Symposium: Accountability in the Digital Age – Introduction

Symposium: Accountability in the Digital Age – Introduction

[Barrie Sander is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Brazil and Yvonne McDermott is a Professor of Law at the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University, UK.]

In recent years, concerns have grown about the governance of the digital ecosystem and the social media platforms that have come to dominate it. The highly concentrated power and control of Google and Facebook over the content layer of the online environment has enabled these “surveillance giants” to exert considerable influence within societies across the world – whether through the enormous number of people that participate on their platforms, the treasure trove of personal data that circulates on them, or their domination of the development of artificial intelligence technology.

A spate of public controversies – including  disinformation campaigns orchestrated through WhatsApp during last year’s Brazilian elections, the removal of hundreds of thousands of channels and videos from YouTube documenting the civil war in Syria, and the use of Facebook to fuel President Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines – have awakened the public to the potential for online platforms to be used to disrupt elections, spread hate and disinformation, and inspire deadly atrocities around the globe. The time is ripe, then, to consider what the new digital environment means for human rights and accountability globally.

This symposium stems from a roundtable we organized at RightsCon 2019 in Tunisia, centred on the theme, Responding to Mass Atrocities in the Digital Age: Challenges and Lessons Learned from Myanmar. In the aftermath of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission’s 2018 report, we were interested in interrogating the lessons learned from the Mission’s work on the usefulness of open source evidence, particularly material gathered from social media, for proving human rights violations. The roundtable also explored the role of social media companies in preventing, detecting and removing hate speech, and the avenues that are available to hold social media companies accountable for their role in the dissemination of such content.

Amidst an increasingly global “techlash”, this symposium broadens the interrogative gaze beyond the specific context of Myanmar to examine accountability in the digital age more generally. Specifically, the symposium explores two core themes. The first concerns the accountability of social media platforms, while the second examines forms of accountability that may arise through social media platforms, in particular through reliance on user-generated evidence.

First, the symposium examines the responsibilities of social media companies pertaining to false and inflammatory content disseminated by users on their platforms in different societal contexts. Barrie Sander’s two-part post (here and here) uses the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a framework to consider the human rights responsibilities of Facebook within conflict-affected and atrocity-afflicted societies with a particular focus on the situation in Myanmar. Shannon Raj Singh considers the new ‘Facebook News’ feature, the roll-out of which is currently confined to the United States, and whether, if it is used as a means to spread hate speech and incite violence, Facebook’s executives could be held accountable. Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat reflect on their research highlighting the use of WhatsApp to spread misinformation and stoke violence in India, and ask what steps social media companies themselves can take to counter this. They argue that it is possible to tackle hate speech and disinformation on platforms and applications without removing encryption or diluting user privacy, which may itself have negative consequences.

Second, the symposium explores a number of challenges that arise from relying upon user-generated content as evidence of human rights violations and international crimes. Dearbhla Minogue and Ruwadzano Makumbe analyse the challenges in using this evidence in pursuing accountability for international law violations, which include the preservation and management of evidence, and ensuring its admissibility in court. Yvonne McDermott, Daragh Murray, and Alexa Koenig discuss the biases inherent in open source evidence, and the danger that certain groups or people will be silenced in an era where user-generated evidence is central to both investigations and human rights advocacy. Finally, Ulic Egan analyses how an intersectional approach to international criminal investigations may take these biases and gaps in information into account, ensuring greater representativeness in both investigations and prosecutions.

We are looking forward to a lively discussion on these important issues over the coming days, and we are very grateful to Opinio Juris for hosting this symposium.

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