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"We Witness": A Panel on Digital Video, Social Media, & Political Protest at UC Berkeley
“See it — Film it — Change it” is a slogan of Witness, an NGO that has been around 20 years documenting human rights violations. Lawyers working for The New Media Advocacy Project recently presented Congress members with video of sexual violence in Haitian camps and won some assistance to the victims. The popular Ustream broadcast ground-level Hurricane Sandy coverage, giving a platform to citizen journalists. Rich Jones of Openwatch has a vision of smartphones recording the actions of law enforcement to the point cops become truly accountable to the public. And Ken Goldberg’s Rashoman Project offers a startling new technology for recording volatile protest situations.
All of the above was presented and discussed at a forum at the Banatao Auditorium on the University of California, Berkeley campus called “We Witness: A Panel on Digital Video, Social Media, & Political Protest,” held in honor of Human Rights Day, Monday, December 10. It was presented by the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative.
None of the content discussed at the symposium would be unexpected to followers of Indybay, since Indybay pioneered coverage of political protest on the web, as well as open publishing with guaranteed anonymity for posters.
Sam Gregory, who spoke for Witness, pointed out an app Witness helped develop called Obscuracam, which easily and effectively hides the identity of people in video. Witness is advocating YouTube make the tool available for people who post there.
Rick Jones of Openwatch said, “Privacy is dead, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the distribution of power over surveillance.” Openwatch has created an app for recording law enforcement activity. Not only recording beatings and tasings, but mundane interactions with the public as well. Openwatch will help to create artificial intelligence programs to sort the material. It is working in partnership with the ACLU and the National Lawyer’s Guild. These “aren’t just tools for activists,” Jones said, “they’re tools for everybody.”
Tomoko Hosaka spoke for Ustream, which offers easy broadcasting to citizen videomakers. She said the founders of Ustream started to invent their platform when one of them wanted to watch his brother’s band play stateside while he was on military duty in the Middle East. They then turned to broader concerns and now run a phenomenal amount of video on the web. Some people covering Occupy have used the portal extensively.
I spoke to a community member upon leaving the symposium who told me that although she had very little tech experience, she thought Ustream could be useful in cases of domestic violence, bringing video attention to a home situation in a way that could give protection to a victim in an immediate way.
The most interesting new technology at the symposium was the Rashoman Project, presented by Ken Goldberg, one of the organizers of the symposium and a robotics engineer at UC Berkeley. I spoke with Goldberg by phone a couple of days after the event. With the project he aims to take video recording of contentious political events to a new level, by syncing the cameras and camera phones of various photographers to create one master recording with more data than ever before accessible. Each camera gives a unique perspective, as different characters in the classic Japanese film “Rashoman” offer different perspectives on the story told in the film.
Goldberg ran an experiment duplicating a campus demonstration of a year ago—with student volunteers role-playing students and campus security—while five photographers videotaped their interaction from different angles. The videotape was then matched up by the time sequence information kept in the memory of the cameras, creating a comprehensive data source of what had taken place. Time sequence is currently stripped out of YouTube and Vimeo footage, one of the reasons a new program was needed. The program also anonymizes faces when necessary to protect participants.
Julian Assange is warning that the state in leading capitalist societies is gathering tremendous powers of surveillance. Their corporations are selling surveillance technology to smaller states around the world. Goldberg, and to some extent Rick Jones as well, hope that the general population here and abroad can also “surveil,” leading to the adoption of a new word: “co-veillance,” meaning the social practice of watching each other without doing harm. Goldberg called Rashoman “One step in a range of technologies that will be useful in creating co-veillance.”
When you see ten seconds of film of a protest on the six o’clock news, Goldberg said, “there’s an agenda behind that. We’re going to show you dozens of different viewpoints, and you can see them, from [all their] different perspectives. The idea, my goal, is that you can get at the truth, understand what really occurred, which may not be obvious to anybody who was even there.”
The Rashoman program, which is available in a Beta version, and should be generally available next spring, can conceivably handle scores of videos at once. The idea is to get everyone filming. What would it have been like, Goldberg wonders, if demonstrations during the Free Speech Movement had been covered by many different (coordinated) cameras? I was wondering too—what truth might have emerged?
Today, the legal status of video as evidence is in flux. So too is the legal right to film law enforcement. It has been traditionally up to police on the street during a demonstration whether one was allowed to take their pictures or not, and what they would do about it. Locally, community members were brave to photograph the murder of Oscar Grant. Conditions got tougher for photographers of police actions after that, and during Occupy Oakland, photographers were subjected to physical abuse and arrest without legal basis. Across the country recently, lower courts have tilted both towards and against videographers of police in action, and the issue is getting attention from media workers, including some who will videotape the police at any cost to themselves.
Goldberg seemed aware that the outcome of the technological change he is proposing is a bit unpredictable. Such changes in the past have opened a can of worms, and results can be other than what is expected. On the other hand, an attendee named Jen Schradie offered some perspective in a tweet during the symposium: “Wish We Witness panelists would acknowledge that Agit prop/activist video and photos predate the internet—new media is not so new.”