Workshop Reflections: Twitter Boot Camp for Human Rights – Changing the world one tweet at a time?

The author of this post, Marie Lamensch, is the Assistant to the Director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) and co-facilitated a Twitter Boot Camp in our Exhibition Lab in January 2014.

As part of its plan to establish a Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab (DMAPLab), the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies organized a “Twitter Boot Camp for Human Rights” in CEREV’s Exhibition Lab on January 31. Attended by both students and professionals, the two-hour session focused on the basics of Twitter and the potential for this social media platform to be used for social good.

Since the emergence and rapid rise of social media, human rights institutions, activists and NGOs have realized that Twitter offers a wide range of possibilities to advance their causes., Twitter allows immediate connection with partners and wider audiences in order to mobilize efforts and share news. Furthermore, as a real-time system for monitoring events, Twitter can and has been used during crises to gather and share data in order to coordinate humanitarian responses, improve early warning systems or document human rights violations for eventual prosecution.

MIGS’s presenters Kyle Matthews and Marie Lamensch used concrete examples to show the potential of Twitter to create a positive impact on human rights at local and global levels. Many know that the platform was used as a communication tool during the Arab Spring and the 2009 Iranian elections. However, other valuable uses of Twitter were also discussed during the session, including crisis mapping in Syria (perhaps the first civil war on social media) and its use in the Central African Republic, where aid workers and journalists use Twitter to report and document mass atrocity crimes.

Fortunately, MIGS had individuals in the audience who were also able to contribute to the discussion. Sara Hashem spoke about her experience during the 2011 revolution in Egypt. She offered sobering and sensible comments, arguing that while Twitter is indeed important, it is always important to understand that those who tweet have an agenda and the information must be verified.

Also in the audience were two professionals with experience in crisis mapping, a system that allows for real-time gathering and analysis of data during natural crises, conflicts or social upheavals. Crisis mapping was used in Kenya before the 2013 elections and is currently being used by Syria Tracker to monitor human rights violations in Syria, including rape. Twitter, like other communication and data-gathering tools, is playing a crucial role in the Syria crises, particularly as a mean to document human rights violations committed by the Assad regime and the rebels. As a contributor to Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company that specializes in crisis mapping, Heather Leson shared her own experience working as a crisis mapper on various complex emergencies. Pierre Beland, a Board Member and contributor of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HotOsm), explained how his team uses communication tools such as Twitter to monitor for current crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In view of the success of the boot camp, MIGS plans to organize more advanced sessions in the near future.

MIGS’s presentation is available here. The Institute can be found on Twitter at @MIGSinstitute.

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence