WITNESS, an organization founded twenty years ago to catalog human rights abuses, is entering the YouTube era. The group is launching a dedicated human rights channel on the popular video site.
The channel aims to spotlight “underexposed stories often absent from the mainstream media,” says Sam Gregory, a program director at WITNESS. The idea is to do human rights advocacy on a journalistic baseline—the channel is co-produced with Storyful, a group of journalists that bill themselves as “field producers” for social media. They will “source and verify” all videos on the channel.
Like other branded channels, YouTube is promoting this initiative, including a special launch at Google’s “Internet at Liberty” conference. YouTube does not claim to play an editorial role in the project, however, and it has struggled with some videos of human rights abuses in the past, such as images of torture in Syria that it initially removed as a violation of the company’s “policy on shocking and disgusting content.” So while some press accounts of the new channel suggest it is a YouTube operation—“YouTube Launches Human Rights Channel,” the Huffington Post declared on Friday—it’s more likely that WITNESS will have to navigate and negotiate as Google, YouTube’s parent company, applies its policies to troubled regions around the globe.
For most people in the field, of course, the prospects for exposing human rights abuses via online video fundamentally changed in March 2012, when the “Kony 2012” video gave a whole new meaning to “going viral.” That video has now been viewed over 107 million times, despite focusing on historical abuses that had no news hook and zero notoriety in the Western World. The video introduced Joseph Kony to millions of people, raised millions of dollars, and then led to a personal meltdown, public backlash and meta-debate over digital activism. (All in about six days, too.) As a matter of web strategy, though, the video was a sleek, dramatic one-off presentation. It asked people to share and encouraged them to feel good about themselves. Developing an audience for an entire channel devoted to human rights is the other end of the organizing spectrum. It is likely to take a lot of original programming, for engaging people, and a big budget for content and outreach. So far, WITNESS is not spending money on advertising or outreach for the channel, a spokeswoman told The Nation, but the group is promoting the project to its 330,000 Twitter followers and “constantly evaluating what are the right choice points in terms of building community.”
Currently, the featured video on the channel is a fifteen-minute feature about a human rights advocate in Bahrain, Zaunab Al-Khawaja. It was produced by another human organization, The Front Line Defenders, and has drawn about 50,000 views since it was first posted last December.