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By Zainab Fawzul

Throughout John Humphrey’s illustrious career, he authored hundreds of speeches on human rights. Though it hardly does credit to such a figure to pick only one such speech, The Apparatus of Freedom is of particular interest because of the important emphasis Humphrey placed on the press. While the creation of the Internet and the widespread use of social media has revolutionized what we define as “the press,” Humphrey’s statement that “[the press] is a powerful instrument in the education of public opinion” as it exposes human rights violations remains frighteningly accurate.

In the 21st century, newspapers are becoming superfluous while the number of smartphone users worldwide is projected to surpass 2 billion in 2016.[1] With the entirety of human knowledge literally at our fingertips, it isn’t hard to see why the Internet has become the preferred news source for many. The spread of information has never been simpler, and the opposite holds true as well: the spread of misinformation has never come easier. Whereas previously journalists (presumably) researched the validity of their message before publishing it, the instant-information age has done away with journalistic integrity in favor of buzzwords and hashtags.

With over 3 billion users worldwide using a platform based on the freedom of speech, misinformation is inevitable.[2] The Internet, being an easily accessible platform of self-expression, promotes mutual understanding by creating networks based on shared values and ideas.[3] It creates a society that is quick to come together into a cohesive political and social force, thereby changing the face of social activism as we know it.[4] Yet there are some that criticize this new brand of activism, termed “slacktivism”, for its low-risk factor and tendency to be a placebo for real change.[5] With retweets and Facebook “likes” dominating this arena, social awareness has become reliant on hashtags and clickbait titles, regardless of the validity behind them. Yet this cannot be referred to as irresponsible journalism, for those doing the reporting are in fact ordinary civilians with little by way of credentials.

Humphrey prophetically warned that guarantees must be made to ensure that the press does not abuse its power through irresponsible journalism. But no such guarantees exist on the world wide web, and this reckless reporting has led to the unjust persecution of individuals such as Sunil Tripathi and his family in the spring of 2013.

In April 2013, news of the Boston Marathon bombing shook the world. In three days, grainy images of possible suspects were released, and within 24 hours, Sunil Tripathi became widely accepted as the second suspect. Sunil, who had gone missing a month prior, had a Facebook page created by his family in order to find him. One particular user on Reddit, having seen the Facebook page, posted a side by side comparison of the two images.[6] Within hours, the Reddit community latched onto Sunil’s name, and hateful messages began appearing on his Facebook page. The witch hunt increased in fervor when Buzzfeed writer, Andrew Kaczynski, tweeted an affirmation of the information to his 80,000 Twitter followers.[7] In their pursuit for what they perceived to be justice, Internet “activists” persecuted an entire family. A few days later, Kaczynski tweeted a correction that Sunil was not a suspect, but by then the damage was done.[8 

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Innocent of all charges, Sunil was found dead a week later.[9]

The age of social media is such that even mere suspicions have weight. No longer is it the privileged few journalists who can disseminate information; anyone armed with a Twitter account can. But in the fight for human rights, the Internet can do so much more than validate its own rumours. The flood of citizen journalism across social media has revealed “a torrent of potential evidence of human rights violations.”[10] While journalists and human rights researchers cannot access all the scenes of violations, citizen-uploaded content can give a voice to the previously invisible victims of rights violations. The technology that we now have allows us to see into parts of the world that were previously closed off by “oppressive governments or geographical boundaries.”[11] It gives individuals all over the world the chance to contribute to the awareness of human rights by fact checking clickbait journalism and debunking suspicious claims.[12]

Regardless of the tools and methods used, human rights activists and “slacktivists” are working towards a similar ideal of transparency, freedom, and self-determination. It goes without saying that it is dangerous to be excessively reliant on social media centered activism. Yet the fact of the matter is that the Internet is a revolutionary way of disseminating information necessary for humans to engage, debate, and converse with one another. Which leads one to wonder whether one day, when the importance of the Internet is unquestioned, access to the web will be considered a human right itself.


[1] “2 Billion Consumers Worldwide to Get Smart(phones) by 2016 – EMarketer.” EMarketer. December 11, 2014. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.emarketer.com/Article/2-Billion-Consumers-Worldwide-Smartphones-by-2016/1011694.

[2] “Statistics.” ITU. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.

[3] Omidyar, Pierre. “Social Media: Enemy of the State or Power to the People?” The Huffington Post. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pierre-omidyar/social-media-enemy-of-the_b_4867421.html.

[4] Pfeifle, Mark. “Changing the Face(book) of Social Activism.” The Huffington Post. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-pfeifle/social-media-political-activism_b_1594287.html.

[5] Joseph, Sarah. “Social media, political change, and human rights.” BC Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 35 (2012): 150.

[6] Kang, Jay Caspian. “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?” The New York Times. July 25, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/magazine/should-reddit-be-blamed-for-the-spreading-of-a-smear.html?_r=0.

[7] “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?”

[8] Andrew Kaczynski, Twitter post, April 19, 2013, 2:57 a.m., http://twitter.com/buzzfeedandrew.

[9] Bidgood, Jess. “Body of Missing Student at Brown Is Discovered.” The New York Times. April 25, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/us/sunil-tripathi-student-at-brown-is-found-dead.html.

[10] Koettl, Christoph. “Twitter to the Rescue? How Social Media Is Transforming Human Rights Monitoring.” Amnesty International Human Rights Now Blog (blog), February 20, 2013. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://blog.amnestyusa.org/middle-east/twitter-to-the-rescue-how-social-media-is-transforming-human-rights-monitoring/.

[11] “Twitter to the Rescue? How Social Media is Transforming Human Rights Monitoring.”

[12] “Israeli Weapons In Libya?” Storify. Accessed February 19, 2016. https://storify.com/acarvin/how-to-debunk-a-geopolitical-rumor-with-your-twitt2.

 

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