commissioner for race on the Equality and Human Rights Commission and recently took the position of chair of the Race Disparity Advisory Group at 10 Downing Street.

Posted by Joseph Brandim-Howson on

Season 3 Episode 5: What Can Maps, Twitter, and the Crowd do for Human Rights?

In this episode of Declarations, Sam Dubberley from Amnesty International talks to Aurelie Skrobik and Matt Mahmoudi. Sam heads Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC), part of the organisation’s Crisis Response team. Set up in 2016, the DVC maintains a network of university students across the world, trained in the tools of digital image and video verification. Through this network, Amnesty ensures that the place, time, events and people captured in the content used in their reports and advocacy can be pin-pointed exactly. This is increasingly important in our era of fake news, where the legitimacy of human rights organisations is often called into question. For Aurelie, who has been part of the DVC since 2018, the DVC isimportant as it is “the first step to denouncing and reacting to human rightsabuses”.

Whilst open source/user-generated content grows in terms of quantity and relevance, most people lack the media literacy skills and time to engage critically with it: “The virality of things means that what we know, and equality what we don’t know, gets lost.” To face this challenge sectors withaccess to more resources are able to set up dedicated initiatives, such as the VisualInvestigation Lab at the New York Times. For human rights organisations, the process is bottom-up. Sam describes how training university students in digital verification skills, individuals who will then go on to work for other human rights organisations, means Amnesty is “planting the seeds” for the future, spreading these skills throughout the field. This is a “valuable contribution from Amnestyto the human rights space”.

Depicting the pain-staking verification process, Sam and Aurelie use examples from Syria and Sudan to illustrate the tools and processes used in digital verification. In some circumstances this even involves triangulatingweather and location data to analyse shadows in the images. Through this, analysts can pin-point the exact time at which the content was captured. Of course, this process is not quick and Sam notes that the not all videos can be subject to this level of scrutiny. However, in cases where only 1 video exists of a human rights abuse, maximum effort goes into verifying all aspects of what is shown.

Picking up on the goal-orientated dimension to this work, Matt asks about the role of gamification in this space. Both Aurelie and Sam acknowledge the game-like highs and lows of the verification process, but consider that gamifying the process is not the same as making the game “an end in itself”. Faced with the prospect of deep fakes, Sam recognises the risk it poses to organisations like Amnesty. However, like any tool for a human rights researcher, digital verification is only used when it fits the research question posed, and is always combined with a wider set of tools and sources in order to answer the question. It is a challenge these organisations will have to face, but it does not render digital verification tools useless. Neither does it mean that fostering wider media literacy skills is without value for human rights organisations and those working within the human rights space.

Key Links:


Sam Dubberley heads the Digital Verification Corpsat Amnesty International and is co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub. He has over ten years’ experience in broadcast news and was head of the Eurovision News Exchange from 2010 to 2013. As a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Sam co-authored a global study exploring the use of user-generated content in TV and online news outputs. He has also published research on the impact of user-generated content with Eyewitness Media Hub and First Draft News.

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Season 3 Episode 3: Lost in Europe: Missing Migrant Children

According to Europol, over 10,000 unaccompanied minors have gone missing crossing EU borders and within the EU. In this episode of Declarations, we ask: how can a minor become lost in Europe? What has happened to them since then? What is being done to find them?

Declarations panellists, Niyousha and Francesca, are joined by Cecilia Ferrara and Ismael Einashe, two investigative journalists from Lost in Europe: a network of individuals and organisations committed to investigating and exposing the stories of the disappeared minors. This is a complex task because, firstly, these minors often don’t want to be followed and/or are forced into informal economies and networks that maintain their invisibility; and secondly, because these stories are inherently cross-border, requiring expertise and resources from across the world.

Addressing the causes of this crisis, Ismael highlights that whilst people arrive at the borders of Europe for various reasons, the displacement of people internally within the EU is due to EU nation’s internal border policies and failed systems. Even within Europe, these young people are often met with violence from police and attempts to displace them onto other authorities; “the EU’s border policies and practices put vulnerable people into even more vulnerable positions”.

Cecilia notes how the flows and movements of these minors often mirrors geopolitical factors, such as national crisis and EU border closures. “In 2015 many unaccompanied minors came from Afghanistan, then there was a flux of Egyptian children, now there’s a surge in Tunisian children”. Addressing the realities of these minors once in the EU, Cecilia and Ismael explain how they are often exploited by criminal sex work and drugs organisations, or in more normalised contexts such as restaurants and as domestic workers. The forms of exploitation often interlink with the origins of the minor, because local mafias are now working across borders and transnationally to make the most out of this influx of unaccompanied minors.

Yet, profiting from lost minors does not only occur illegally. Cecilia points to the growing presence of privately-run refugee camps in southern Italian designed specifically for minors. This is because minors gain a higher premium from the government and so housing minors is more profitable for the owners of these camps. This growing industry is bringing new streams of cash into long neglected areas of southern Italy. However, conditions in these camps have been widely criticised. Given their conditions, few young people want to remain in them for undetermined amounts of time, and so many take the risk of continuing further into Europe.

Addressing the theme of ‘memory’, Cecilia, Ismael and the panellists comment on the importance of what Lost in Europe do. For Ismael, gathering these stories mean that we have documentation on the brutality of EU nations and their approach towards unaccompanied minors. For Cecilia, these stories work to remind us that, although most have us have been fortunate enough to not have to endure this brutality, the possibility is always there and it our responsibility to continuously work against such forces.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Lost in Europe project, please contact /

Key Links:

  • Lost in Europe:
  • Europol ’10,000 missing children’ figure :
  • Trafficked Vietnamese children working in cannabis farms:
  • Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma: 


Cecilia Ferrara is part of the Lost in Europe team and co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Project Italy. She is an expert of Balkan politics, society and organised crimes, living from 2007 to 2010 in Sarajevo and Belgrade. She is co-author of the book Narconomics (2011) on the international traffic of cocaine and heroine. At the moment she works on transnational investigative journalism projects. She graduated in European Contemporary History at the University of Florence.

Ismail Einashe is part of the Lost in Europe team and a feature and investigative journalist. He has reported from over a dozen nations in Europe and Africa covering world news, global migration and refugee issues, citizenship and conflict and human rights, and often, the intersection between all of these areas. Ismail is an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Journalism School. He is also an associate at the Cambridge University Migration Research Network (CAMMIGRES).  

Posted by Christian Ruhl on

Season 3 Episode 2: #EleNão

By Jeso Carneiro. Creative Commons.

Jair Bolsonaro’s recent victory in Brazil’s presidential elections has raised the spectre of Brazil’s authoritarian past. In this episode of Declarations, Dr. Malu Gatto joins hosts Niyousha Bastani and Max Curtis to talk about Brazil’s the role of memory, gender, and social media in the rise of Brazil’s far right.

Dr. Gatto starts off the conversation with an overview of the last four years of Brazilian politics. The ‘Operation Carwash’ corruption investigation, President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, and her successor’s low approval approval ratings all contributed to a rejection of elites and a widespread belief in the corruption of democratic institutions. The combination of this institutional crisis, a high unemployment rate, and a spike in homicide rates built the ‘perfect storm’ in Dr. Gatto’s words, which allowed Bolsonaro to present himself as the solution.

The panelists next discuss the memory of authoritarianism and democracy in Brazil. Dr. Gatto posits that the older memories of military dictatorship evokes a nostalgia for order, while the more recent memories of the impeachment process have given Brazilians an increased faith in the ability of the people to remove unwanted politicians. This paradoxical faith in authoritarian order and populist democracy feeds into Bolsonaro’s discourse of ‘order and progress’ — the motto of Brazil’s flag.

Dr. Gatto next explains the role of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, race, and social media before and after the election. The recent election saw an increase in the number of women elected, and women’s groups created an online resistance movement through the hashtag #EleNão (Not Him) and the popular Facebook group ‘Mulheres Unidas contra Bolsonaro’ (United Women against Bolsonaro), which has millions of members. Fake news and misinformation on social media like WhatsApp, on the other hand, contributed to Bolsonaro’s victory. The one thing everyone could agree on, according to Dr. Gatto, was that ‘Family groups were a nightmare on WhatsApp’ during the campaign season.

At the end of the podcast, the panelists discuss the implications of the elections and the erosion of democratic institutions for marginalised groups. Dr. Gatto notes that there has been a significant increase in same-sex marriage since the election, as gay couples worry that Bolsonaro and the legislature will criminalise gay marriage when they take office. Bolsonaro’s proposed ‘public safety’ initiatives, moreover, may disproportionately impact young black men. Dr. Gatto ends by stating that she believes the women’s movement may grow into an organised political party, and calls on Brazilian expats to become involved.

Key Links:

Dr. Malu Gatto is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich. Born and raised in Brazil, Dr. Gatto received her DPhil and MSc from Oxford, and her BA from Barnard College. Her research focuses on the gendered dynamics of political behaviour, with a focus on Latin America. Starting in 2019, Dr. Gatto will be a lecturer at University College London’s Institute for the Americas.

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    Season 1 Episode 11: Is the International Criminal Court Racist?

    Since its founding in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has prosecuted almost exclusively Africans. This has led to charges of racism, and some African governments have threatened to withdraw from the court. In this episode of Declarations, Adam Branch, Georgina Epure, and Surer Mohamed join host Scott Novak to talk about the perceived bias of the court, victim and saviour discourse, and the future of the ICC.

    The panelists begin the podcast with a discussion of the origins of the ICC. Planned in the heady optimism of the 1990s, the court officially began its duties in the War on Terror world of 2002. The tensions between its mission to enforce universal laws, its lack of enforcement mechanisms, and its operation in a world of violent power politics have plagued the court since 2002. It has thus avoided stepping on the toes of powerful states, and prosecuted mainly weaker parties in African states.

    The panelists next discuss implicit racism and the ‘white saviour’ complex behind the African ‘voiceless victim’ discourse surrounding the ICC. Adam Branch advocates for a shift from talking about ‘victims’ to talking about ‘survivors’ of war crimes: ‘think about not voiceless victims needing an international court to come in and rescue them and give them voice and bring them justice but rather think of survivors who themselves are debating and organising and trying to figure out for themselves what justice means, what peace means, how to bring these about.’

    Finally, the panelists discuss different conceptions of justice, from retributive justice to transitional justice and transformative justice, and question whether the ICC understands the subtleties of the regions in which it operates. This leads into a discussion of the planned African Criminal Court, the future of the ICC, and the web of international, regional, and national criminal justice systems, and the observation that ‘the ICC will have succeeded when it has no cases before it’.

    Key Links:

    Dr. Adam Branch is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Trinity Hall, and Director of the Cambridge Centre of African Studies. He has written extensively about the International Criminal Court and African Politics.

    Georgina Epure and Surer Mohamed are MPhil students in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge. Georgina’s research focuses on the responsibility to prosecute. She is the founder and editor in chief of the student journal Responsibility to Protect. Surer researches transitional justice, critical theory, and the horn of Africa.

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    Season 1 Episode 2: What’s Wrong with Fake News?

    Log on to Twitter and Facebook, and you are likely to encounter content that has a human rights angle to it; a petition to sign, a campaign to donate to, an article exposing abuse. But this boom in the spread of information on social media has also been accompanied with the threat of ‘fake news’ and efforts to delegitimise the work of various human rights actors. In this episode of Declarations, Scott Novak and Matt Mahmoudi are joined by Dr Ella McPherson to discuss the issues arising from this contemporary phenomenon.

    The podcast kicks off with a discussion of the ‘Syria Hero Boy’, a viral video from 2014. In this shaky and grainy video, a young boy appears to save another young child from gunfire, despite himself being hit by a bullet. Many took this video as an extraordinary example of survival in the context of war, but it was actually a project developed by a Norwegian artist. Whilst the artist had the intention of exposing the position of children in war, the video went on to further fuel scepticism towards similar material. This is frustrating for journalists and human rights workers who work long and hard to verify material coming out of Syria.

    Although this case hit the headlines, more common is the easily committed misattribution (taking data out of its original context) of material. This is often done without malevolent intentions by those who are suffering similar abuses to those being depicted. To assist in the complex field of verification, an emerging set of technology tools are being designed to help both individuals on the ground and journalists/human rights workers. One such tool is The Whistle, a project led by Dr McPherson. According to Matt, what such tools are doing is democratising who can get involved and act in the human right space.

    Turning to debates on ‘clicktivism/slacktivism’, Dr McPherson and the panelists tease out some of the important strands of this complex debate. For Dr McPherson, the issues at stake are not only those of action and fatigue, but also debates around symbolic power, agenda setting, and the possibilities of language. Instead of critiquing ‘clicktivism’ for being ineffectual, Dr McPherson sees the debate itself as problematic because the term has inherent negative connotations; “taking a negative stance towards it [clicktivism] is a symbolic act in itself.”

    Looking to the future, Dr McPherson points to the need to further investigate the return to individuals having to verify information on their own. This process of devolution and the new practices it fosters are certainly going to be key topics for research in the future.  

    Key Links:
    ‘Syria Hero Boy’:
    The Whistle:
    Suspension of Google Fact Checker:

    Key Voices:
    Stephanie Vie ‘In Défense of Slacktivism’:

    Dr Ella McPherson is Lecturer in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology, and Anthony L. Lyster Fellow in Sociology at Queens’ College. She is Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights, where she leads the research theme on human rights in the digital age. Dr McPherson is on the Steering Committee of Cambridge’s Digital Humanities Strategic Network and its Trustworthy Technologies Strategic Research Initiative as well as on the editorial board of Cultural Sociology. She also leads The Whistle, an academic startup, supported by an EU Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 grant, that aims to support the collection and verification of human rights information for evidence.