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Ethical Wednesdays: Archives and Our Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy. Check back each Wednesday in the coming weeks for a new post on human rights video and ethics.

Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have become the primary way that many of us communicate and share accounts and perspectives of events. So, inevitably, archives are increasingly interested in collecting and preserving our social media as historical documents. In many cases, the historical value is clear: social movements as far-ranging as Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution and today’s Black Lives Matter have used social media in unprecedented ways to record events, exchange information, and engage others.

As archives start to collect, provide access to, and present social media collections, many ethical issues arise that need to be addressed.

For example, does making public social media content more accessible, or re-presenting it outside of its original context, violate an individual’s privacy? Are there ways to ethically archive social media without explicit consent? Whose interests do archived social media collections serve anyway?

Social media surrounding instances of human rights abuse can come from all sides and perspectives. How can we contextualize, describe, and present this in an ethical way? How do we deal with dehumanizing and abusive content, such as perpetrator footage? What is the archive’s responsibility to content creators and subjects in these situations?

But while it is evident that archiving social media is fraught with ethical concerns, does that mean we should not do it? What is the archive’s responsibility to its users, present and future?

As the tweets embedded above indicate, there is a welcome and healthy discussion of these issues taking place in the archives community. One resource that I have shared with many fellow archivists is WITNESS’s new Ethical Guidelines: Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights and Advocacy. The Guidelines draw from WITNESS’s experience working in human rights advocacy, and from resources in other fields like journalism and law, so they weren’t written specifically with archives in mind, but many of its discussion points certainly resonate.

The Guidelines do not provide easy answers to the ethical questions being raised in the archives community, but can perhaps help guide our professional judgement, and in the least, provide a jumping point for further conversations. Here is a summary of some of the key guidelines relevant to archives collecting social media (click here to read the Guidelines in full):

Responsibility to subjects found in content:

  • Assess whether informed consent was given, and whether it was only for a specific audience and usage.  
  • Assess risks to the safety, dignity and privacy of individuals and communities depicted.
  • Use professional judgement to weigh competing interests (e.g. risk vs. value of speaking out, public interest vs. individual risk and dignity).
  • Consider anonymizing individuals.
  • With media created by perpetrators of abuse, avoid furthering the objectives of the abusers. Avoid providing access in a way that re-victimizes or brings further harm to the abused.

Responsibility to the content creator:

  • Try to identify the content creator, but consider that they may be at-risk and want to remain anonymous. If that is the case, take steps to protect their anonymity.  
  • If the content creator is safe to identify, give attribution and seek permission for use, and reference the original source.

Verification:

  • If content is not from a reliable source, try to authenticate and verify content in other ways. If there is not enough information to do this, consider if there are other corroborating documents, and the possible motives of the source.

Responsibility to users:

  • Be clear about the source of content in order to provide transparency and context.
  • Do not re-present content in contexts that distort the underlying reality, such as using juxtaposition to create false equivalencies or imply connections that do not exist, or omitting information that is crucial to understanding.
  • Be transparent about your objectives and choices in presenting the content.
  • Warn users about any graphic or disturbing content in advance.  Give them an opportunity to not experience the content.

Do you have thoughts on the ethics of archives collecting social media? Let us know what you think!

Interested in learning more about ethics, check out WITNESS’ new Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy. Share your own methods and challenges in using eyewitness video by reaching out on Twitter or sending an email to feedback [at] witness [dot] org.

You can learn more about how to archive and manage your video collection via The Activist’s Guide to Archiving Video.

Yvonne Ng is the senior archivist as WITNESS. You can find her on Twitter @ng_yvonne.