Digital Human Rights Reporting by Civilian Witnesses: Surmounting the Verification Barrier (2015)  

his chapter draws on the case of human rights fact-finders’ use of civilian witnesses’ digital reports of human rights violations, although the issues it highlights are relevant for any professional use of produser information to establish facts.  

Using data from an ongoing digital ethnography of social media use in human rights work, I first explain why the verification of this information is so important yet can be so difficult. To do this, it is helpful to draw loosely on Bourdieu’s (1983) classic sociological concept of a field of production. Participants in a field subscribe to a shared logic (or logics), namely the rules, explicit and implicit, that govern success in a particular field and thus the practices in that field (Thompson, 2010). Rules about the value and use of information are central to any field that trades in information, and we will see that verification is at the core of the human rights fact-finding field’s information logic.  

In contrast, the digital produser category of civilian witnesses of human rights violations is largely a non-field. The meeting of this professional field and amateur non-field is where the verification barrier arises. Verification of human rights information involves the corroboration of information’s content and metadata (e.g. source, place, time, and conditions of production) using a variety of methods and sources; verification is necessary for the transformation of information into useable evidence.  

The verification of digital information is facilitated by verification strategies and verification subsidies. These verification strategies are part of the cultural capital – or the knowledge central to success – of the human rights fact-finding field. A field’s cultural capital can be spread through the field’s networks, as seen in the verification knowledge exchange and training initiatives underway in the human rights fact-finding field (Bottero & Crossley, 2011).  

The notion of verification subsidies builds on Gandy’s (1982) influential idea of information subsidies, namely tactics used by information producers to make it cheaper for others to use their information. Verification subsidies, powered by humans and machines, either take on some of the labor required by various verification strategies or support the provision of metadata. As accidental civilian witnesses usually are not members of a field, they often lack the networks necessary to build cultural capital about verification subsidies – or even to be aware of the need for verifiability. Given this, a number of third parties have innovated verification subsidies to lower the verification barrier between the human rights fact-finding field and the civilian witnessing non-field. 

McPherson, Ella. (2015). Digital Human Rights Reporting by Civilian Witnesses: Surmounting the Verification Barrier.