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Yvette Alberdingk Thijm: The power of citizen video to create undeniable truths

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Could smartphones and cameras be our most powerful weapons for social justice? Through her organization Witness, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm is developing strategies and technologies to help activists use video to protect and defend human rights. She shares stories of the growing power of distant witnesses -- and a call to use the powerful tools at our disposal to capture incidents of injustice.

- Human rights activist
Yvette Alberdingk Thijm helps activists use video and technology to protect and defend human rights. Full bio

It's 1996
00:12
in Uvira in eastern Congo.
00:14
This is Bukeni.
00:16
Militia commanders walk into his village,
00:18
knock on his neighbors' doors
00:20
and whisk their children away
to training camps.
00:22
Bukeni borrows a video camera
from a local wedding photographer,
00:26
he disguises as a journalist
00:30
and he walks into the camps
to negotiate the release of the children.
00:32
He filmed footage of the children
being trained as soldiers.
00:36
[Soldiers don't worry!]
00:40
[You'll wear uniforms!]
00:43
[You'll have free cars!]
00:45
[Free beans!]
00:46
Many of these children
are under 15 years old,
00:47
and that is a war crime.
00:51
[Free!]
00:53
But you don't have to go to eastern Congo
to find human rights abuses.
00:55
In America, a country
with a rapidly aging population,
00:59
experts estimate
that one in 10 people over 60
01:03
will experience abuse.
01:07
It's a hidden epidemic,
01:10
and most of that abuse
actually happens at the hands
01:13
of close caretakers or family.
01:15
This is Vicky.
01:19
Vicky put an iron gate on her bedroom door
01:20
and she became a prisoner,
in fact, in her own house,
01:25
out of fear for her nephew
who had taken over her home as a drug den.
01:28
And this is Mary.
01:33
Mary picked up a video camera
for the first time in her life
01:35
when she was 65 years old,
01:38
and she asked Vicky
and 99 other older people
01:40
who had experienced abuse
to tell their stories on camera.
01:44
And I am Dutch,
01:50
so in the Netherlands
we are obsessed with the truth.
01:52
Now, when you are a child,
that's a great thing,
01:55
because you can basically
get away with anything,
01:57
like "Yes, Mama,
it was me who smoked the cigars."
02:00
(Laughter)
02:03
But I think this is why
I have dedicated my life
02:05
to promoting citizen video
to expose human rights violations,
02:09
because I believe in the power of video
to create undeniable truths.
02:14
And my organization, WITNESS,
02:19
helped use the Congolese videos
02:21
to help convict and send a notorious
warlord called Thomas Lubanga to jail.
02:23
And the videos that Mary shot,
02:31
we trained Mary and many other
elder justice advocates,
02:33
to make sure that
the stories of elder abuse
02:36
reached lawmakers,
02:39
and those stories
helped convince lawmakers
02:41
to pass landmark legislation
to protect older Americans.
02:45
So I wonder,
02:50
billions of us now have this powerful tool
right at our fingertips.
02:52
It's a camera.
02:56
So why are all of us not a more
powerful army of civic witnesses,
02:58
like Mary and Bukeni?
03:03
Why is it that so much more video
03:05
is not leading to more rights
and more justice?
03:08
And I think it is because
being an eyewitness is hard.
03:13
Your story will get denied,
03:17
your video will get lost
in a sea of images,
03:20
your story will not be trusted,
and you will be targeted.
03:22
So how do we help witnesses?
03:27
In Oaxaca, in Mexico,
03:31
the teachers' movement organized a protest
03:33
after the president pushed down
very undemocratic reforms.
03:35
The federal police came down in buses
and started shooting at the protesters.
03:40
At least seven people died
and many, many more were wounded.
03:44
Images started circulating
of the shootings,
03:48
and the Mexican government
did what it always does.
03:51
It issued a formal statement,
03:54
and the statement basically
accused the independent media
03:55
of creating fake news.
03:58
It said, "We were not there,
04:01
that was not us doing the shooting,
04:02
this did not happen."
04:05
But we had just trained
activists in Mexico
04:08
to use metadata strategically
with their images.
04:12
Now, metadata is the kind of information
that your camera captures
04:15
that shows the date, the location,
04:19
the temperature, the weather.
04:22
It can even show the very unique way
you hold your camera
04:24
when you capture something.
04:27
So the images started recirculating,
04:29
and this time with the very verifying,
04:31
validating information on top of them.
04:34
And the federal government
had to retract their statement.
04:37
Now, justice for the people for Oaxaca
04:41
is still far off,
04:45
but their stories, their truths,
can no longer be denied.
04:46
So we started thinking:
04:51
What if you had "Proof Mode?"
04:53
What if everybody had
a camera in their hands
04:54
and all the platforms
had that kind of validating ability.
04:56
So we developed --
05:00
together with amazing Android developers
called the Guardian Project,
05:01
we developed something called
a technology that's called Proof Mode,
05:06
that marries those metadata
together with your image,
05:09
and it validates
and it verifies your video.
05:12
Now, imagine there is a deluge of images
05:16
coming from the world's camera phones.
05:20
Imagine if that information
could be trusted just a little bit more,
05:23
what the potential
would be for journalists,
05:28
for human rights investigators,
05:30
for human rights lawyers.
05:32
So we started sharing Proof Mode
with our partners in Brazil
05:35
who are an amazing media collective
called Coletivo Papo Reto.
05:39
Brazil is a tough place for human rights.
05:44
The Brazilian police
kills thousands of people every year.
05:47
The only time that
there's an investigation,
05:52
guess when?
05:55
When there's video.
05:57
Seventeen-year-old Eduardo
was killed in broad daylight
06:00
by the Rio police,
06:04
and look what happens after they kill him.
06:06
They put a gun in the dead boy's hand,
06:10
they shoot the gun twice --
06:12
(Shot)
06:15
to fabricate their story of self-defense.
06:17
The woman who filmed this
was a very, very courageous eyewitness,
06:22
and she had to go into hiding
after she posted her video
06:25
for fear of her life.
06:29
But people are filming,
and they're not going to stop filming,
06:31
so we're now working together
with media collectives
06:34
so the residents on their WhatsApp
06:37
frequently get guidance and tips,
06:40
how to film safely,
06:43
how to upload the video
that you shoot safely,
06:44
how to capture a scene
so that it can actually count as evidence.
06:47
And here is an inspiration
06:52
from a group called Mídia Ninja in Brazil.
06:54
The man on left is a heavily armed
military policeman.
06:58
He walks up to a protester --
07:04
when you protest in Brazil,
you can be arrested or worse --
07:05
and he says to the protester, "Watch me,
07:08
I am going to search you right now."
07:11
And the protester
is a live-streaming activist --
07:15
he wears a little camera --
07:18
and he says to the military policeman,
he says, "I am watching you,
07:20
and there are 5,000 people
watching you with me."
07:24
Now, the tables are turned.
07:28
The distant witnesses,
the watching audience, they matter.
07:30
So we started thinking,
07:35
what if you could tap into that power,
07:36
the power of distant witnesses?
07:39
What if you could pull in
their expertise, their leverage,
07:41
their solidarity, their skills
07:44
when a frontline community
needs them to be there?
07:46
And we started developing
a project that's called Mobilize Us,
07:50
because many of us, I would assume,
07:56
want to help
07:59
and lend our skills and our expertise,
08:01
but we are often not there
when a frontline community
08:03
or a single individual faces an abuse.
08:06
And it could be as simple
as this little app that we created
08:10
that just shows the perpetrator
on the other side of the phone
08:14
how many people are watching him.
08:17
But now, imagine that you could put
a layer of computer task routing
08:20
on top of that.
08:25
Imagine that you're a community
facing an immigration raid,
08:26
and at that very moment,
at that right moment, via livestream,
08:31
you could pull in
a hundred legal observers.
08:35
How would that change the situation?
08:38
So we started piloting this
with our partner communities in Brazil.
08:41
This is a woman called Camilla,
08:45
and she was able -- she's the leader
in a favela called Favela Skol --
08:47
she was able to pull in distant witnesses
08:51
via livestream
08:56
to help translation,
08:58
to help distribution,
08:59
to help amplify her story
09:01
after her community was forcibly evicted
09:04
to make room for a very glossy
Olympic event last summer.
09:07
So we're talking about good witnessing,
09:12
but what happens
if the perpetrators are filming?
09:15
What happens if a bystander films
and doesn't do anything?
09:19
This is the story of Chrissy.
09:23
Chrissy is a transgender woman
09:25
who walked into a McDonald's in Maryland
09:28
to use the women's bathroom.
09:30
Two teens viciously beat her
for using that woman's bathroom,
09:32
and the McDonald's employee
filmed this on his mobile phone.
09:38
And he posted his video,
09:42
and it has garnered
09:44
thousands of racist
and transphobic comments.
09:46
So we started a project
that's called Capturing Hate.
09:52
We took a very, very small sample
of eyewitness videos
09:56
that showed abuse against transgender
and gender-nonconforming people.
10:00
We searched two words,
"tranny fight" and "stud fight."
10:06
And those 329 videos were watched
and are still being watched
10:11
as we sit here in this theater,
10:16
a stunning almost 90 million times,
10:18
and there are hundreds of thousands
of comments with these videos,
10:22
egging on to more violence and more hate.
10:25
So we started developing a methodology
10:30
that took all that
unquantified visual evidence
10:32
and turned it into data,
turning video into data,
10:37
and with that tool,
10:41
LGBT organizations are now using that data
10:42
to fight for rights.
10:47
And we take that data
and we take it back to Silicon Valley,
10:49
and we say to them:
10:52
"How is it possible
10:54
that these videos are still out there
10:56
in a climate of hate
11:00
egging on more hate,
11:02
summoning more violence,
11:04
when you have policies that actually say
11:06
you do not allow this kind of content? --
11:08
urging them to change their policies.
11:12
So I have hope.
11:16
I have hope that we can turn more video
into more rights and more justice.
11:19
Ten billion video views
on Snapchat,
11:24
per day.
11:30
So what if we could turn
that Snapchat generation
11:32
into effective and safe civic witnesses?
11:35
What if they could become
the Bukenis of this new generation?
11:38
In India, women have already
started using Snapchat filters
11:44
to protect their identity when they
speak out about domestic violence.
11:48
[They tortured me at home
and never let me go out.]
11:52
The truth is, the real truth, the truth
that doesn't fit into any TED Talk,
11:55
is fighting human rights abuse is hard.
11:59
There are no easy solutions
for human rights abuse.
12:02
And there's not a single
piece of technology
12:05
that can ever stop the perpetrators.
12:08
But for the survivors,
12:11
for the victims,
12:13
for the marginalized communities,
12:15
their stories, their truths, matter.
12:18
And that is where justice begins.
12:22
Thank you.
12:25
(Applause)
12:26

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About the speaker:

Yvette Alberdingk Thijm - Human rights activist
Yvette Alberdingk Thijm helps activists use video and technology to protect and defend human rights.

Why you should listen
Yvette Alberdingk Thijm leads WITNESS.org, a global team of human rights activists who help anyone use video and technology to protect and defend human rights. WITNESS supports marginalized and vulnerable communities to expose their truths, counter harmful and abusive narratives, and mobilize their communities to build a just world. Yvette believes that right and power to tell your own story is where dignity, justice, and equality begins. 
More profile about the speaker
Yvette Alberdingk Thijm | Speaker | TED.com