Citizens Journalism: Policing Human Rights in the Age of Social Media

by Lavanya Hinduja

With increasing accessibility to technology people have been accumulating news in the form of photographs and video footage and disseminating it through social media. This burgeoning field called 'citizen journalism' has broadened the definition of what is considered newsworthy by decreasing our dependence on the long established middle man – the mass media - to democratize the sources of content we are exposed to, making lesser-known issues part of the global discourse. Amongst several other types of information, citizen journalism has uncovered extensive human rights violations be it isolated incidents or systemic abuses, such as police brutality towards African Americans in the United States. With anyone, anywhere acting as a sensor of information, citizen journalism has tremendous reach to uncover human rights violations. The civil war in Syria is one of the most compelling examples of this, with ordinary citizens continuously exposing human rights abuses on the ground to the world. Citizen journalism offers a new way of monitoring human rights, however to do this effectively the evidence captured needs to verifiable. In light of the challenge of verifying citizen evidence, the question in debate is to what extent citizen journalism can uncover and provide evidence to address human rights violations?

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, local and foreign journalists have faced increasing and often fatal challenges to reporting on the ground. The crackdown by the Assad regime and kidnappings and beheadings by the terrorist organization Daesh, have left Syria almost void of journalists. However these obstacles have been somewhat powerless in preventing citizens from reporting by taking photographs and video footage and uploading it on the Internet. Christoph Koettle, an Emergency Response Manager at Amnesty International USA and a pioneer in the field of citizen journalism, has labelled the crises in Syria the first “You Tube War”, just as Vietnam was the first “Television War” (Koettle, “The YouTube War”). Assad’s crackdown in Hama in July 2011 was met with a flood of video footage on YouTube showing government forces shelling and firing guns at unarmed civilians (Black). On August 21, 2013 the sarin gas attacks on Ghoutta, the suburbs of Damascus, were also immediately followed by a wave of citizen journalism, bringing the distressing footage and images to laptop and Smartphone screens globally. The blatant human rights violations of this incident shown through social media raised the spectre of the Syrian crises amongst the international community.

The citizen evidence from the attacks on Ghouta provided evidence for governments to build a case against the Assad regime. The White House cited more than 100 videos and thousands of social media posts in their assessment of the attacks (“Citizens Journalists’ Coverage”). The Senate Intelligence Committee also used some of these videos in their assessment (“Syrian Chemical Weapons Use Videos”). The immediacy with which information about the use of chemical weapons in Syria was able to reach the international community is remarkable considering the lack of reporters on the ground. In using the videos, human rights researchers were able to determine certain key facts prior to the more comprehensive UN investigation on the ground (Koettle “Citizen Media Research”, 2).

In 2014 barrel bomb attacks targeted civilians in 3 towns in Syria. Human Rights Watch investigated the attacks using citizen journalism and interviews with witnesses and doctors who treated the victims (“Syria: Strong Evidence”). A video uploaded to YouTube on April 11 2014 shows the trajectory of a munition, which appears to be a barrel bomb that was dropped by a helicopter, a crucial piece of information given that only the government in Syria had access to helicopters (“Syria: Strong Evidence”). Several other videos show yellow smoke after the explosion indicating the possibility that chlorine was used (“Syria: Strong Evidence”). The cylinders and canisters shown in photographs and footage following the attacks were also marked with the symbol of chlorine gas (“Syria: Strong Evidence”). Although Human Rights Watch cannot confirm whether the chlorine gas cylinders seen in the videos were dropped in the barrel bombs from the helicopters, the use of chlorine is confirmed in videos showing victims’ symptoms and interviews with medical personnel (“Syria: Strong Evidence”). Citizen journalism signalled the use of the toxic properties of chlorine, which is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 that Syria joined in 2013 (“Syria: Strong Evidence”).

By its very nature citizen journalism has a very broad reach compared to traditional reporting by professional journalists. While this means that more human rights violations can be uncovered, there is the risk that the information conveyed is selective and subjective, and therefore potentially inaccurate. To counter this problem citizen journalism requires verification to ensure that the evidence reported is legitimate. This entails establishing who captured the evidence, when and where the incident took place, and the chain-of-custody – whose hands the evidence has gone through. In Syria most of the citizen journalists are activists fighting for a cause, which can often be reflected in what they choose to report on. In some cases activists have fabricated their evidence.

In 2012, a photojournalist who goes by the name Mani went to Homs and filmed a documentary on a group Syrian activists who film the atrocities committee by the Assad regime (Giglio).  Mani’s documentary aired by Channel 4 News shows Omar Tellawi, a prominent Syrian activist, embellishing his video (Giglio). In the documentary, Tellawi tells his colleagues that since they are not in the midst of the violent shelling in the Baba Amr district of Homs they would have to set a tire on fire to fabricate the look of smoke from the battle in the background (Giglio). They went ahead with this plan, however there was an actual explosion in the background just seconds later proving that there was no need for such embellishments with the undeniable reality of violence that is constantly on display in Syria (Giglio). Although it is understandable that Tellawi wanted to re-create the distressing and violent atmosphere that was just moments away from them and capture the media’s short attention span, such embellishments only undermine the credibility of their photographs and videos.  

In addition to graphic embellishments, there is also the risk that reports by citizen journalists are selective. Mani noted that Tellawi and his fellow activists intentionally excluded any mention of the armed opposition by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as this would strengthen Assad’s claim that the revolution against him is being lead by armed “terrorists”, as appose to innocent civilians (Giglio). However this risk of selectivity extends beyond citizen journalism with the FSA also trying to control media coverage by demanding that foreign journalists entering Syria use FSA translators and drivers (Dettmer). While they argued this was to protect the journalists as they venture into war-torn Syria and to prevent the influx of inexperienced freelancers, journalists have stated that the FSA seemed to have been trying to secure positive media coverage (Dettmer).  

Many activists in Syria are important sources of information for well-established news platforms. Danny Abdul Dayem – “Syria Danny”- is a prominent activist who has appeared on CNN and Al Jazeera among other networks. However the Syrian government has accused Dayem of fabricating his videos to present a distorted version of reality (Cooper). Syrian state television aired leaked footage allegedly showing Dayem staging gun fire in the background in preparation for his live broadcast with with CNN’ s Anderson Cooper (Cooper). In an interview with Anderson Cooper Dayem has denied these claims and further stated that there is no need to manipulate the videos because of the reality of the atrocious acts committed by the Assad regime in Syria (Cooper). Dayem has also previously openly stated that he is not an impartial reporter but an activist who wants the international community to support the Free Syrian Army in their effort to overthrow the Assad regime (The Telegraph).

Verification is needed to ensure the credibility of citizen journalism and to uphold evidence unveiling human rights violations in Syria and beyond. However this can prove challenging in cases where activists and journalists are targeted and killed daily. Some citizen journalists in Syria use proxy servers in other countries, making it harder for the government to trace the evidence back to them (Sutter). Shaam News Network (SSN), an aggregator of citizen journalism in Syria that was founded in 2011 with the purpose of thwarting efforts by the Assad regime to spread false information, has made the verification process somewhat easier and safer (Sutter). To protect their identities citizens can upload their videos to YouTube and then text the information and context of the videos to SSN who verify the details and distribute the videos more widely (Sutter). In fact many of the videos cited by the US government in their assessment of the 2013 Ghoutta attacks were from SSN, which may not be a best practice considering that SSN has made mistakes in the past, with some fake videos and photographs making it through to major news platforms like the BBC (Sutter).  

Another problem is that the Assad regime actively tries to undermine citizen evidence. A Syrian activist, Anas Qties told CNN that the Assad regime fakes activist videos to discredit them (Sutter). According to Qties, the Assad regime and their supporters operate Fake SSN YouTube channels and Facebook pages (Sutter). While such propaganda by the Assad regime has failed to conceal the blatant human rights violations they have committed, it has to some extent undermined the credibility of citizen journalism. The Russian government has often cited embellished videos and photographs created by rebels to justify their support for Assad and to denounce claims that the regime was behind the 2013 gas attacks in Ghoutta among others (“Syria Chemical Attack”).

The challenge of verifying citizen journalism is very real but should not undermine the potential of verified citizen journalism to uncover human rights abuses. In 2014 the International Criminal Court convicted Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in prison for committing a war crime under the Rome Statute by conscripting children under the age of 15 into his militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The prosecution relied heavily on video footage captured by a local organization to make its case (“From the DRC to the ICC”; “Situation in the DRC” 11). With the video’s chain-of-custody confirmed, the Trial Chamber and the Appeals Chamber accepted it as credible evidence (Kennedy). Without proper verification, citizen evidence can function more as propaganda rather than legitimate evidence, however once verified, it can serve as an invaluable means of indicting human rights perpetrators in a court of law.

Christoph Koettle of Amnesty International has been leading the way in finding ways to meticulously verify citizen journalism so that it can be used to monitor human rights abuses and hold perpetrators accountable. Using Google Satellite Imagery, Koettle was able to verify the exact location of a video taken on a mobile phone showing mass graves in Burundi that supposedly had the bodies of civilians killed by security forces in the violent political upheaval in December 2015 (Rajvanshi). He used geographic clues from the video as well as from the citizen who shot the video to do this (Rajvanshi). Once authenticated the video validated witness reports that security forces killed dozens of civilians and dumped their bodies into mass graves (O’Grady). Although government security forces were suspected of the killings, which left up to 87 dead, there was no evidence for what was done with the corpses, which were cleared from the streets by nightfall (O’Grady). Using a similar method Koettle was also able to authenticate a cell-phone video that showed a Nigerian soldier murdering an unarmed civilian (Koettle “How Technology Helped”). Following this one clip, Koettle went on to analyse more than 150 clips that unveiled atrocities committed by the Nigerian armed forces (Koettle “How Technology Helped”). This culminated in a report released by Amnesty International in June 2015 on the war crimes committed by the Nigerian Military (“Stars on their shoulders”).

Koettle’s verification method consists of content analysis – a frame-by-frame viewing of the video – and metadata review – such as corroborating evidence with geo-tagged photographs of the same incident (Koettle “How Technology Helped”). However Koettle emphasizes that in addition to the standard verification process of confirming the time and location of an incident, human rights fact-finding benefits from securely interviewing witnesses to identify the specific violations and those who committed them (Koettle “How Technology Helped”). Koettle has founded Amnesty’s Citizen Evidence Lab, an online platform to share techniques and tools for authenticating citizen media, so that it can be used as evidence for human rights defence. Koettle has also contributed to the Verification Handbook: a definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage, which discusses best practices for verifying citizen media.

Other organizations and platforms are providing similar tools to develop the field of citizen journalism to monitor human rights violations. WITNESS is an international NGO dedicated to training activists to safely and effectively film videos that expose human rights violations. Another company called Storyful verifies user-generated videos and distributes it to newsrooms. Together Witness and Storyful have created the Human Rights Channel on YouTube, which curates eyewitness reports of human rights abuses. Well-established news platforms are also directly engaging with citizen media. CNN launched iReport, and The Guardian launched GuardianWitness, where people can upload images and videos, some of which are then verified.

In not being bound by considering what may be newsworthy for networks and ratings, and being able to capture unforeseen incidents, citizen journalism undoubtedly offers an effective new way to uncover and address more human rights violations. It is true that citizen journalism cannot be considered a replacement for professionally objective reporting by journalists on the ground. However through critical assessment of the subjectivity and weaknesses of citizen media, and through the development of methods of verification, citizen journalism should be embraced as a means of policing human rights.


Works Cited

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Cooper, Anderson. “Syrian Activist Responds to Accusation.” CNN 5 March, 2012. Web. 1 April 2016.

“Citizen Journalists’ Coverage of Syria’s War via YouTube, Twitter ‘unexplored territory’.” The National 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 April 2016. (White house cited 100 videos...)

“Court of Appeals Upholds Conviction of Congolese Warlord Thomas Lubanga.” Witness. Web. 10 April 2016.

Dettmer, Jamie. “Syria’s Media War.” The Daily Beast 4 April 2013.  

“From the DRC to the ICC: The Prosecutor V. Lubanga: The Role of Video in the Criminal Justice Process.” Witness. Web. 10 April 2016.

Giglio, Mike. “Syrian Rebels Caught Embellishing on Tape.” The Daily Beast 27 March 2012.

Kennedy, Alanna. “Prosecutor V. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, Appeals Judgement, Case No. ICC-01/04-01/06, International Criminal Court”. War Crimes Office. 28 February, 2015. Edited by Katherine Cleary Thompson.

Koettle, Christoph. “Citizen Media Research and Verification: An Analytical Framework for Human Rights Practitioners.” Practioner Paper 1. Centre of Governance and Human Rights, University of Cambridge, 2016. Human Rights in the Digital Age.

Koettle, Christoph. “How Technology Helped us Expose War Crimes in Nigeria.” Amnesty International 4 June, 2015. Web 1 April 2016.

Koettle, Christoph. “‘The YouTube War’: Citizen Videos Revolutionize Human Rights Monitoring in Syria.” Mediashift N.d. Web. 1 April 2016.

Malsin, Jared. “Why it’s Getting Harder to Report on Syria.” Columbia Journalism Review, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 March 2016.

O’Grady, Siobhan. “Satellite Images Point Finger at Burundian Forces in Mass Killing.”

    Foreign Policy 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 1 April 2016.

Rajvanshi, Astha. “In Human Rights Reporting, the Perils of too much Information.”

    Columbia Journalism Review 14 March. 2016. Web. 1 April 2016.

Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ICC-01/04-01/06. Trial Chamber I,

    International Criminal Court. 26 Jan. 2009. N.p. Web. 1 April. 2016.


“Stars on Their Shoulders. Blood on Their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the

    Nigerian Military.” Amnesty International June 2015. Web. 1 April 2016.  

Sutter, John D. “‘SNN,’ YouTube Help Amplify Voices in Syria.” CNN 29 May. 2012. Web.

    10 April 2016.

“Syria: Strong Evidence Government Used Chemicals as a Weapon.” Human Rights

    Watch 13 May. 2014. Web. 1 March 2016.

“Syria Chemical Attack: What We Know.” BBC 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 April 2016.

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    Web. 5 April 2016.

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