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Getting clicks or getting help? Digital storytelling of humanitarian emergencies

Human Rights Watch turns to digital storytelling techniques in humanitarian campaigns to capture audiences – and donors
4 May 2016 – 5:41 PM EDT

In early 2014 in conflict-racked Central African Republic, Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert and photographer Marcus Bleasdale encountered a group of detained Muslim Peuhl men and women in the town of Bossembele who were being threatened with execution by their Christian “anti-balaka” militia captors.

Bouckaert, who was Tweeting his experiences live, asked the commander of the French Operation Sangaris peacekeeping mission deployed in the former French colony to safely evacuate the Muslims. When the officer appeared to delay, Bouckaert backed up his request with insistent Tweets reminding that the clock was ticking on the fate of the detainees.

“The commander… cursed me and asked who the f*ck I thought I was to tell him what to do, but he ultimately went to save the Muslims,” Bouckaert said.

He gives other examples of how timely and immediate reporting on the ground via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook probably helped to save lives in the Central African country, which was being torn apart by religious, political and social violence little understood and largely ignored in the wider world.


International charities and rights organizations, as well as United Nations agencies, are increasingly using such digital storytelling techniques in their campaigns to capture audiences – and donors – in an increasingly frantic and fast-moving world where attention span is short and often distracted, even bewildered, by saturation news coverage from multitudes of sources and platforms.

Bouckaert and Bleasdale helped produce for Human Rights Watch a compelling multi-media documentary on the 2013/2014 violence in CAR , The Unravelling, which seamlessly blends first-hand narrative, testimonies and explanation with video snippets and photographs to give the reader/viewer a close-up and immediate vision of the unfolding conflict and the death and suffering it is causing.

Last year, HRW used similarly intensive social media and multimedia tools to report Europe’s refugee crisis. “Our aim was to put a name and a face on that crisis, to explain to people why so many were fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” Bouckaert said.


The Unravelling, photos by Marcus Bleasdale/V11

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“Change and Impact”

Human Rights Watch is holding a panel discussion in Miami on May 5, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, on how digital storytelling techniques can improve reporting of humanitarian crises and international responses to them. Bouckaert and Bleasdale, who between them have spent years documenting human suffering and abuses in multiple conflict zones, will be explaining their experience in the CAR.

Andrea Holley, Strategic Director for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, who will moderate the Miami event, said HRW’s decision to move into multi-faceted digital media reporting – using everything from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and satellite imagery, was also a response to a fast-changing media environment that required new techniques to reach, and influence, mass audiences.

“Human Rights Watch is about change and impact, and being effective. As the tools and landscape change, we are obliged to change. We will do what we have to do to talk to people,” Holley said.

This included the novelty of veteran investigators like Bouckaert and Bleasdale using first-person narrative, as they do in The Unravelling – a shift away from the traditional tone and style of rights organization reports that tend to rely heavily on compiled witness testimony and accumulated evidence.

“The first person testimony does capture people’s attention in a different way,” said Holley.

She added too that as international news organizations, challenged by technological changes and rising costs in a shifting world media market, cut back their overseas reporting, it was often left to groups like HRW to deliver first-hand reporting on “forgotten” crises, such as the one in Central African Republic.

More Clicks than Action?

Questions have been raised, however, about the effectiveness of online and social media campaigns, however slickly produced or compelling, in delivering real solutions to humanitarian emergencies.

Two examples from Africa in recent years – one focused on Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a predatory and vicious guerrilla group that preyed on children in Uganda and surrounding countries, and the other on a group of schoolgirls from Chibok in northeast Nigeria abducted in 2014 by violent Boko Haram Islamist militants – drew allegations from critics of narcissistic “clicktivism” and “slacktivism” divorced from the realties they were supposed to be changing.

Promoters and supporters of the “Kony 2012” film, which went viral online at the time, and the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign were widely accused of being more interested in gaining publicity for themselves than for the victims in Africa they were intended to help.

“You don’t get the decisive action, because the purpose is so often: ‘look at me, look at the size of my concern’,” says author and journalist Alex Perry, who worked for 15 years in Asia and Africa as a correspondent for TIME, Newsweek and other publications. His 2015 book on his Africa reporting, The Rift, includes a critical view of the motives and effectiveness of what Perry calls celebrity “superstar advocacy” and “humanitarians’ licence to honour themselves” in conflict-torn, impoverished countries.

Despite the social media frenzy generated by the #BringBackOurGirls and “Kony 2012” campaigns, which sucked in armies of celebrities and prompted public promises of help from Western powers, they seem to have failed so far in their ultimate objectives. Most of the Chibok girls remain missing in the northeast Nigerian forest and scrubland where Boko Haram still roam and kill, and LRA chief Joseph Kony is still on the run in the jungles of Central Africa despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s dispatch of elite U.S. Special Forces to try to track him down, apparently prompted by the “Kony 2012” campaign.

Questions over social media campaigning form part of a wider and seemingly growing spirit of introspection in the global humanitarian movement, with many asking whether donor funds are being fully and effectively used by an increasingly sophisticated industry that sometimes seems to be serving itself more than those it purports to serve. “I think there is something wrong with our idea of charity, compassion. Over time, it’s become about us, rather than the people we are helping,” says Perry.

HRW’s Bouckaert, however, passionately believes the reporting he and Bleasdale did from CAR had a real impact, something that Perry acknowledges. Bouckaert said he was “personally pretty allergic to ‘feel good’ social media activism … (that) … is all too often a convenient substitute for more meaningful – and difficult – forms of activism.”

Clicks and hits online are ultimately no substitute for timely, decisive humanitarian action by governments and institutions, well-coordinated and funded and reinforced by continued oversight.

But getting the story out fast and vividly can certainly help. “At the center of all of it is what should remain at the core of all good investigative reporting, whether we talk about journalism or human rights investigations: boots on the ground, with a notebook in hand and a darn good photographer as a partner,” Bouckaert said.

“I’m not the kind of idealist that thinks we can change the world overnight. But I’m pretty convinced that our work in CAR—in solidarity with many others equally devoted—helped prevent a much greater tragedy there,” Bouckaert added, calling the CAR conflict perhaps the closest Africa has come to genocide since the ethnic massacres in Rwanda in 1994.

* Pascal Fletcher is an award-winning journalist and former Reuters Africa editor. He also served as Reuters bureau chief in Cuba, Venezuela and Miami.

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