In challenging times: ‘A good day for the victims’

4db26dc0-b120-4bfe-bda4-4a61aff2c50dKim Thuy Seelinger sat with survivors and legal partners in a courtroom in Dakar, Senegal, a few months ago to hear Judge Ougadeye Wafi’s decision on the appeal of former Chad dictator Hissène Habré: still guilty.

Although Habré was acquitted of personally raping Khadidja Hassan Zidane on procedural grounds, the other sexual violence convictions were upheld and hailed as a victory for international criminal justice. It was the first time a national court had used principles of universal jurisdiction to prosecute a former head of state for crimes of this nature.

“It was a good day for the victims,” said Seelinger, director of the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center, who worked with international legal experts on an amicus brief last year that helped to convict Habré of sexual slavery as a crime against humanity.
But our work is not done.

Our Sexual Violence Program is helping to forge a new era in war crimes prosecutions in national courts. We are now clarifying questions of international law in the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander in Uganda who has been indicted on 93 counts, including various crimes against humanity. Kwoyelo’s trial is the first domestic war crimes case in Uganda, and the first LRA prosecution. Precedent set by these trials will help achieve accountability for sexual violence in future cases around the globe.

In honor of International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on Monday, help us ensure sexual violence in conflict is pursued as a crime and not just a collateral of war. Your tax-deductible gift of any size will impact international justice.

To meet our goals, we need to raise an additional $12,000 by June 30.

Donate today! 

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #11: Adam Winkler

Adam Winkler 2Are they coming for our gun laws?

UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler went straight from New York University School of Law to the defense team of Michael Jackson and then that of OJ Simpson. But even this high-profile litigation couldn’t keep him from his calling to study constitutional law—a field where he has subsequently won acclaim as an expert on the Second Amendment. His most recent book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America tells the story of the pivotal 2008 Heller case and its complex cast of gun rights and gun control advocates. Winkler has walked a fine line as a scholar amid a contentious debate, not caving to passionate advocates on either side. It’s an accomplishment that many—including Berkeley Law’s Frank Zimring—say serves his readers and the subject. Winkler lectured at Berkeley Law this week and spoke with the Berkeley Human Rights Q&A about the rapidly shifting political climate—everything from changing gun laws to unbridled executive powers to the importance of protest.

Q. Did guns or the constitution or both figure prominently in your childhood?

A. Neither did. I grew up on the West side of Los Angeles in a liberal Hollywood family where we were not even allowed to have squirt guns.

Q. You ended up on the Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson defense teams practically from the get-go.

A. We represented Michael Jackson in that first civil suit against him for alleged molestation of a child. It was a really interesting case to be involved with, mostly because it was happening at a time when the news media was rapidly changing.  It was the time of the birth of tabloid television when Hard Copy and Inside Edition—the television programs that spawned TMZ and the gossip and tabloid culture we know today. I would go home after a day of working on one of those cases and watch all of those tabloid television shows and learn things about my case that I didn’t know from the inside.

There’s one key thing that both sides tend to forget: the permanence of guns in America. I think too often both sides assume there is a possibility that we can get rid of all of the civilian guns in America. The kinds of laws that promote disarmament really don’t work in a country that has 300 million guns and counting.


Q. But you turned instead to the thrills of academia and the Second Amendment?

A. Constitutional law was one of those issues that really got me excited about the law and motivated me to become a law professor. My scholarship in the first 10 years focused on a very narrow issue that had little public interest at the time: Whether corporations could be limited in how they spend money [to influence] the political process. In 2008, that issue was a dead issue. I was sick of going to conferences and finding no one to talk to about it. I needed to find a hot topic that had some good debate around it. The Second Amendment lured me in. Then two years later, after I committed myself to the Second Amendment and set aside that research…suddenly it becomes one of the biggest issues in America. It shows you how good my timing is.

Q. What is the future of the Second Amendment?

A. We have all this debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment, but in the meantime almost every state has a constitutional guarantee for the right to bear arms. You have over 150 years of state court cases on the constitutionality of control—not under the Second Amendment. You want to know the future of the Second Amendment? Let’s look at these state cases. The right to bear arms is already judicially respected in the states. Even when courts called the issue a fundamental right, a right of great importance, at the same time they generally upheld the vast majority of gun control laws. That’s an interesting balance where you could have gun rights and gun regulation at the same time. They don’t have to be incompatible. That inspired me to think about the Second Amendment more broadly and inspired my research into my book, Gunfight.

Q. What are the big takeaways from your book Gunfight?

A. The biggest theme that I explore in Gunfight is the way we historically balance gun rights with gun control. I take the 2008 District of Columbia against Heller case that held for the first time that the Second Amendment unambiguously protected the right to bear arms when the court struck down a ban in Washington, DC, on handguns. I used my book to tell the story about that case—a story of civil rights litigation that was modeled after Brown v. Board of Education. I used that fascinating story as a jumping off point to look at the historical balance between gun rights and gun control. As much as we think about the Second Amendment as essential to the American identity, I argue that gun control is just as much a part of the story of America.

There’s a good chance the Trump Administration will pass the NRA’s number one agenda item: national reciprocity. This is the idea that someone with gun in State A can travel to State B and still carry their gun.

Q. What don’t gun control advocates understand about gun rights advocates?

A. There’s one key thing that both sides tend to forget: the permanence of guns in America. I think too often both sides assume there is a possibility that we can get rid of all of the civilian guns in America. The kinds of laws that promote disarmament really don’t work in a country that has 300 million guns and counting. One thing that the Heller case made clear is that [the government] can’t take the guns—even if they could legally, let’s face it, they couldn’t do it pragmatically. We tried to outlaw drugs in this country. It didn’t work. We tried to ban alcohol. It didn’t work. Trying to ban easily concealable things that people feel passionately about is destined to be a mistake.

Q. But can’t everyone agree that we need less gun violence?  

A. That is the vexing question. I think there are things we can do to reduce criminal violence with guns. We should take ideas from gun control advocates and gun rights advocates. We should have universal background checks. It’s a simple idea that the NRA supported for many years. We should make it harder for criminals to get their hands on guns. I also think we should take ideas from the gun rights community. They say that we don’t need new laws, but better enforcement of existing laws. We should take the NRA up on that. We need to shut down the pipeline by which guns are transferred across state lines and brought to black market. Frankly, the NRA and allies have made it difficult to enforce those laws by handcuffing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms by reducing its funding and by refusing to confirm the head of the Bureau. If they can’t do their jobs, we’re not going to effectively stop gun trafficking.

Q. What’s going to happen with gun laws under President Trump and the Republican Congress?

A. I think we’re going to see a big change in gun laws under the Trump Administration. We’re going to see more liberalization of gun laws—gun laws made more permissive and not restrictive. There’s a good chance the Trump Administration will pass the NRA’s number one agenda item: national reciprocity. This is the idea that someone with gun in State A can travel to State B and still carry their gun. Some iterations would allow a Utah concealed permit holder to carry their gun in California, even if that person was a resident of California. Utah doesn’t always require you to be a resident in their state to carry a concealed weapon in their state. Then we will have a situation where cities like LA or Berkeley cannot control who has guns on their street. The state of Utah will control them.

Q. What about constitutional rights and, specifically, executive powers, more generally?

A. When you lose [Berkeley Law Professor] John Yoo [see February 7 New York Times op-ed] on executive power, you know you’ve gone too far. John Yoo is one of the most aggressive interpreters of executive power in America. He thought [the power] was so broad it could justify things like torture, even though it was clearly against the law to engage in torture.

Q. How do we keep this power in check?  What’s our best defense?

A. There’s two ways in which Trump can be checked and one way he will not be checked.  It’s seems clear that Republicans in Congress are not going to check him. Although we are taught in school about the separation of powers and how Congress will check the unbridled powers of the executive branch, the truth is we have separation of parties and not separation of powers. Where will checking come from?  We’ll see it from the courts. The courts aren’t going to stand idly by while Donald Trump runs roughshod over the constitution. Second, it’s so important that we have civil society that will actively organize. We have already seen that as bad as January 20 was in the minds of so many, January 21 was also a day that brought much hope—when you saw the biggest protests in American history. I do think that political activism by ordinary citizens can have an effect.

Q. Like on climate change, California seems to be out front on gun research.

A. Absolutely. California will continue to play a major role in gun violence studies. Traditionally the federal government has stayed away from funding gun violence research for fear it is too political. We want to have better knowledge of guns and only when we have better knowledge can we figure out which kinds of gun laws work and which kinds of gun laws don’t work.

Q. Is the gun debate at a perpetual impasse?

A. This gun debate will continue, obviously, for a while. One thing I might look for in the future is increasing variation and difference among the states. With the absence of federal regulation, you’re going to have different states moving in different directions. We’ve already seen that to a certain extent where a bunch of states have made their laws permissive for guns and a bunch of states, like California, have made their laws more restrictive. We’re getting into a world where we’re going to have that kind of polarization about guns on a state level. So depending on where you are in the nation, your gun rights are going to be very, very different than where they might be somewhere else.




Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #10: Makani Themba

More than Messaging

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.


A time to support human rights


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.


—The Human Rights Center Team

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”