Not just for geeks: digital technologies and social media for the prevention of mass atrocities

For a few years now, several agencies and NGOs have been doing research on the potential and downsides of technology for human rights purposes. The question is: how can new digital technologies and new media be used for social change and mass atrocity prevention, including to monitor and prevent human rights violations. These technologies can both high-tech, such as satellite imagery and mapping, and low-tech, such as smartphones and social media. Research on the use of new technologies has really emerged in the past couple of years, in part thanks to specific situations, including the Arab Spring or the genocide in Sudan in 2003, also known as the “first genocide of the digital age.”

The Institute (MIGS) I work for is one of several centres that has decided to study how social media and digital technologies can be used to prevent genocide and mass atrocity crimes by creating a Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab (@DMAP_Lab). Our aim is to look at various initiatives and new technologies that have already been used and at the potential of other technologies. Here are the main applications of technological advancements and innovations for mass atrocity and genocide prevention

– Gathering information and evidence using social media and cellphones to get information from communities at risk. New technologies such as satellite imagery have also proved effective.

– Manage and visualize information– Creating database where the large amount data is collected and then analyzed by teams of experts. Considering the complexity of the situation, being able to visualize patterns is essential.

– Direct prevention and intervention – The data cannot only be used as evidence of mass atrocities and genocide but can also be used to prevent atrocities by monitoring early warning signs of conflicts (monitoring hate speech on social media is particularly effective). Social media and cellphones can also be used to coordinate humanitarian interventions and to inform populations are risk of targeted abuses.

What follows are a set of case studies

  • Innovative Uses of Geospatial Technologies

As I said, the Darfur genocide in 2003-2004 is known as the first genocide of the digital age. Why? Twenty years ago, when the Rwanda genocide was taking place, several journalists on the ground were taking pictures. But printing and sending these pictures abroad took time. Imagine if not only journalists but also individuals like you and me had had smartphones and Twitter at the time? There would have been massive evidence of the killings. Would it have changed the decisions of the international community? We cannot say for sure but I think that the availability and accumulation of images may have pushed the general public to put pressure on their governments to act instead of being bystanders to genocide.

Fast forward to the Darfur genocide. In 2003, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) conducted an insurgency in Darfur. The Khartoum government responded by leading a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the non-Arab tribes in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died as a result of these deliberate and indiscriminate attacks while millions were forced to flee their destroyed villages. After much tiptoeing, the international community decided to act. On March 19, 2004, Mukesh Kapila, the outspoken UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, described attacks against civilians were ‘close to ethnic cleansing.’ Pressured to speak out in the face of clear human rights violations, the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued statements. However, it took another three years the UN Security Council to mandate a full United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

In 2006 Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science created Eyes on Darfur, a project that uses satellite technology and on-the-ground imagery to map and collect evidence of the atrocities. Funded by the Save Darfur Coalition, the project provided satellite imagery to document abuses and violence by showing before and after pictures of villages in Darfur. It was clear that people were being killed and driven out of the land. On the Internet, viewers could literally look at maps of destroyed villages, thereby raising public awareness and enabling action by private citizens and NGOs who could now put pressure on policy makers to act. Furthermore, high-resolution satellite imagery can be used by international courts. 


Another major organization involved is the Satellite Sentinel Project, launched on December 2010, and which uses DigitalGlobe satellites passing over Sudan and South Sudan to capture imagery to detect: bombardment and attacks; village razings; early warning of attacks on civilians; and evidence of apparent mass graves and forced displacement. Their partners at the Enough Project then analyze the imagery in order to produce reports and put pressure on policymakers to act. SSP’s reports are available to everyone, from the general public to journalists, from policymaker to the International Criminal Court.

Satellite imagery and videos were also in Zimbabwe in 2005 to document forced evictions and demolitions under the government’s Operation Murambatsvina (“Restore Order”). Some 700,000 people were driven out of their land as the government destroyed farms, schools and other legal structures. Porta Farm, a settlement west of Harare, was completely destroyed and up to 20,000 residents were evicted. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights brought the case to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

 The same geospatial technology was also used in Kyrgyzstan (2010), Lebanon (2006), Georgia (2008), and Pakistan (2005-2009) to allow viewers to visualize the extent of violence and human rights abuses committed in these regions.


  • Crisis mapping and crowd sourcing: Ushahidi, Crisis Mappers, and Standby Taskforce

In the aftermath of some of the violence and humanitarian crises, several organizations, largely volunteer based, started working on crisis mapping for humanitarian response. The objectives can vary: mapping and monitoring elections, mapping hate speech and human rights abuses, coordinating humanitarian responds and disaster preparedness. Organizations doing this kind of work include TechChange, Ushahidi, and the Standby Task Force (SBTF). Since their creation they have grown important organizations and communities helped by volunteers worldwide, including here at the Institute.

In 2013, TechChange teamed up with Ushahidi, a web based crisis mapping platform and tech company, to monitor the Kenyan elections. Developed in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi uses Crowdmapping to generate crisis maps. In 2013, the Uchaguzi project sought use crisis mapping technologies to promote transparency and accountability, free and fair elections, and thereby reduce risks of violence. How does it work? The system allows people to collect data from text messages, Twitter, and online reports, which are then geo-tagged. Once this vast array of information has been classified, monitors can then look for signs of hate speech, voter intimidation, poll fraud, or reports of violence.

In 2011, the Syria Tracker collaborated with entities such SBTF, Crisis Mappers and Ushahidi to map evidence of mass human rights abuses in Syria. The aim of this experimental project was to localize large military equipment, large crowds and checkpoints using high-resolution satellite imagery as well as reports. The idea of Syria Tracker is for experts to look at before and after pictures. Between March 18, 2011 and April 8, 2013 they managed to document 62,811 killings.


  • Social Media: Monitoring and mapping hate speech

In 1998, MIGS started monitoring local government-owned and privately-owned news media (radio, television and newspaper) in at-risk countries to detect signs hate speech and risks of violence. Hate speech (based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender etc) is a widely recognized indicator of elevated risk of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and serious war crimes. The project is based on our knowledge of the Rwanda genocide: before and during the genocide, state-owned newspapers and radio station Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines widely disseminated anti-Tutsi propaganda and incited violence against the “cockroaches” (Tutsi). Today, the destructive role of these Rwandan media has been widely acknowledged.

Social media have revolutionized how we directly communicate and share information. From the Arab spring we have learned that while they do not drive revolutions, social media can play key role during modern-day activism, including in terms of mobilization, coordination, empowerment and collection of evidence. With the rise and popularity of social media and digital communication, MIGS and other organizations started monitoring social media, including in Syria and during the Arab Spring, in order identify early warning signs of sectarian conflict or to monitor current conflict. These new media can be a great source of information and risk assessment if the data is contextualized and analyzed in the proper way. Recently, the Sentinel Project (and Mobiocracy) launched a new project called Hatebase, a database that sets out to be “the world’s largest online database of hate speech.” The project is of the project’s mandate to detect warning signs of ethnic violence in at-risk countries. The aim is to sight instances of hate speech (terms such as “cockroach”, for example) and to map their frequency, localization, migration and transformation. The project seeks to create “the world’s largest online database of hate speech.”

  • Limitations

Of course technology has its limitations. For example, satellite imagery is expensive and requires time and capacity. Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite, which limits our capacities to act in a timely manner. Social media are much less expensive and thanks to “as the “power of witness” and citizen journalism provide resourceful on-the-ground reports of abuses. However, it is always crucial to a) analyze source of Tweet or Facebook post and to question their reliability  (Youtube, for example, is full of hateful comment b) to have a deep knowledge of the context and the region, including of the linguistics when analyzing hate speech.

There are challenges in applying technology to complex societal problems such genocide. Each situation is different thus software and technology requires the right experts to analyze the data. Most importantly, the right human intent and the political will to act constitute the biggest part of the equation. Today, massive human rights abuses are still taking place in Sudan, Syria etc. Therefore, it is important to know that digital technology and social media are not a complete solution to mass atrocities. However, it is no longer possible for perpetrators to hide. The evidence is there and for everyone to see: as we become witness to mass atrocity crimes, the goal is now to mobilize leaders.   

However there is true potential in these new technologies. Open mapping technologies and social media analysis can complement to work of NGOS and government agencies. It is the combination of tools, warning factors and initiatives that will increase our potential to prevent or at least mitigate conflicts, mass atrocities and genocide.


One thought on “Not just for geeks: digital technologies and social media for the prevention of mass atrocities

  1. Pingback: A Community of Commitment | Will Write for Prevention

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