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Social media’s become powerful tool

Published Mar 3, 2020

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Cape Town – With the rapid spread of technology and digitalisation, there is no way to avoid social media and its impact on the rights of civil society, as well as its impact on traditional journalism.

Previously information would take a while to be gathered by field journalists; today human rights abuses are instantly collected on phones and relayed across social media platforms.

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The International Conference on “Social Media: Challenges and Ways to Promote Freedoms and Protect Activists” was organised in Doha, Qatar on February 16 and 17 by the Qatari National Human Rights Committee in co-operation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The European Parliament, The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and the International Federation of Journalists.

The two-day conference brought together 250 governmental and non-governmental organisations, human rights defenders, media workers, the tech community, international human rights mechanisms and national human rights institutions.

A number of sessions took place in which panellists expressed their views on a number of topics ranging from “creating an enabling environment for online civic space; legal and institutional perspectives” to “regulating big tech-transparency and accountability in content moderation”. The sessions highlighted a number of issues relating to social media and the role it plays in facilitating and hindering human rights.

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There were a number of social media practices identified by participants, that contribute to the exercise of human rights. For example; in 2018, Google workers used WhatsApp as a tool to organise unions and protest campaigns demanding an end to sexual misconduct. This soon became a global issue and strikes took place in Tokyo, Singapore, Berlin, Zurich, London and soon spread to the US and Canada.

The impact of restrictions on these social media platforms and, in turn, online speech, which is established by national laws and policies, often target journalists, human rights defenders, political activists and social media influencers, was also explored. These are often carried out by governments and corporations who initiate nationwide shutdowns of social media platforms and sites that highlight human rights abuses, war crimes, and other violent acts.

Governments, corporations and other institutions which attempt to regulate information are often suppressing information vital to freedom of expression and information.

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YouTube had previously shut down videos highlighting war crimes in Syria. This is important not only to share and spread information about human rights abuses, but videos can now be used in legal proceedings.

Jillian York; the director of the International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) highlighted that a video which had been uploaded to YouTube had successfully been used in a case in Libya demonstrating human rights abuses.

Finally; discussions around hate speech and how to respond to it practically including the line (which too often gets crossed) between hate speech and inciting violence and discrimination towards minorities; religious minorities in particular.

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Fernand de Varennes; the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, mentioned in his discussion that hate speech was about weaponising stereotypes and listed examples of how hate speech incited violence towards minority groups in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Germany and Myanmar. The conference emphasised that participation was to be a collaborative partnership to achieve recommendations and solutions to these issues. Participants emphasised that civic space had moved online due to the irreversible ways that communication had changed over the last two decades. Social media platforms are today important environments for public participation in which channels are opened for critical voices who were once isolated.

“Soliya” is one such example; it is a facilitated virtual dialogue expanding across the globe that allows young people to engage their differences

constructively.

Social media is also a powerful tool for surveillance or attacks on critical voices. Laws which prohibit the use of encryption, banning so called “fake news” or defining online defamation have led to violations of international standards for freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Participants expressed concern over politicians, governments and corporations who used social media for personal gain.

Increasingly, governments have been limiting or shutting down social media access - incidents have increased from 75 in 2016 to 200 in 2018. The shutdown in Kashmir in 2019 is the longest social media shutdown to date. The news blackout meant no one could share news and information.

Sessions expanded to include various laws relating to counterterrorism, preventing violent extremism, cybercrime, sedition and hate speech. These laws often target civil society and persecute critical voices under criminal charges. Participants expressed the need for these laws to be reviewed, in particular those that contravene international norms and standard, contain vague or overly broad definitions of crimes, lack any form of adequate judicial oversight, and call for severe penalties that are disproportionate to the gravity of the crimes.

Many of these laws are the reasons journalists are arrested, detained or killed.

Fredericks was part of an Independent Media delegation invited to the conference.

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