Trump’s Tweet, Free Speech, and American Values

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Just before 7am on Tuesday morning, the President-Elect of the United States of America casually threatened to roll back the First Amendment.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

trump-flag-tweetThe first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were added on June 8, 1789 — just days before France’s Third Estate overthrew their monarchy, demanding “Rights of Man and the Citizen” — to guarantee various rights and freedoms to the people of the fledgling US. In the centuries since, some Amendments — such as the Third, which prohibits the quartering of soldiers in homes without owners’ consent — seem less pressing than they did in the 18th century; while others, such as the Second — which reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — have found their way to the center of today’s political discourse.

Yet the First Amendment remains sacrosanct, integral to movements from Black Lives Matter to the so-called “Alt-Right.” Of course, not all parties agree what that free speech should look like: whether it allows for hate speech, anti-Semitic or racist language, or threats of violence, or if such speech infringes on the rights of others and therefore can be curtailed. But the fundamental right to freedom of expression — and in particular, freedom to express dissent or controversial opinions — is widely understood to reside at the core of American values. This can be seen in cases as disparate as quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem at NFL games, and chants at Trump rallies to “Drain the Swamp” — to oust government leaders. Trump himself gained his first political foothold by publicly questioning President Obama’s citizenship — a claim that was as false as it was legal to express. Movements across the political spectrum rely on the right to critique those in power. That right to dissent is a necessary precondition to the right to free speech. And free speech — a right our Founding Fathers saw as so foundational to their vision of the nation that they placed it before the right to bear arms to defend that nation — is a cornerstone of American freedom.

It’s not entirely surprising that the President-Elect would choose as the object of his ire the — literally — incendiary act of burning the American flag. In doing so, he leans on considerable historical precedent. Burning the flag emerged as a form of political protest during the Vietnam War, when critics lit the stars and stripes on fire at anti-war protests in the 1960s. In 1968, Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law, which prohibited anyone from “knowingly mutilat[ing], defac[ing], physically defil[ing], burn[ing], maintain[ing] on the floor or ground, or trampl[ing] upon any flag.”

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue in 1989, after Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, and was sentenced to a year in prison — just as Trump proposed in his early morning tweet. Johnson defended his act as “symbolic speech,” protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and of the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances.” Johnson won. Burning the flag, according to the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson, is protected speech.

In the, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged his distaste for the act of flag burning, even as he upheld the right to carry it out.

“The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. […] Our colleagues in dissent [remind] us that among those who will be dismayed by our holding will be some who have had the singular honor of carrying the flag in battle.”

“With all respect to those views,” Kennedy wrote, “[…] symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”

The import of the President-Elect’s tweet has less to do with the specific act he referenced — with the right to burn the flag — than it does with his belief in the right of the people to free speech, in the right to dissent without consequences. In her classic work, The Origins of Totalitiarianism, Hannah Arendt posits that ideology is the intellectual manifestation of terrorism — ideology extinguishes the legitimacy of those who hold different or critical beliefs. A primary difference between democracy and totalitarianism is each regime’s attitude toward dissent: democracy recognizes that is strengthened by dissent — by the freedom to express dissent. In contrast, totalitarianism, Arendt’s word for the authoritarian rule of government such as those of Hitler and Stalin, has no room for dissent — in fact, it fears it.

This week’s tweet is certainly not the first illiberal thing the President-Elect has done or threatened since November 8 — making a show of dropping the threat of a jail sentence against his political opponent (such a prosecution would be outside the purview of the president anyway), maintaining an active role in advancing his foreign business interests while President-Elect, and keeping his children as advisors (which, when he takes office, will be against the law) come to mind — and it will likely not be his last. But because it quietly threatens the soft core of American values — the first freedom protected in our Bill of Rights, and the very right intellectuals, scholars, and journalists will need most to call attention to illiberal acts in the years to come — it is among the most insidious.

It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt. It is also poignant but fundamental that the government — the Constitution and the man who, on January 19, will swear to uphold it — protect those who hold it in contempt. We can only hope the President-Elect will do so, in the White House if not on Twitter.


Peggy O’Donnell is a historian of modern European history, genocide, and human rights. She recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches college history in New York. (Her opinions do not reflect the views of her employer.) More information can be found at her website, www.peggyodonnell.com. Peggy tweets at @theAccidentalAc.

 

A time to support human rights #CalBigGive #humanrights

Here’s what your Big Give donation to the Human Rights Center will support:

  • The world’s first university-based open source Human Rights Investigations Lab. We have trained more than 40 UC Berkeley students how to use publicly available sources to investigate human rights abuses. Through the lab, students are verifying and corroborating video footage and photographs from Syria and elsewhere for use in media and human rights reports and, potentially, as evidence for international courts. The lab is now gathering and verifying incidents of hate speech in the wake of the U.S. election. Read about our lab in New Scientist.
  • Human rights fellowships. Our twenty 2016 Human Rights Center Fellows worked side by side with local organizations on the front lines in 10 countries this year, and recently presented their work at our annual fellowship conference.
  • Anti-human trafficking research. We are studying law enforcement’s response to sex and labor trafficking in California and finding ways to better protect and support survivors.
  • Legal expertise for cases against perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. We are continuing to provide legal consultation to international courts.
  • A response to the refugee crisis. Julie Freccero, associate director of our Sexual Violence Program, is coordinating the global response to gender-based violence in Greece’s refugee camps. We are also embarking on new research on unaccompanied refugee children and LGBTQI refugees in Europe and northern Africa.
  • Gun Violence in America event series. Our year-long series has featured acclaimed Berkeley linguist George Lakoff as well as leading firearm researcher Dr. Garen Wintemute. More events to come!

Each year, we raise 94 percent of our budget from foundations and individuals like you. Thank you for considering a gift to the Human Rights Center during Big Give.

Warmly,

—The Human Rights Center Team

Trump’s viral hate and cultures of violence

By Shikha Silliman Bhattacharjee

Less than 48 hours since Donald Trump’s victory, police reports of attacks on Muslim women have begun and social media reports violence, racism, and harassment of people of color. Even before he takes office, Trump’s election is emboldening episodes of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia that have been the hallmarks of the Trump campaign.

Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.

Why? We are witnessing the strange fruits of Trump’s violent vitriol, projected as meta-law through unprecedented media circulation and authority conferred by his election to office. If by “law” we refer to the system of rules that America recognizes as regulating the actions of its members, enforced by imposition of penalties—here, meta-law refers to Donald Trump’s normalization of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia and authorization of vigilantism.

As once explained by Lawrence Liang, the real media innovation we are seeing today is the viral circulation of the micro image—in this case, the micro image of Donald Trump. Through viral circulation, Trump’s public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia exit the realm of the outrageous and enter the world of the banal. Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.

Trump’s command of the airwaves has left us with a terrifying brand: unmasked white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy, charged with a call to vigilante action. For many, Trump’s election has given license and impunity to discrimination and violence. Trump’s election confers vicarious authority and legitimacy upon his public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia. It is not surprising that within hours, we began to see this violence cross from rhetoric to action.

I do believe that not everyone who voted for Trump endorses the hideous brand of white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy he has trumpeted, across the country and the airwaves, as he blazed a trail of destruction to the White House. However, every vote for Trump has functioned to legitimize and authorize discrimination and violence.

Even before he takes office

By Shikha Bhattacharjee

Less than 48 hours since Donald Trump’s victory, police reports of attacks on Muslim women have begun and social media reports violence, racism, and harassment of people of color. Even before he takes office, Trump’s election is emboldening episodes of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia that have been the hallmarks of the Trump campaign.

Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.

Why? We are witnessing the strange fruits of Trump’s violent vitriol, projected as meta-law through unprecedented media circulation and authority conferred by his election to office. If by “law” we refer to the system of rules that America recognizes as regulating the actions of its members, enforced by imposition of penalties—here, meta-law refers to Donald Trump’s normalization of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia and authorization of vigilantism.

As once explained by Lawrence Liang, the real media innovation we are seeing today is the viral circulation of the micro image—in this case, the micro image of Donald Trump. Through viral circulation, Trump’s public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia exit the realm of the outrageous and enter the world of the banal. Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.

Trump’s command of the airwaves has left us with a terrifying brand: unmasked white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy, charged with a call to vigilante action. For many, Trump’s election has given license and impunity to discrimination and violence. Trump’s election confers vicarious authority and legitimacy upon his public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia. It is not surprising that within hours, we began to see this violence cross from rhetoric to action.

I do believe that not everyone who voted for Trump endorses the hideous brand of white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy he has trumpeted, across the country and the airwaves, as he blazed a trail of destruction to the White House. However, every vote for Trump has functioned to legitimize and authorize discrimination and violence.

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #9: Gavin Sheridan

Why Gavin Sheridan’s ‘nerdy journalism’ is good for democracy and human rights

uvy2wjk_400x400Gavin Sheridan was ahead of the curve as one of Ireland’s first bloggers in 2002 when he wrote about “anything and everything” in Gavin’s Blog. He’s remained on the cusp ever since, innovating at the nexus of tech and journalism—motivated by the idea that free-flowing information contributes to democracy. He was in on the early days of Storyful, considered the first social media news agency, and he has pioneered the uses of Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) around the world. Now he’s trying, through his startup Vizlegal, to do for law what he did for journalism. He came to Berkeley this year to talk about a new era in human rights investigations that uses open sources to document international crimes and pursue justice.

Q. You have been on the cutting edge of journalism and tech throughout your life. Why do you think you’ve been able to see ahead?

A. I’m nearly 35 and I started using the internet in 1996 on a Windows 95 machine. It was dial up. I never studied computer science. I never learned how to program. But I was always very interested in taking a computer apart and seeing how to put it together and was curious about how the internet works. You become a nerd and are nerdy about these different things. And that dovetailed well with how the internet was affecting publishing. The more nerdy you were about tech and the internet, the more prepared you were for the disruption that was coming to the publishing industry. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was a happy coincidence.

You have this lovely thing at the end called ‘comments’ where people tell you, ‘Gavin you’re talking bullshit,’ or ‘Gavin this is a really good post,’ or nobody reads your blog post and you think, ‘What did I do wrong?’

Q. You were one of Ireland’s first bloggers. What did you learn by blogging so early on?

A. Owning your own blog makes you want to learn. You understand about SEO [Search Engine Optimization]. You start learning what blog posts work and what ones don’t. You watch your own traffic. You understand ranking and how Google works, how servers work. If I need to backup my database how do I do it? Over time, you get better and better at it. You start learning about Excel and data journalism and Access and you start arming yourself for what’s changing. That experimentation was missing from a lot of journalists I knew in the industry— ‘We have done it this way for 50 years and why would we change it, everything is OK.’ A little bit of head-in-the-sand attitude from managers in newsrooms who would just say this is an interesting toy. I’d say no, this is a fundamental thing. You need to start looking at this now. There is a lot of inertia in any organization, not just newsrooms, about change coming down the road.

Q. What is the relationship between blogging and journalism?

A. Long before I worked as a journalist, I was blogging about journalism. I was writing about and critiquing the press that I knew. I didn’t know many journalists at the time. I would write blog posts saying, ‘This is silly.’ I would write about niche areas that I knew very well. And I would blog about it for free and say, ‘This is my take and here’s why.’ I was publishing original documents or analysis that you wouldn’t get from traditional newspapers. And that builds traffic, builds an audience. I had a reasonably loyal readership for Gavin’s Blog over 10 years, and I built connections through it. You have this lovely thing at the end called ‘comments’ where people tell you, ‘Gavin you’re talking bullshit,’ or ‘Gavin this is a really good post,’ or nobody reads your blog post and you think, ‘What did I do wrong?’ That direct relationship with the audience is something newspapers were missing. They were just, ‘Here’s our content, it’s fantastic, now read it,’ which doesn’t work in an internet world. It’s not sustainable.

Q. When did you realize the relevance of social media to journalism?

A. 2009 was the year of experimentation and meeting people. I went to conferences to see what people were doing. The Iranian revolution had happened that June. I had been at the Obama election in October/November ’08, and I was experimenting with mobile journalism: how you use phones and cameras and livestreaming. I had been in Georgia—in the Caucasus—the previous month, just after the Russian invasion doing the same thing. At the time, Flips were popular video cameras, and notebooks were just becoming popular. I joined Twitter in August 2008 when it was still the butt of jokes for journalists. My moment for Twitter was when I was in Cleveland, Ohio, at a stump speech for Obama with Springsteen just before the election and I was, ‘Oh, Twitter is actually a thing.’ I went back for the inauguration in January 2009 and they had an iPhone at the stage. I was experimenting with livestreaming. That summer it was like, ‘What’s going on with this digital stuff and what’s going on with FOI [Freedom of Information]? I started experimenting with both.

Q. Why is FOIA important and how do you use it?

A. In summer 2009, I went to a conference in London called OpenTech. I met some Freedom of Information people. I was dumbstruck. I had never done FOIA requests properly before. There was a culture in the UK that didn’t exist in Ireland. I started looking at this area and filing FOIA requests for the first time with a data-oriented approach. I don’t want stories. I want databases. And from the databases I will try to get stories. We started experimenting with systematic or tactical FOIA requesting. Traditionally journalists would say, ‘I want to search for this specific document.’ You FOIA it, you get a document, you write your story, and then it was done. We thought that was kind of crazy. FOIA shouldn’t be about stories specifically, it should be about information and intelligence gathering.

Without information, citizens are powerless. You’re voting in the dark. Participating in the dark. The state holds the monopoly on information and controls the flow. Journalism is an information flow business.

Q. What exactly is Storyful?

A. I joined Storyful in February 2010. The next four or five years, FOIA was a hobby and Storyful was my full-time job. In 2010, we were trying to build a social news-telling or storytelling application…to take a Tweet or YouTube video or an Instagram post into a narrative and try to build a new form of narrative for a story. It was similar to another organization in San Francisco called Storify—similarly named. We had similar ideas. But Storyful went a different direction, which was toward professional services to find and verify content for news organizations.

Q. What was Storyful’s introduction to human rights?

A. It was right around the time of the Arab Spring. [Storyful founder] Mark [Little] had raised some money from angel investors. We had to build a team, build a newsroom from scratch, 24-7, monitor all news events globally using only social tools, verify that they were real, and sell that as a wire service to news organizations. Only social content. Mark [Little called it the first social media news agency. Ostensibly our competitors were AP [Associated Press] and Reuters. But AP and Reuters, at the time, didn’t see social as a big thing. Video content was driving it. You had an enormous growth of content coming from Arab Spring countries. You had entire revolutions being documented more or less on YouTube. And that year, you had the Japanese tsunamis, the London riots, the capture of Osama bin Laden. It was a big news year for user-generated content. Our objective was to try to put some kind of filter on it [social media]—get permission to use the content and sell that back to our clients. Algorithms only get you so far.

Q. The work seems so labor intensive. Were you a big team?

A. At the start, it was me, Mark, and Dermot [Casey]. By the end of 2010, we had nine or ten. By 2011, we were maybe 25 people. I hired a lot of former colleagues actually, like Malachy Browne, who has gone to The New York Times. At the time we had to build a small team and leverage tech as much as we could. There had to be a lot of tech savvy within the team. And if you didn’t have it, you had to learn it fast…We identified fairly early that tech was going to have to be something we used so that we didn’t have to hire more humans.

Q. What was it like at Storyful on a typical day? 

A. We’d have multiple shifts. We hired in multiple time zones. Typically, we would get up at 6 and go to work, all at our own machines. Everything was in the cloud. Nothing was stored on the computers. You’d open Tweetdeck and have 60 lists to monitor for what was going on. You’d prioritize among the team: What are the news events that are rich in UGC [User Generated Content] that we need to monitor? And then there were unanticipated events: breaking news events, where all hands were on deck. You had two roles: persistent monitoring of global news and acting fast and accurately with breaking news. We would identify an interesting video: Where was it shot? When was it shot? Who took it? What can we establish before we even contact the person who took it to see if we can get permission to use it? And that would all go into a content management system and then be accessed by our clients around the world.

Q. What social media platforms did you rely on?

A. I started working on a recommendation for Twitter in May 2011 with researchers at University College Dublin to improve our ability to build lists fast because we relied on lists on Twitter quite a lot for monitoring purposes to see what was going on in the world, in whatever language. We had to find the content and in order to find the content, we had to know what was going on, especially in breaking news situations. We were able to get quite a bit done with a reasonably small team that was very well-honed on using social media tools. And then we developed methodologies around verification as a team. I built in a detection system with the same researchers to try to automatically recognize when a bomb explodes or a car accident happens through purely social mechanisms. We raised more money and hired more staff. At the start of 2013, we started moving into viral. Not just hard news, but cat videos—any videos we thought were going to get traction. You start doing licensing deals with uploaders. You might do your first and only viral video in your life and get 40 or 50 million views on YouTube. We would help that person spread that content around as fast as possible and maximize the financial return and protect it as well.

Q. Did you build apps as well?

A. We built a tool in 2013 around social discovery—searching social platforms simultaneously for keywords related to any breaking news event, in any language, to be mined simultaneously and to cut down on the work humans have to do. Translate that into an ‘evolution of the wire service.’ In summer 2013, we were approached for acquisition. And we were acquired by News Corp. It was a three-and-a-half-year sprint. I stayed on for another six months and left.

Q. Who were the clients?

A. The first couple were Google and YouTube and later ABC in New York then France24 and The New York Times, and it expanded from there. By 2013, we had Reuters as a client for breaking news and it expanded to lots of newsrooms around Europe. Some we never got as clients—like CNN.

Q. Did you break news?

A. Sometimes we would be very, very early on a breaking news event and know about it before our clients in a lot of cases. One of my breaking stories was the Anders Breivik online manifesto after the Norway attack. Because we were good Google ninjas, we found it very early and got a lot of traffic. Our modus operandi was to find content first. You are trying to scoop your customers. Faster than BBC and The New York Times.

Q. What skills beyond reporting did you need for this work?

A. All the skills you would bring to bear are all the skills you would never learn in journalism school. It was nerdy journalism. Once you find something, what steps do you take to find out if it’s a fake or something we’ve seen before? How do you describe it to another journalist. Journalists are always skeptical, so we had to build a lot of trust with clients. If they didn’t trust us, our business was finished.

Q. You’re working with some intense content. How did you protect yourselves?

A. We hired a counselor on retainer. And anyone could anonymously go to the counselor whenever they wanted. I never used it, but a lot of people found it helpful. You never forced anyone to watch content. It’s a process of volunteering.

Q. In terms of human rights, what is the value of this work?

A. Nobody I know of was systematically documenting the entire Arab Spring and watching more or less every video that had any conflict in it. We were interested in watching and documenting. We were writing shot lists, descriptions. In our CMS, we said this video was filmed at this latitude and longitude. We could monitor vast amounts of video content every day with a reasonably small team and document huge amounts of information in a systematic rigorous way.  

Q. What is your startup Vizlegal trying to do and how does it jibe with what you’ve done before?

A. Our idea was to take the philosophy from Storyful of newsgathering systemisation, take that principle, take it to judgments emanating from courts, and take all of the information flowing from legal bodies and structure it and ingest it into an API. To scratch my own itch—if a judge ever mentions FOIA—I would like to email him that day and say, ‘Here is the judgment that was mentioned.’ In an information-rich industry like law, there is little data. We want to convert text into data and build insights into jurisprudence, to look at how laws are evolving. We want to build a set of tools that lawyers, and academics and newsrooms pay for. Like all good things, we are open minded to how it evolves from a business point of view. The legal industry reminds me of the news industry 10 years ago in terms of its relationship to technology.

Q. What motivates you?

A. It’s all about information. Storyful, Right To Know, Vizlegal, FOIA stuff. It’s all information flow. It’s all about the imparting and ingesting of information. Information is what’s important for a good democracy. Really. Without information, citizens are powerless. You’re voting in the dark. Participating in the dark. The state holds the monopoly on information and controls the flow. Journalism is an information flow business. We just don’t call it that. I get information, I analyze it, parse it and write a story about it. It could be an interview or a YouTube video, a tweet, it doesn’t matter what it is. Empowering the free flow of information helps democracy, that’s the key thing. And I want to live in healthy democracies, not secretive ones.

Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab trains students to document human rights abuses

The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law—winner of the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions—announces the piloting of the Human Rights Investigations Lab, the world’s first university-based initiative to use open sources for human rights documentation and accountability.

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Berkeley students practice open source investigation skills during Amnesty International’s Training.

Amnesty International is partnering with Berkeley’s Human Rights Center as well as the University of Essex and University of Pretoria as part of its Digital Verification Corps, training students to use open source methods to bring attention to human rights abuses as well as gather evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for future prosecutions.

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Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig launches the Human Rights Investigations Lab.

“We’re working toward a future where human rights researchers and practitioners can effectively harness the investigative and evidentiary value of the internet,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center. “With an open source investigations lab at UC Berkeley, we believe that lawyers will be better able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocity crimes and human rights organizations will be able to more effectively and efficiently expose abuses around the world.”

Amnesty’s experts came to Berkeley last month to train more than 40 Berkeley students—who collectively speak 14 languages—to verify photographs and videos and use geolocation tools. The students area already beginning to gather and verify video footage from Syria. (Read Berkeley student Ilaf Esuf’s reflection about her involvement with the la.)

“What we hope to achieve with this project is to help Amnesty’s researchers take advantage of content shared on social media and have it verified. But we’re also in a unique position where we can help train the next generation of human rights investigators in skills that are increasingly sought after,” said Sam Dubberley, the manager of the Digital Verification Corps for Amnesty. “It’s just so great to have three universities around the globe so willing to embrace this project.

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Amnesty International’s Milena Marin and Sam Dubberley speak at UC Berkeley.

In recent years, smart phones and media-sharing platforms have proliferated, allowing people to share information in innovative ways. While journalists and human rights researchers have long used photographs and videos to expose human rights abuses, they now face a deluge of digital information, including video, images, audio files, text-based messages, and other communications. To provide just one example, over four million videos with the keyword “Syria” have been uploaded to YouTube in the last year alone. Ironically, this volume poses a daunting challenge for human rights actors, who need to not only comb through those videos, but also to verify and authenticate them.

Human rights investigations increasingly rely on open source intelligence (OSINT)—information gleaned from social media and other sources, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—to identify, document, and verify violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. For example, a relatively recent report from the nongovernmental organization Bellingcat convincingly documented Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine—and did so exclusively with open source investigation techniques. Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, is a Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center.

The Human Rights Center recognizes the potential of tapping the expertise of Berkeley’s graduate and undergraduate students—from disciplines such as journalism, law, political science, computer science, and more—to make a significant contribution to human rights investigations for both journalistic and legal purposes.

“Open source investigations promise to help bring perpetrators to justice and truth to light,” said Koenig. “We are excited to draw from a vast pool of talented Berkeley students who are eager to contribute to human rights investigations and to be trained by expert journalists and investigators from around the world.”

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #8

California takes lead on gun violence research, thanks to this man

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Dr. Garen Wintemute

Dr. Garen Wintemute—an emergency medicine doctor and one of the nation’s leading firearm violence researchers—has reason to be optimistic. After weathering the federal government’s decades-long divestment from gun research (by simply funding it himself with more than a million dollars of his own money), he will direct the new state-funded University of California Firearm Violence Research Center from his UC Davis campus. And he’s got at least $5 million to do it.  Wintemute and his colleagues have led a public health approach to gun violence, which results in 30,000 deaths and 75,000 injuries a year. He studies the epidemiology of that violence—conducting rigorous research to combat myths, illuminate truths, and feed policy recommendations. He comes to campus this week as the first speaker in Berkeley’s Gun Violence in America series.

Watch the livestream on Wed. 9/21 at 5 pm.

Q. What was your relationship to guns growing up?

A. There were guns in the house—it was the 1950s and 1960s. The thing to do in my neighborhood was to play army. All the kids had toy guns, and we would play with them for seemingly hours on end. I actually was offered a job by the YMCA teaching riflery full time—at least as summer employment—but chose another job instead. And to fast forward that into adulthood, I enjoy shooting. I used to be pretty good at it, just haven’t done it in a long time.

You have to keep pushing, because people are dying, but it’s unrealistic to expect that society is going to turn on a dime…

Q: Where did your commitment to firearm research come from?

A: I was working as an emergency medical physician in the 1980s and became very interested in preventing the injuries that brought people through the doors of the emergency department. On top of that, early on I spent five months in Cambodia. This was right after Pol Pot’s time, in an area where combat still went on. We would hear landmines go off and wonder if we would see that person or not.

Q: What are some of your more surprising research findings?

A: I work hard at maintaining equipoise and so I am not often surprised. The trick is to go in without prior expectations, if possible. More than surprise, it is the sheer joy of discovery—of crunching some numbers or interviewing some people and realizing in one way or another: here’s important new knowledge and right now I am in that rare and very privileged position to be the person who knows about it and can bring it to the world and relieve suffering as a result.

They were concerned that research might be substrate for changing firearm policy in ways that harmed their interests. So they arrived at the entirely logical conclusion that if the research was threatening, the thing to do was to prevent the research from being done in the first place.

Q: That must be really gratifying, but isn’t it incredibly frustrating when the response to some of this nuanced research is met with simplistic arguments?

A. Yes, there is frustration, but the important thing is to let the frustration go. This is a controversial issue, and there are people who will react negatively without bothering to see what the research is actually about. Frustration comes from impatience and it’s really important to be patient. You have to keep pushing, because people are dying, but it’s unrealistic to expect that society is going to turn on a dime on this issue.

Q: Do you think we’re close to any kind of tipping point for gun regulation?

A: Whether it’s regulation or something broader, I absolutely do. We’ve seen for the past four years now, a breadth and a depth of concern in society about firearm violence that simply was not there before. Although they are relatively rare events, public mass shootings have a great deal to do with that change in attitude. There is a reason for this: with ordinary homicide, much of any society can tell a story that writes them out of the risk picture, if you will. They can say, “homicide happens to people who don’t look like me, who don’t have my demographics.” Suicide, which is much more common, we just don’t really talk about much at all, so it’s easy to ignore. But public mass shootings can’t be put at a distance. “They don’t happen in places I know not to go to. They happen in precisely the kinds of places that I do go. They don’t happen to people I can distance myself from either socially or demographically. They happen to people just like me.” So, for the first time, I think, everybody recognizes that the risk extends to them. And frankly we greatly overestimate on average our risk of being in a mass shooting, but the critical difference is that everyone understands that this is not somebody else’s problem; it’s their problem.

Q: You’ve said that public perceptions about mass shootings are also one of the biggest myths surrounding guns.

A. Public mass shootings account for less than one percent of deaths from firearm violence in the United States. But they are one of the things driving the current public perception about firearm violence. Firearm violence is in the public mind on a day-to-day basis now in a way that it just hasn’t been. Some of the reactions are beneficial. There is clearly an interest in doing more about preventing violence. But other reactions are arguably detrimental. Every time there is a mass shooting, sales in firearms spike. There is solid evidence that having easy access to firearms increases one’s risk of death or serious injury from firearms. Firearms are durable products, and every time sales spike, there’s an influx of these durable products into society. We are going to be living with the results of that influx for decades.

Not doing research on firearm violence is like not doing research on motor vehicle injuries and, although the scales are different, not doing research on cancer or on heart disease.

Q. What are some of the big myths you see in terms of public perceptions about guns?

A. There are so many. One is that rates of firearm violence are decreasing. They are not. If you combine suicide and homicide at the national level they haven’t budged an iota in the last 15 years—although they may have ticked up in 2015 and 2016. We just don’t have the data yet. Interestingly, during that same period of time, when there has been no change overall nationwide, the rate of fatal firearm violence has gone down here in California by more than 20 percent. We are going to be investigating the very interesting question of why that is.

Q. Is there shoddy research out there?

A. There is. People have accepted data uncritically, or not thought carefully through the assumptions that underlie their work. Or they have leapt to inappropriate conclusions. A number of us have had to spend time—sometimes privately as reviewers and sometimes publicly as commenters and editorialists—calling out junk science. This really makes me angry on several grounds. I would rather be doing good science than critiquing bad science. When I read these papers, I think these people are doing unsophisticated, careless, slipshod work. But to be honest, the thing that makes me angriest comes from not my background as a scientist but my work as a clinician. Real people are dying. Real people are being disabled. To do crummy science is to show disrespect for those people. And to me that’s absolutely intolerable.

Q. Why and how did the Centers for Disease Control defund research about guns?

A. In the late 1980s, rates of firearm violence started climbing rapidly again in the United States. We did something very laudable, something that we take pride in as a country when faced with a crisis. We mobilized. Money was becoming available for research. People were starting to do really solid research. Congress was interested in putting the results of that research into action. But that, from the point of view of some vested interests, was precisely the problem. They were concerned that research might be substrate for changing firearm policy in ways that harmed their interests. So they arrived at the entirely logical conclusion that if the research was threatening, the thing to do was to prevent the research from being done in the first place.

Q. Who spearheaded this effort in Congress?

A. Jay Dickey, from Arkansas, who described himself at the point person for the NRA, caused to be adopted into CDC’s budget language a provision that CDC’s funds could not be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” Nothing was actually said about research. But what Congress did was take from CDC’s budget an amount equal to the amount that it had been providing for research and give it back to CDC earmarked for another purpose….President Obama brought this up in January 2013 after Sandy Hook. Research, he said, is not advocacy. He directed CDC to do research. He asked Congress for $10 million to fund it. He is still asking. Mr. Dickey himself has had a change of heart and for several years has called for more research on firearm violence. He and Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who headed CDC’s injury prevention program in the 1990s, wrote a letter to the California Legislature strongly supporting the creation of the new research center.

Q. So you funded the research yourself.

A. Not doing research on firearm violence is like not doing research on motor vehicle injuries and, although the scales are different, not doing research on cancer or on heart disease. It’s absurd to think that we can deal effectively with a complex problem like this without understanding it. I came to the decision that I would keep this program running.

Q. But that’s all changing now in California. Will Governor Brown’s new commitment to researching gun violence make the state a leader, like we have been on climate change?

A. Yes, no question about it. …The existence of the center and the work that it will do will create a foundation of evidence that won’t exist anywhere else.

Q. Where will you start?

A. There’s absolutely no part of firearm violence about which we know enough. We’re going to start with the very basics. We are going to look in detail at the epidemiology of firearm violence in California. For some of that work we will use available data because the available data are good. The last time anybody did a solid, even cross sectional look at the epidemiology of firearm violence in California was 1987. I know because I did that study. We are also planning to do a large-scale survey to learn about the prevalence of firearm ownership, factors associated with firearm ownership, and the benefits that firearm owners attribute to firearm ownership. We will also be asking about firearm violence. What are the prevalence and intensity and consequences of exposure to it?

Q. How many more researchers will be involved?

A. Nationwide there are maybe a dozen or 15-ish people who have had this problem as their major focus for a long time. And this is a health problem that kills 30,000 people a year and is responsible for perhaps $200 billion in aggregate societal costs. And here are these 15 people. This is just wrong. There’s going to be a core group of four investigators here at UC Davis, and we have many collaborators here and at other institutions. And there will be one or two people as the nucleus of a team at each of the partner campuses. And we’ll build from there. Speaking of which, we are recruiting…

Q. How will the research you do become policy?

A. We’re in Sacramento, not in Davis, and not just because that’s where the hospital is. I work with the legislature and state agencies all the time. They are 10 minutes from where I am standing now. It’s absolutely possible to do research and talk with policymakers about the implications of that research and to work with them directly on the translational effort that moves research into effective policy. In California, it almost goes without saying that once the policy is adopted, it gets enforced and someone circles back to see if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

Q. Do you ever feel that if you could just prove one thing, it would change everything? Is there some Holy Grail out there on gun violence?

A. There is no Holy Grail, no final dispositive piece of truth that will make all this right. Truth is not a destination. Truth is a direction. We continue to learn. Good research is better than the research that comes before it and not as good as the research that follows. We build on each other’s efforts. It’s important to remember that we are doing science in the public interest. One of the reasons I like doing clinical work in the emergency department is that it reminds me of who I am working for.

Q. It must be so exciting to finally have resources to do something.

A. I can’t put into words how thrilling this is. Today, our little building was buzzing with people working on three or four different projects at the same time. I just stood in the center of the building listening and looking around and thinking: This is a dream come true.

Freccero Selected to Improve World Response to Gender-based Violence in Greece’s Refugee Camps

Julie Freccero

The United Nations Population Fund has selected Julie Freccero, associate director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program at UC Berkeley School of Law, for a three-month deployment in Greece to help develop and coordinate the response to gender-based violence against refugees and migrants in Greece, where more than 50,000 people remain stranded.

Freccero will conduct assessments in the camps to identify urgent health and protection needs, collect data to understand the scope of gender-based violence, and propose solutions. She will also provide training and technical assistance to organizations on the ground to improve effectiveness.

“After hearing stories of gender-based violence and observing the absence of critical services firsthand during our scoping mission earlier this year, I’m thrilled to be able to work directly on the response in Greece in such a concrete way,” Freccero said. “I hope to contribute to making life safer for refugees and migrants in Greece, and to ensuring that survivors have access to the protection and support services they need.”

Freccero, who holds a master’s degree in Public Health from UC Berkeley, completed an intensive, six-day training program on sexual and reproductive health in emergencies, sponsored by the Humanitarian and Fragile Contexts Branch of the United Nations Population Fund in Turin, Italy, in June. At that workshop, she and participants from 10 countries took part in hands-on exercises and simulations related to gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health during emergencies.

Now Freccero will have a chance to engage in such efforts again—for real this time.

She will draw on her years of experience conducting seminal research to improve safe shelters for sexual violence survivors in refugee and IDP camps and accountability for wartime sexual violence.

“Julie’s selection represents an important opportunity to put our hands-on research into practice,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center. “Her work on the ground will enable the United Nations to craft better policies to protect refugees from gender-based violence.”

Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins joins the Human Rights Center

Award-winning citizen journalist Eliot Higgins

Award-winning citizen journalist Eliot Higgins has joined the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law as a Research Fellow, as part of the center’s Human Rights Investigations Lab.

Higgins, founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog, is a global leader in the use of social media and other publicly available sources to investigate conflict, including human rights violations. He publishes the work of an international alliance of citizen journalists who trawl the web to document the weapons and tactics deployed in armed conflict, including the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine and Sarin and chlorine gas attacks in Syria. According to Human Rights and Technology Program Director Keith Hiatt, “Eliot’s expertise in vehicle and munitions identification is well known, but it’s his ability to coordinate the efforts of a globally distributed team of investigators, and synthesize findings in an accessible way, that really sets him apart.”

“We’ve entered a new era of human rights investigations and Eliot Higgins is at the forefront of that work,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center. “We are honored to partner with Eliot and to support his groundbreaking efforts to investigate human rights abuses.”

Higgins is currently a visiting research associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. In addition, he is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, where he co-authored major reports documenting Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley will become part of Amnesty International’s “Digital Verification Corps,” along with the University of Essex and the University of Pretoria. The center will launch the lab in January 2017.

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #7: Michele DiTomas

A prison doc’s mission to fix the system

Dr. Michele DiTomas, Chief Physician at the California Correctional Medical Facility and 1997 Human Rights Center Fellow.

As the Chief Physician at the California Correctional Medical Facility and Director of Hospice for incarcerated men, Dr. Michele DiTomas is charged with caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable people and helping to fix a broken system. When federal judge Thelton Henderson ruled in Plata v. Schwarzenegger more than a decade ago that a lack of appropriate medical care in California’s adult prisons was unconstitutional—citing “outright depravity” and egregious misconduct in the system—he ordered the federal government to enter the prison system into receivership. DiTomas was among the doctors hired to clean house. She now manages fifteen doctors who care for 2,800 inmates, at least half of whom are mentally ill or developmentally delayed. Her formal education (a Joint Medical Degree from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco) and real-world experience have prepared her well. She was in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the early 1990s carrying out famine relief work during a massive drought, in the slums of Bangkok for her Human Rights Center Fellowship in 1997, and in poor and marginalized Bay Area communities for residency and beyond. Since 2006, she’s worked tirelessly within the state’s troubled mass incarceration system.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) or the Federal Receivership. 

Q. Although you worked in Malawi and Thailand, you ultimately did your medical residency in San Francisco. Why?

A. When you’re 35 and have three kids, you realize you’re probably not going to work in a Mozambican refugee camp with Doctors Without Borders. The residency I chose was UCSF family medicine and based at SF General. You’re working with people who have serious mental illness, substance issues, socio-economic challenges, immigration issues, poverty issues. It turns out that the people who I like to take care of most are these middle-aged, intermittently incarcerated homeless men. Every day I hear a story about an experience that is very different than what I encounter in my daily life.

Q. What did Plata v. Schwarzenegger say about health-care in California’s prisons?

A. Medical care in the prisons was found to be unconstitutional. People were dying unnecessarily in their cells. They were presenting with shortness of breath, told to go back to their cells for their asthma attack, and then died of asthma. There were egregious cases. Medical care was being given by people who were not necessarily qualified to give medical care. There has been a huge change since the receiver took over. Over the last 10 years, medical care inside the system has dramatically improved.

Part of why we have such overly aggressive sentencing in our criminal justice system is because as a society we tend to put things in categories. These guys are in prison, so they must be bad. That’s not what you learn when you spend time with people and hear their stories.

Q. Where did you begin?

A. I was hired as a Chief Physician and Surgeon—half clinical and half supervisory. The combination gave me time to do clinical work, but also work on system and quality improvements. I think it would have been too frustrating to go into such a damaged system and slog through the day and see the problems but not have any time to help make the system better.

Q. Does the California Correctional Medical Center feel like a prison or a hospital? Do you ever feel unsafe?

A. Part of why we have such overly aggressive sentencing in our criminal justice system is because as a society we tend to put things in categories. These guys are in prison, so they must be bad. That’s not what you learn when you spend time with people and hear their stories. When I’m walking down the main line and all of the guys from Unit 4 at 6:30 in the morning are walking out of their unit for chow, they say, “Hey, doc” or “Hey doc, thanks for helping me.” It feels safe to me. I have felt more unsafe at SF General because there you have very mentally ill patients who aren’t getting treated and you have no officers around if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, prison has become our nation’s de facto mental health treatment system. On the inside in California people have access to treatment programs, psychiatric medications, groups. It’s when we send them back out into society that they often do not have these supports.

Q. You also oversee the state’s hospice program for incarcerated men, with 17 beds. Hospice in prison must be a bit complicated.

A. Often people are estranged from family members. They haven’t seen them in many years. Sometimes they don’t even know if anybody is alive anymore. Many times family members were the victims of the crime. Often our incredible chaplain is able to track down family members. Recently he told three daughters that their father was here in hospice and that he wanted to see them before he died so that he could make amends for all of the pain and suffering he’d caused. And they said “No, we don’t want to ever see him again.” Click. The next day they all showed up at the front gate without any clearances or anything. This man had killed his wife in an alcoholic rage. They were kids when it happened and had been terrified of this man their whole life. He was a monster to them. They come in and here’s this little old man who says, “I’m so, so sorry.” He was able to have closure and to die in peace. Even more importantly these women who are now in their 30s and 40s will be able to live the rest of their lives knowing that he asked their forgiveness and that they forgave him the best that they could.

Unfortunately, prison has become our nation’s de facto mental health treatment system.

Q. Can we let out incarcerated men who have only a short time to live?

A. There is a process of compassionate release. If a doctor determines that a patient has less than six months to live, we can petition the courts to consider the individual for release. Since one of the criteria for hospice admission is a prognosis of less than six months, we request compassionate release for all of our hospice patients. Custody then reviews the case and if the patient is thought to not be a danger to society, they will forward the case to the court or the parole board for consideration. The problem is that the process typically takes four to five months and many of our patients have only weeks to months to live. This is an area of much needed reform so that the logistics of the process do not make the goal impossible.

Q. It’s probably not great for your mental health to be in prison. Are we doing all we can for mentally ill patients?

A. That’s what surprised me most when I started working there. I didn’t understand that we incarcerate people who are floridly psychotic when they commit their crime. One of the first years I was working I was reviewing my patient’s chart and saw his psychiatry note. When he committed his crime, he had this delusion that there were huge metal plates coming down from the sky trying to crush his car. The police were chasing him, he was speeding, crashed his car and hurt people. And he was put in prison. That was a wakeup call to me. He was running from something that he truly thought was a threat and yet he ends up inside a prison. Seems like there should be an alternative for cases like this. I also didn’t realize the degree of cognitive disability that people can have and still be incarcerated. I have patients who are so challenged that they have to be reminded daily to brush their teeth, shower and eat. And with the aging prison population we are spending extraordinary amounts of money caring for demented elders who need assistance with all of their activities of daily living.

No one intended for him to die in prison and certainly no one intended for his mother to have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Q. Do you consider your work human rights work?

A. This is my biggest internal conflict. Yes, I believe access to healthcare is a human right. But it also means working within a system that, in my opinion, is an unjust system.

Q. What’s the most unjust part of that system?

A. The sentencing laws are outrageous, often with sentences vastly out of proportion to the crime. They give much too long sentences. Many of our elderly patients are absolutely not a danger to society. The risk of recidivism is very low and yet we’re keeping them inside. And that feels wrong. Another area is the overuse of administrative segregation. A man gets caught with a bag of marijuana and a cell phone—these are potential security risks because people have called hits from prison and hurt other people—but no one deserves six months in solitary because of marijuana and a cell phone.

Q. Have your patients been further harmed by solitary confinement?

A. One man I remember well was my patient for about five years. He was a paraplegic. He had been shot in the spine in his early 20s, but was really fit with a sporty wheelchair. He had a history of depression but it was controlled. After he was sent to solitary confinement because he was caught with a marijuana and a cell phone, he became profoundly depressed. He was delusional. Paranoid. He gained 40 pounds. He would come in with these paranoid ideas that I knew weren’t happening. I attempted to advocate for him several times and custody did try to expedite the process. Human Rights Watch says more than two weeks in isolation is a human rights violation. There are challenges to being part of a system that does things like that. Sometimes I feel I should leave. But then somebody thanks me for helping them get the medical care that they needed. Or I have a small success, where I feel like my actions may have done something to change the culture for the better.

 Q. Do you have an example of this?

A. We admitted a patient to hospice who had a few weeks left to live. He really wanted to speak to his daughter one last time before he died and say goodbye, but she was incarcerated as well at a woman’s prison and was in ad seg [administrative segregation, also called solitary confinement]. We worked with our Warden who got permission from the Warden at his daughter’s facility for a phone conversation. It was arranged that they would have a 15-minute conversation. Afterwards the daughter was taken to a session with her mental health provider to help her process the intense experience. Later, I got an email from a captain at the other facility thanking us for allowing him to take part in such a moving and compassionate experience. He said in 25 years as a correctional officer it was one of the most positive things he had been a part of. These sorts of experiences remind me why I continue this work.

Q. Is there any one case that really haunts you?

A. There’s one, a 35-year-old man who had been using some drugs, perhaps dealing, maybe some burglary, nothing incredibly violent. He ended up stealing his mother’s car. She was at the end of her rope and was worried she was enabling his behavior. So she called the police and he ended up getting five years, which wasn’t what she anticipated. As a child he had suffered from a rare cancer that he had survived and was thought to be cured. During his second year in prison, his cancer came back. He ended up coming to our hospice. His mother visited him all of the time and wanted nothing more than to have him come home with her. We applied for compassionate release but the cancer was aggressive and we slowly watched him go from a strong independent man to fully bed-bound. We did not think he was going to make it home and it was so hard to watch. Finally, he was granted release but custody had 14 days to let him out. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it until Monday, let alone 14 days. So Friday night at 4:55 PM we found someone to send us the official court documents and I got a promise someone would work on it over the weekend so he could leave on Monday. The most haunting part when I told him he could go on Monday was the profoundly sad look on his face. I thought he would be elated but his eyes said that he was not sure he would make it. Thankfully, he did make it until Monday and was able to go home with his mother. He died four days later. No one intended for him to die in prison and certainly no one intended for his mother to have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Q. Are you optimistic now that it seems more and more people are interested in fixing the mass incarceration system?

A. Sometimes I am optimistic and sometimes I’m not. Michael Romano is a civil rights lawyer who runs what used to be called the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford and they advocate for people with life sentences. He played a huge role in putting together Prop. 36, which changed the [thee strikes] penalty so that the third strike had to be a serious or violent offense. And it passed overwhelmingly. I think people realized the pendulum had swung too far. Usually I don’t know my patient’s crimes. I had known this one woman for a long time, a lifer, when one day she saw me in the hall and came over excitedly and said, “I’m going home!” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “My third strike was for stealing mascara!” She got life in prison for stealing mascara. And she got out. So thanks Michael Romano. There are movements to pull the pendulum back. There’s always hope.