In Trump era, monkey see, monkey do isn’t child’s play

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While my 5-year-old body plummeted from the roof, I started to realize that maybe copying my brother wasn’t always the best strategy. But it was too late. I had already felt the wind in my hair and was about to feel the cold hard ground on my bottom. Like him, I had climbed 50 feet onto our roof. Unlike him, I fell. And as the younger sister, I would probably copy him all over again.

That childlike “monkey see, monkey do” mentality continues to afflict young minds today. Children are often susceptible to the influences around them, modeling observed behaviors—from healthy eating to generosity to strangers to climbing on roofs. Kids know what they’re shown.

This reflection brings me to our current political context. In a time where texts are sent in a split second, articles are published by the minute, and presidents can shake the world with 140 characters or less, we need to be more conscious of what children see. These are the ideologies and behaviors that will grow to shape their own voice—the voice of America’s future. And if we let the ignorant prejudice inflamed by Trump’s presidency perpetuate, that may very well be our future.

Already, days and weeks after the election, high school students in New Jersey chanted “10 feet higher” at the Latino students, referring to the wall that would purportedly be built on the U.S./Mexico border. #whitesonly was scrawled onto the bathroom stalls of Maple Grove high school in Minnesota. Chants of “white power” could be heard down the halls of York Tech High school in Pennsylvania. White students from Ladue High School in Missouri, one armed with a hot glue gun, screamed at Black children to sit at the back of the bus.

These are children who are witnessing the mistreatment of people of color, Muslims, and immigrants by our president-elect and his supporters (perhaps their parents), and emulating it—at an age when they are protected by, but likely ignorant about, the Bill of Rights. Hate speech is not illegal. But hate speech can be a precursor to hate crimes. And hate crimes are illegal. These children are well on their way to creating issues much bigger than how to get out of P.E. class.

Maybe we can’t stop the hate speech and hate crimes that have sharply risen since the election, according to human rights organizations. Maybe we can’t make those who elected Trump accept Mexicans as people, rather than drug smuggling job thieves, or agree to let women decide what they should do with their own bodies. Maybe we can’t stop Grandpa from thinking America needs to be “great” again. But we can stop children from following suit, from climbing on the roof.

My generation—the 18 and older college students from around the country—must be the examples we want to see for those just a few years younger. We must loudly and actively teach children that different isn’t bad and that there are better, alternative ways of thinking. We must monitor the hate crimes and put faces to the names so we can start to acknowledge each other as people instead of stereotypes. We must emphasize facts, not ignorant hate.

I have the opportunity to do so—to help set this example—by working with the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) through UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. The DVC lab is monitoring and verifying the hate crimes publicized through social media in an attempt to stop the racial prejudice and encourage acceptance by understanding the truth. Technology makes it incredibly easy to spread misinformation, regardless of the political perspective. 

It’s no secret that my generation and the ones that follow walk around glued to our smartphones. With various social media apps always at hand—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram—we are always connected. We find out information within seconds and spread it even faster. But we need to be smart about what we spread. The DVC lab hopes to find ways to spread truth as opposed to rumors by verifying information and connecting people to the source. We may not be able to dispel opinions, but we can dispel ignorance. And the key to doing that, is by focusing on facts.

Children aren’t born with prejudice, they learn it. We can’t stop them from seeing, but we must stop them from doing. We must teach them the truth.  


Ilaf Esuf is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Human Rights Investigations Lab and Digital Verification Corps. 

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #10: Makani Themba

More than Messaging

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Makani Themba speaks at Berkeley Law on the framing of the gun debate (photo by Monica Haulman).

Makani Themba is a writer, strategist, and organizer who helps individuals and organizations use media more effectively to challenge racism and advance social justice. The longtime director of the Praxis Project, Themba is now the chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies in Detroit, Michigan. She came to UC Berkeley this fall to speak specifically about how we frame the gun violence debate, and how we can use framing to instigate action for gun safety. Although she spoke to us before the U.S. presidential election, she illuminated the challenge and pressing need to communicate across racial, economic, regional, and political chasms in a vastly divided country.

Q. Where did you get your deep commitment to making change

A. I’m a child of the ’60s. I grew up during turbulent times. I lived in Harlem, New York, so it was a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the Black Nationalist movement and also the peace movement and local control. My mom was really active in fighting for good schools, which was critically important. Malcolm X used to preach on the street corner in a neighborhood where we shopped. So I was surrounded by a tremendous amount of inspiration. The ’60s was really a time of optimism. For those of us who were children during that time, it not only captured our imagination, but it put something in us that makes us want to find that sense again, that sense of winning, that sense of being surrounded by a feeling of ‘any day now we’re all going to be free.’ My very first job out of college was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so that was what started me on my way.

Q. Tell me something important about your family.

A. I think I’ll tell you something important about my family relationship to this topic—gun violence. I come from a family on my father’s side that is very much into guns—hunters—and into guns as safety. And then on my mother’s side it’s the exact opposite. My mother is a practicing devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda, and she tries to live a super non-violent life, vegetarian, all of that. They had a moment in the ‘60s where they got married and were together, and then went their separate ways. As an activist, I have a lot of facets that come from a very diverse family.

Q. And that probably helps you translate this debate for people, I’d imagine.

A: It does feel that way because I do have to have that conversation with folks. And I also think that having a mom in particular who was—and is—so committed to mindfulness and presence, keeps me from thinking of the debate as ‘a war.’ That’s important to me, because when you can see the other person, and they can see you, and you can walk into a discussion where you’re holding the humanity of both of you at the center, I think it’s a different conversation [than you would have otherwise]. And that takes practice.

Q. Do you consider your work human rights work?

A. Human rights are a really big part of my personal journey. I worked at Amnesty [International]. I also worked in other human rights settings and racial justice settings to better understand ‘the human rights framework’ as a tool. And it’s a great tool. It also has some limits, too. Because in ‘the rights’ framework, ‘rights’ are not the same as obligations, right? So there’s a lot of focus on what we have a right to, but not as much focus on who’s obliged to make sure that we have those rights. And so for me, it’s like well, what does a policy framework at a local level look like that gets at that? Whose job is that? How does a city act? How does a state act? How does the federal government act?

Q. You talk about ‘change communications.’ What does that mean and how does it work in practice?

A. Sure, well it’s 1. communication supports organizing, and 2. communication actually has as its metric that people think differently about the fundamental underlying principles that drive the ‘debate.’ A lot of messaging focuses at the surface. So people say, “well really if you say it this way, then their brain is going to shift that way,” or that kind of thing. But the truth of the matter is that most of what we think is deeply rooted in ideas that we have been learning all of our lives and for hundreds of years. And so change communications combines what we understand about communicating in the classic way, which is messaging, and understand that if we’re going to make change, we have to change how we make meaning. So a history book is just as important to a change communication strategy as a newspaper, because it affects how we think and how we believe, and then how we act. And so if we’re learning that certain people are not valuable in school, that’s going to carry through in all of our political beliefs. And so we’re not going to change that with a message. We have to start to look at changing all of the ways in which people draw meaning and make meaning in the world.

Q. You seem to think outside the box in how you support grassroots organizing.

A: I just had this super fun time with Black Women for Wellness, facilitating this Afro-futurist vision where we had about 200 women and a few men in a room and we imagined the Black family one hundred years in the future. We imagined what would be the organizing principles of policy if they not about profit and value or punishment, but rather love and teaching each other. And in some ways, when we even imagine a human rights framework, a lot of times we think about human rights in the context of “human wrongs.” We think this is this human wrong and you need a right to something different. And so the organizing principle is often about the injustice and correcting injustice versus justice at the center. And so part of my work recently is to rethink the organizing principles: What are the foundational principles that we build these ideas and policies around, and what happens if we shift them? I just also facilitated a project session with this amazing group called Design Studio for Social Intervention that’s based in Boston— brilliant folks—and they are doing this thing in Roxbury to imagine a people’s redevelopment agency. So instead of a city redevelopment agency, what would happen if residents ran it? What would it do? What would be its guiding principle? What would it look like if the organizing principle of development was love? What would the houses look like? What would the neighborhoods feel like? What would be the rules?

Q. Using change communications, how do we talk about gun violence?

A. Gun violence is what it is because violence is so deeply embedded in this culture. And so there was a point in the ’60s or early ’70s when a critical mass of folks really started to interrogate how violent our culture was. We have the idea that the only way to solve problems is through violence. And so when you think about dealing with gun violence, the main argument for guns is that they’re necessary. Because if people did not think they were necessary, we really wouldn’t have them in the way that we do. And there are issues of throwing up the race card to make people afraid of ‘the other,’ so you need a gun to protect yourself. And the idea, whether it’s war, or whether it’s fighting over somebody calling you a name or something, how do you understand how to resolve issues, if you understand that violence is not necessary to do so? And so that’s the fundamental work. That fear, that’s deeply embedded, the idea of violence being deeply embedded as an antidote to address the fear, the association of guns with mass killings as well as protection, and strength, and the idea that it is a right.

Q. What’s an example of how violence is deeply embedded?

A. I love old movies, and I watch them not only because they are great, but also because they are a blueprint of the American psyche. Some are actually sponsored by the NRA [National Rifle Association]. They actually say in the beginning of the film that this studio is a proud member of the NRA, pretty much up until the ’50s. That’s embedded in our culture in such a profound way—so we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to address the structures that promote this thinking and find ways to restructure them. We’re not going to message this away.

 

 

Whiting to lead the Human Rights Center’s esteemed Fellowship Program

audrey-1-croppedThe Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law welcomes Audrey Whiting, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practice program, as the new coordinator of the center’s Fellowship Program.

“Audrey brings significant experience with on-the-ground research to this role,” said HRC Executive Director Alexa Koenig. “And even more importantly, she brings a passion for giving students opportunities to make an impact.”

Whiting recently served as a graduate researcher and intern for the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, where she co-coordinated the 2015 Missing Peace Practitioners’ Workshop on Accountability for Sexual Violence, held in Kampala, Uganda. She was also the program manager for the Global Adolescent Health Colloquium at UC Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health, and sits on the steering committee for the Human Rights Watch Young Professionals Network. While completing her master’s degree, she also worked as a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“Throughout my time at Berkeley, I have been inspired by my fellow students and realized what a wealth of knowledge and talent we have on our campus,” said Whiting. “I am thrilled to be part of helping people to figure out how to use their talent in the world of human rights to make the world a better place.”

Whiting’s research interests lie at the intersection of international development, public health, human rights, and gender. Prior to attending Berkeley, she worked as a pediatric critical Care RN at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She holds a B.S. in Nursing summa cum laude from Southern Adventist and a Master of Development Practice from UC Berkeley.

The Human Rights Center’s Fellowship Program has enabled nearly 300 students to work for human rights over the past two decades. The program is made possible by Dr. Thomas J. White.

 

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

DONATE NOW!

Here’s what we’ve done in 2016:

  • Launched 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.
  • Awarded 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.
  • Initiated 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.
  • Provided legal expertise for cases against perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. We are continuing to provide legal consultation to international courts.
  • Responded 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.
  • Organized the 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 95 percent of our budget from foundations and individuals like you. Thank you for making this work possible in 2016 and for your support in 2017.

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.