The sentiment that millennials, compared to previous generations, are the most engaged in human rights activism has been slammed by several critics. Despite many reservations however, social media has been a powerful form of activism in 2014 for a variety of human rights campaigns such as #BringBackOurGirls, #Blacklivesmatter, and #JeSuisCharlie; the success of these campaigns all hinged on the immediacy of the catalyst event that spurred them into action. In the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, a school of Nigerian girls were captured and in need of rescuing. In the #Blacklivesmatter campaign, fatalities and trials in Ferguson and New York City made the topic of systemic racism trend. However, there is a niche topic in human rights that rarely gets discussed on social media activism: war crimes.
This year, the Human Rights Center of UC Berkeley was awarded a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The Human Rights Center uses innovative technology and legal measures to investigate hidden and forgotten war crimes of the past in an effort to bring their perpetrators to justice today. The organization tackles a multitude of human rights issues such as sexual assault prevention and aid, researching mass grave sites, as well as reuniting families torn apart in the chaos of war. Last June, they joined the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was co-chaired by US Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie and the UK’s Foreign Secretary.
There are a number of NGOs that do the important work of immediate relief and response to crises around the world. However, Alexa Koenig, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center explained that they “sometimes a little bit later. And we’re able to stay for really long periods of time, working with the local communities to help understand why this wrong occurred in the first place…We are very committed to making systemic change.” Here in lies the fundamental void that schisms when the public relies on popular social media campaigns to enact tangible change.
It is understandable why social media favors the immediacy of the particular atrocities that occur around the world. Like NGOs, social media activism provide necessary and valuable public attention to issues that often times have been brewing long before it was noticed, and will require a lot more to be fixed. There are two parts to solving human rights issues: the first is public awareness and emergency responses; the second is organizations such as the UC Berkeley Human Resources Center which seeks to provide governments and communities with solid, thorough research to attain better policies. Many critics ignore the part that social media plays in aiding emergency relief movements but there is also a sense of public disappointment when resolutions and fast fixes are slow to come.
A classic example of this rift of public disappointment and criticism is the Kony 2012 campaign. In many senses, it was Jason Russell’s thirty minute documentary that pioneered the unexplored terrain of social activism. The unexpected and incredible success fostered a sense of community in the public for the apprehension of Joseph Kony. However, after the initial success and hype of Kony 2012 subsided, a rain of criticism fell hard on the Invisible Children organization for inefficiency and money issues. Kony 2012 is an example of the fundamental differences between immediate public attention and the necessity of careful, long-term investigation for change.
The Human Resources Center in Berkeley falls into the second category in the fight for human rights, and its efforts are unlikely to find a place on Facebook’s trending column. This does not diminish its work, nor should it be expected. In the same way, social media activism need not be suppressed due to frustrations about immediate results. Activism of any form was never meant to solve the solution by organizing protests and marches, it is intended to create pressure for institutions and governments to pay more close attention to these issues and address them. Social media activism, compared to the work that UC Berkeley Human Resources Center will do with the grant that they have received is not a question of worth. The reality is that both play two important roles in improving human rights around the world.