After a few hours of watching livestreamers E-Poemz or Johnny Dangers on February 22, 2017, you might have felt like you knew them. Their voices, narrating livestreams of the slow-motion eviction of Dakota Access pipeline protesters from a Standing Rock protest site (on land claimed by the Army Corp of Engineers), became familiar. For those viewers not accustomed to police at protests, it might been a shock when officers tackled and arrested E-Poemz, possibly seriously injuring him. His livestream ends with a sideways shot from his camera lying on the ground.
E-Poemz and Johnny Dangers are the latest in a growing group of livestreamers bringing people from far away to the front lines. During the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, sites like Ustream featured streams from activists and the hardiest of reporters. Today, activists and groups like Last Real Indians and Lakota People’s Law Project are broadcasting on Facebook alongside teen fashion bloggers, major news sites, and more. Livestreaming has arrived as an everyday Internet tool.
Livestreaming the Revolution?
We live in a world where facts are obscured by propaganda, deliberately false or misleading news, and, of course, people’s own echo chambers. These vectors of misinformation thrive in the nutrient-rich environments provided by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. At the same time new media platforms have amplified voices that wouldn’t otherwise have been heard. They’ve provided an outlet for regular people to share their views and, now, host their own live broadcasts of everything from people dressing up as comic book characters to political actions. People are now documenting and sharing human rights abuses, live on the Internet. While livestreaming can be used to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable, the tool also presents challenges around ethics, safety, surveillance, and censorship.
Safety concerns around livestreaming come from two places. First, the police may target livestreamers because they have a camera or because they capture something important. For example, this video from 2016 shows a livestreamer from the popular site Unicorn Riot slammed to the ground as his camera is grabbed by police officers. And livestreamers may face retaliation after the fact. Ramsey Orta, the man who captured Eric Garner’s death on cell phone video, said he was targeted by cops since he filmed the fatal police chokehold.
People may also attack livestreamers because of very real concerns about their own privacy, like the individual who punched a livestreamer’s camera at an Occupy Wall Street march in New York.
Second, the livestream can endanger the safety and security of the people on camera by exposing individuals’ identities, protesters’ tactics, and other information far more easily—and immediately—than recorded video. Livestreams that include identifiable people could put them at real risk of government retaliation or worse. Survivors of violent arrests at protests in the US are often charged with resisting arrest. Similarly, while filming the immigration raids taking place around the country may help document civil rights violations, capturing the faces of undocumented people could be dangerous.
One easy solution is for livestreamers to avoid filming people’s faces, but documentarians should consider other ways people can be identified; after all, biometrics can be used to identify people from tattoos, scars, vein patterns, and more.
What’s more, livestreaming an event can do more harm than good. For example, individuals who block a subway at 4 am probably won’t want their efforts broadcast before they’re ready for media coverage. Activists who aim to shut down a freeway could have their movements blown by the presence of a livestreamer.
But it is possible for activists to document police and military actions in a way that keeps subjects safe and provides valuable evidence, especially when filmmakers capture details like street signs or unique geographic features, narrate location information, and film badge numbers while avoiding people’s faces where appropriate.
In fact, we could see something even better: Livestreaming that provides opportunities for action. Take the issue of legal observers, attorneys who are sent by groups like National Lawyers Guild to attend protests and document events in a way that is meaningful in courts. There aren’t enough legal observers to go around, so the support could be provided by watching livestreams and documenting abuses where they occur.
One project trying to make this a reality is the Mobil-eyes Us initiative from Witness, a human rights organization where I work. This project, a mobile app currently in testing, combines livestreaming with targeted calls to action. It would allow groups coordinating livestreams to solicit help from specific groups via mobile notifications. For example, the app would let an action’s coordinators call on supporters to watch an action unfold online and contact lawmakers. The group could also send a smaller, targeted call to trained legal observers.
Still, even when livestreaming is executed perfectly, it can still be censored, either by humans or by algorithms. Last summer, Lavish Reynolds started livestreaming on Facebook after her a police officer shot her partner Philando Castile during a traffic stop; he died of his wounds later that day. Shortly thereafter, the video disappeared from Facebook for at least an hour. Facebook blamed a “technical glitch”. But how often will these mistakes happen? Only a few months later, in September, Facebook’s automated spam filters took down a livestream of arrests at a Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Of course, the same benefits that livestreaming can provide—broadcasting events that wouldn’t otherwise be seen and publicizing human rights abuses—can backfire when the technology is used against people trying to make a difference. We know law enforcement uses social media to surveil activists and protesters, from the US to Turkey. We know police review video on YouTube and use footage of protests for prosecution of activists. Livestreamers need to understand that their streams are being surveilled, and film accordingly.
Making livestreaming a safe, ethical, and effective tool for documenting human rights abuses is possible. It will just require some serious efforts from anyone aware of the risks to make best practices everyday practices. There’s good precedent: after all, anyone who’s concerned about digital security will likely regale you with tales of their attempts to get friends to embrace encrypted technologies like Signal for years, even as leaks from Edward Snowden continued to saturate the news. But recently, downloads of Signal have skyrocketed by 400 percent. Many, including Signal’s creators, attribute this jump to the election of Donald Trump and concerns about increasing political oppression and surveillance. In fact, Politico recently reported that federal workers were turning to encryption to protect themselves from government monitoring.
The federal government is notorious for its use of obsolete technology. If it can be convinced to use encryption, livestreamers can learn how to use this new technology in a way that supports human rights without endangering anyone. Remember livestreamers: No matter what, do no harm.