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How Social Media Helps Human Rights

05/21/2015 08:11 EDT | Updated 05/21/2016 05:59 EDT
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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: In this photo illustration, The Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced it's initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

By Casandra De Masi

The power of a voice can be revolutionary. The ability to share ideas and band together for a common cause and the greater good is a very unique facet of humanity, and over the years this practice has grown. As the gap between us grows smaller, the voices grow louder. We're connected now more than ever before.

While social media is sometimes shunned for its fickle nature, it has proven to be a truly powerful storytelling tool, especially for human rights activists working globally. Human rights education and advocacy thrives on connection: civil society connecting with each other, activists in dialogue with government, and all of this happening on a platform that is widely accessible.

During the Arab Spring, social media usage in the Middle East skyrocketed. It's important to recognize social media as a tool and not the cause of the revolutions, according to Alaa Jarban, an Equitas International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) alumnus who was an active blogger in his native Yemen during the time. Jarban says that he and his friends were taken by surprise during the uprisings in Tunisia.

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"When we saw the real influence of what they were doing by protesting and speaking out for their rights against the government, we all were very influenced by it. I remember I was chatting with my friends in Tunisia and said I want to start something like this in my country," he said.

The Yemeni youth banded together. As more protests were planned, Jarban found himself live-tweeting in both English and Arabic. Social media became a tool of empowerment, handing the reins over to the citizens.

"Citizen journalism is very important because we were in a situation that was very dangerous and we had clear demands and support from people, but it wasn't really shown," Jarban said. "It was very important for us to use social media to express that."

Over in Afghanistan, human rights activist Omaid Sharifi and IHRTP alumnus uses social media in all aspects of his work. Sharifi is a man of all trades, but focuses heavily on women's rights. Recently, he and a large group of civil society activists came together to organize a protest to condemn the recent increase in violence against women in Afghanistan. The protest took place in front of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan on February 23, 2015.

"From the first step of organizing the chat online, to the consultations, to sharing information on the cases of violence, it was all happening through Facebook and Twitter," he said.

Sharifi sees social media as a strategic tool to pressure the government into enacting the change the people want to see. The beauty of social media is that everyone is connected, and if the online voice is loud enough it can be hard to ignore.

"It is sort of a game of name and shame. If they [the government] don't act on it or take a stand against it, then there will be big shame for them because people will talk about it, everybody will share it, and this is a big psychological pressure on the minds of the people who are involved, specifically in the government," he said.

The consequence of free speech

While the Twittersphere has proven to be a valuable asset to human rights causes, not everyone using social media has good intentions. Jarban knows the dangers of social media all too well. He faced personal death threats back in Yemen following a blog post where he spoke openly about his sexual orientation.

He continued to use his blog as a platform for those who wanted to speak openly and anonymously about their experiences and struggles with identity. It got to the point where his personal information was posted online, a threat to his family as well. He then shut down the blog, and after his visit to the Equitas training program in Montreal, he decided to seek refuge in Canada.

"I expected some bad or negative feedback, but not as bad as it happened. It was very shocking for me," Jarban said.

In Afghanistan, electricity outages in even the most elite parts of the country and cost of Internet, especially for young university students, can make it hard to stay online. Sharifi believes that social media is a crucial tool for these changing countries, and wants to see the number of users grow.

"My country is going through a transition, so social media is important because we really want to raise our voice, take a stand, and the only platform we have right now is social media," he said. "So we will continue using it, and we will always try to find a way to influence mainstream politicians to really make sure the rights of the people, and women's rights, are respected."

Casandra De Masi, web editor and intern at Equitas- International Centre for Human Rights Education

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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