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’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-30057401
WITNESS: https://blog.witness.org/2018/07/deepfakes/
The Whistle: http://thewhistle.org/
Suspension of Google Fact Checker: https://www.poynter.org/news/google-suspends-fact-checking-feature-over-quality-concerns

Key Voices:
Stephanie Vie ‘In Défense of Slacktivism’: https://firstmonday.org/article/view/4961/3868

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.