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Embarking on the path of verification

Here at the Citizen Evidence Lab we’re pleased to announce the launch of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps.  This initiative is being launched with Human Rights Centers at three universities. The University of California, Berkeley in the USA; the University of Essex in the UK and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.  The goal is for this to become a wider initiative to train future human rights investigators in the techniques and skills required to verify content that depicts potential human rights abuses found on open social media platforms. With more and more people around the world connected by mobile technology, this is a resource that human rights researchers just cannot ignore – and that includes the researchers at Amnesty International.

Ensuring that the volunteers involved in the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) have the right skills and knowledge base is crucial – which is why we are spending parts of September, October and November in the three universities to meet and train the volunteers.  We stared off in California in late September .

Here, Berkeley student and DVC volunteer Ilaf Esuf reflects on why she decided to join this new initiative and attend the trainings.

I rubbed away the rheum that lingered after a bad night’s sleep, grabbed my coffee and continued my morning summer routine: asking my family if they heard about the new ISIS attack. My mom’s heavy hearted sigh followed by a “Let’s try to have a good morning today,” was supposed to be my cue to change the topic to more pleasant matters, but as I scrolled through my newsfeed mid-toast, unjust death was all I could talk about.

And sadly, that’s all I did every week that summer. All I did was talk, sigh, and share a post every now and then. That’s all I thought I could do.

I’d let myself get emotionally obliterated, read articles and watch videos that jerked tears from my eyes and tugged at my heartstrings, fully aware that I could always close the tab if it got too much. I had the privilege of walking away. I had the good fortune of shedding tears, not blood — which is why I wanted to get involved with human rights.

I realized, I’m in a position where I can help so I must, but how was I — a five foot, 100 pound, can’t-lift-my-own-luggage woman — supposed to do that? How was I — someone who’s biggest problem of the day was curbing my caffeine intake — supposed to find a solution to stopping human rights abuses?

Prior to joining this internship, the cloud that masked the behind-the-scenes action of human rights work tricked me into thinking it was magic — less in the context of of fairy dust and more in the sense that I had no idea how people got from point A to point B.

People die every day, all over the world. Some of those die at the hands of corrupt governments. Some of those are disappeared, leaving behind friends and families whose resources were inferior compared to the powers in charge. Some are helpless, not so many are hopeful.

But even with such a high number of fatalities and even higher stakes, human rights activists make efforts to shape laws that could help. Somehow, people have slowly been able to move from point A: the unfortunately frequent atrocities, to point B: some form of support.

I wanted to be on that path.

Blinded by the magic and confused as to how I could join, I placed all human rights activists on a pedestal. I treated them like gods for figuring out how to do what I wanted to do and prayed that I could be as valiant one day.

And after joining this internship and realizing that these same people I was ready to build shrines for were somewhat normal, I became even more infatuated.

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On the first day of training, I sat in a room surrounded by 39 other students who were also desperate to help others and 6 professionals in the field who surprisingly didn’t have the halos I kept picturing around their heads.

We were all different, representing different ethnicities, cultures, languages and studies. But we were all strung together by the same underlying thread of wanting to help. And our differences actually served as our biggest advantage.

While I, like many of the other interns, had some experience working in human rights related fields, some of the tasks we completed during training were completely foreign to me.

As a Facebook fanatic, I was not new to the viral videos that drag a mass audience with it. And as a Berkeley student, questioning the accuracy of those videos was also not a new concept. However, as someone who doesn’t have much time to spare, it shocked me that there are people who have the skill to edit videos frame by frame to change its appearance and make you think something that didn’t actually happen did. Granted, the video we watched as an example during training was harmless, but the fact that the same idea could be transferred to videos of human rights violations that could then be distributed with misinformation terrified me.

With this in the back of my mind, I was excited to learn more about verification. While the group task we completed on the last day seemed daunting (I felt like every member of Criminal Minds, Columbo, and Sherlock Holmes put together as we combed through the random photos and videos we tried to corroborate) I knew we were all capable of helping.

The cloud was starting to clear.

Working in human rights was starting to sound like an attainable goal. I was finally starting to feel like I was in the same league, maybe even on the same team as the human rights activists I had looked up to. 

Clearly, there is still a lot I need to learn about where I fit in on the team. However, it’s a journey I’m incredibly excited to embark on. I can’t wait to work with others who are equally passionate about righting the wrongs we scroll past each day.

As we move on with developing the Digital Verification Corps, we will be opening it up to others – so do keep an eye out.