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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


by Saide Mobayed, with Ella McPherson, Jamie Hancock and Lisa Klaassen

What happens when digital data flows between people and machines echoes across borders, is interpreted, re-coded, transformed and analysed as it travels across digital spaces? What tools could we use to verify this rapidly-proliferating digital information? How can we know which digital methods and tools to trust when we aim to corroborate highly sensitive data? How can we develop practices of care around digital tools while acknowledging our own privileges and epistemic positionalities?

The traditional space of human rights fact-finding has been drastically transformed with the use of digital tools, technologies and methods. The use of open-source investigation (OSINT) has further accelerated this transformation. As the social media information on human rights violations proliferates online, it becomes proportionally important to support the process through which human rights fact-finders gather, verify and present this digital evidence. 

While these digital practices have certainly opened up the plurality of voices being heard and have triggered accountability processes, they have also posed serious challenges regarding inequality, risk and security. Manipulation of digital content and the spread of misinformation online is increasingly pervasive. Source and content credibility are crucial to verify information, but, in the process of digital verification, investigators are often confronted by unidentified sources and a paucity of metadata, i.e. data about the information in question, such as the source, date, location and provenance of a piece of content. Investigators have to make choices between giving voice and taking risks, both for their organizations and for their witnesses.  The unstable environment and uncertain maintenance of these tools and methods further endanger the safety and storage of data.  

As a response to the emergent and rapidly evolving changes wrought to human rights practices and norms by the use of digital technologies, The Whistle team, in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), developed two online resources designed to broaden participation and unsettle knowledge production in digital spaces. The Human Rights Digital Toolkit (HRDT) is a decision tree model which provides an updated overview of current open-source investigation (OSINT) digital tools that can be used in fact-finding. It was designed with human rights investigators in mind, who are increasingly relying on digital data, not least because they face waves of Covid-19 lock-downs that interfere with their work.  The Social Life of Data (SLoD) is an interactive experience where users become digital data in the shape of videos, narratives and numbers. This allows players to follow the data across different digital ecosystems, from being part of an article in The Guardian to becoming a Twitter hashtag or going viral as a famous meme. These projects are also thought-provoking for the digital citizen, witness, consumer and community-member navigating turbulent digital information ecosystems. 

Both resources confront us with different options between data, digital tools and digital methods. On the one hand, the Human Rights Digital Toolkit (HRDT) offers an arboreal model into the OSINT framework to verify information either by content or by tool function. On the other hand, the Social Life of Data (SLoD) allows users to explore the rhizomatic network in which information is created, travels and is contested across digital ecosystems. While the HRDT settles by displaying different categories around digital tools, the SLoD unsettles through the messiness of data journeys. The HRDT supports our decisions vis-a-vis trusting in tools and information, while the SLoD provokes us to question our trust in digital technologies and data. However, rather than falling into the seemingly contradictory structures of trees and rhizomes within knowledge production (Deleuze and Guattari 1997), the SLoD and the HRDT aim to open up a conversation between digital methods, objects, tools, platforms, technologies and our own ways of approaching knowledge. By the end, we hope you come away with a new critical understanding of the frameworks on which your own ways of knowing what is ‘true’ are based.