Many voices converged at this morning’s plenary session, each person weighing in on how we can use technology to promote human rights. Ramy Raoof , Rakesh Rajani, and Emin Milli used their experiences to provide guidance as Amnesty International works to grow its use of technology. Owen Valentine Pringle, Widney Brown, and Salil Shetty discussed Amnesty International’s existing social media work and presented three challenges:
- How do we become One Amnesty in the digital space?
- How do we use technology to promote Amnesty International’s research, campaigning, and fundraising?
- How do we restrain the corporations and governments who are trying to use technology to repress human rights?
We can draw inspiration from our own movement’s history. Amnesty International was, in a sense, one of the first social networks. Fifty years ago, it began as an association of letter writers, working together for the release of unjustly imprisoned people. Those early activists used various forms of media, from newspaper editorials to personal letters, to grow their movement, bringing in people from around the world. Within two years of its founding, Amnesty International had seventy groups in seven countries, all working on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience—a testament to the power of communication and building a network.
In the past fifty years, options for communication have drastically increased, fueled by technological advances. How are we employing these methods in the fight for human rights? Rakesh described how mobile phones are democratizing forces in Tanzania, making fast communication available to rapidly increasing number of people. Unlike the radio, which transmits information from one person to many people, mobile phones allow everyone to spread their ideas. Emin explained that, in Azerbaijan, Facebook statuses are becoming more important than newspapers for updates on current events because they allow for freedom of expression.
Despite the magnitude of these growing digital networks, all of the speakers emphasized that online work has little meaning unless it is connected with offline action. With an increasing focus on digital communication, it becomes easier to get bogged down in the technology, allowing our goals to become growing the digital community rather than mobilizing that community to take action.
The ways the Amnesty International movement uses digital communication will differ in every section and structure, based on a host of factors from resources to culture to legal regulations. All of us must innovate about how we can harness the forces of technology to bring about human rights victories, remembering that technology is a means to an end, not necessarily an end in and of itself.
So, dear reader, don’t just read this blog post, using it to feel more informed about Amnesty International or included in the ICM — that does nothing for human rights. Let’s harness this form of digital communication to grow the network of action. Today at the ICM, we writing letters to end torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearance in the Gambia. Stand with us! Consider not just signing the online petition, but going back to the type of action on which Amnesty International was founded: mail an actual letter to the President of the Gambia (see a sample letter here). With the proliferation of digital media, handwritten letters stick out to policymakers, giving those letters heightened power.