Professor Discusses Power of Technology, Social Media in Ensuring Human Rights

Jay Aronson, founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a lecture over web conference on Wednesday afternoon as part of the Center’s “Rights in Conflict” luncheon series. Aronson’s talk focused on the use of technology to ensure human rights around the world.

With the development and widespread use of social media and smartphone videotaping technology, Aronson noted that it has become much easier to protect human rights through user-generated content. He pointed out that this provides lawyers and activists with situational and contextual awareness, as well as documentation of an event. Furthermore, it allows for events to be captured in multiple perspectives, making the reconstruction of them much easier.

“Once you give everyone a cell phone and an internet connection, they don’t have to rely on people like you and me who are trained in the global North,” Aronson said. “They can document their own stories and make the world know about it.”

Despite the promise of these advancements, user generated content has several shortcomings. Some include that not all events are recorded on tape and that the videos come in large volumes, making their authentication and organization incredibly taxing and potentially overwhelming.

As a result of these challenges, advanced machine learning tools are needed to make user generated content effective as evidence for human rights advocacy.

Following his introduction, Aronson presented a case study in which technology was used to support human rights. In 2013, protests erupted in Ukraine because the government decided to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, instead choosing to forge closer relations with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

A team of lawyers contacted Aronson and his colleagues about assembling the fragmentary footage of the protests into one cohesive narrative. They hoped to prove that the Berkut—the special police force of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs—had unnecessarily fired upon peaceful protesters, warranting a terrorism charge.

“The video we got from … Ukraine was very difficult to watch,” Aronson said. “It was difficult to figure out what was going on … [and to] put it all together in a way that it could be useful in a human rights investigation.”

Thanks to additional footage from photojournalists and news outlets, Aronson and his team at the Computer Science Department had a starting point from which they could begin creating reconstructions of the scene. From this point, his team used techniques such as audio fingerprinting and geotagging software to organize the video in a coherent manner.

Even so, Aronson recalled the tremendous amount of human labor that was involved in generating a perfect narrative.

“As we handed over the material, the lawyers went through each and every audio synchronization we made and asked us to go back and fix [them],” he said. “They were so worried that any mistake would discredit the entire evidence package.”

After organizing the video, Aronson and his team integrated video footage with a recreation of the space to attempt to prove that the Berkut had unjustly fired upon protesters. While the final product looked magical and effortless, Aronson emphasized the human effort involved in confirming accuracy in every step of the computer’s work—from audio synchronization to recreating the scenario.

Although the case still hasn’t reached a verdict, the final video Aronson’s team assembled ended up proving that the Berkut unjustly fired upon the protestors.

In the future, Aronson hopes to use lectures such as Wednesday’s to raise awareness of technology’s potential use for human rights. He even hopes to see technology used by environmental, labor, and other activist groups more effectively to advocate for their respective causes. Although he worried that governments could use technology to hinder human rights work, his colleagues in this sector have assured him that governments likely have access to this technology already.

“The government is going to get what the government wants because they have so much money,” Aronson said. “Anytime the human rights community can get access to some of this [technology] is a huge win for the field of human rights.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Photo Editor