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How Twitter Helps Fight Human Rights Abuse

The director of Human Rights Watch on how social media enables many to spotlight abuse

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

I took up tweeting when the Arab Spring broke out. I had been skeptical about the merits of 140-character reductionism, but the power of social media to mobilize people on the streets of Tunis and Cairo was impressive and impossible to ignore. I felt I couldn’t really understand this new platform if I didn’t try it myself; I rapidly became a convert.

The brevity of a tweet is obviously a serious limitation, but it also imposes discipline. I find that the need to reduce my thoughts to their essence makes me both a better reader and a better communicator. And despite the terseness, surprisingly vigorous conversations take place on Twitter. But those conversations must be provoked. The best tweets, in my view, don’t just spread news—that’s what the news media is for—but advance the public conversation about a problem and thus contribute to its resolution. A good tweet stirs things up. It is like a dart: short, sharp, and precisely aimed.

Human rights activism is premised on the truth that people behave better when watched. No one wants their reputation tarnished, so people are more likely to avoid misconduct if they think others will notice and highlight it. Some deride social media like Twitter for superficiality, but more is at stake: by democratizing the media, social media enables many more people to spotlight abuse—a key tool for curtailing it. And as head of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the global defense of rights, I can say that Twitter has added a powerful new tool for me to reach policymakers, journalists and the public nimbly, quickly and directly. As abuses unfold and responses are fashioned, I can immediately send my analysis to the 135,000 people who have chosen to follow me.   

There’s a negative corollary, of course. Social media makes it easier for abusive officials to try to polish their image and deflect bad press. If they feel they can manage the consequences of their misconduct, they feel freer to engage in more bad behavior. In times of war, for example, Twitter debates help shape what actors feel they can get away with. If backers of Assad can successfully deny his barrel bombing of civilians, if partisans of Israel can get away with blaming solely Hamas’s use of “human shields” rather than Israeli targeting decisions for civilian deaths, if adversaries in Ukraine can attribute civilian casualties to only others’ indiscriminate warfare, they will feel they have neutralized the stigma of their own side’s misconduct. That makes further abuse more likely. Far from the “clicktivism” that critics deride, Twitter debates thus can affect matters of life and death. Indeed, the vigor of a debate often reflects the difficulty of covering up abusive conduct. In those circumstances I tend to tweet more, because successful rebuttal of the cover story can help end the abuse jeopardizing civilian life. 

Of course one can make mistakes. The spontaneity of Twitter does lend itself to the tweet you wish you hadn’t sent—the wording that was misunderstood, the accompanying photo that was poorly chosen. That’s a big part of why many leaders avoid it. Deleting a tweet is possible, but by then the damage is usually done. Still, it is precisely the speed of Twitter that attracts me. Better, in my view, to hone instincts about what not to tweet—avoiding those wish-I-hadn’t tweets in the first place—than to eschew Twitter altogether. Moving quickly enhances the inherent risk of entering the public conversation, but for me, the ability through Twitter to influence that conversation as it unfolds makes that risk worthwhile. 

Aside from the risk of sending an untoward tweet at an inopportune time, there’s another destabilizing force: trolling. Certain countries—the most notorious are Bahrain, Israel, Russia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Venezuela—are known for being defended by “trolls,” people who attack anyone who criticizes the country (or who at least try to change the subject). Some of the trolling is well organized, as though instructions are circulated. As one Twitter user recently warned me in response to my tweet on Sri Lankan atrocities, “Brace yourself, you are about to witness the art of trolling.”

Trolling reflects the view that the Twitter debate can be dominated or at least skewed by the orchestrated promotion of a particular message. But most trolling is remarkably ineffective, leaving me wondering why people bother; engaging with trolls is never worthwhile. They are interested in obfuscation, not real conversation. Twitter lets you “mute” nuisances such as trolls so their comments don’t consume your notifications page. I recommend liberal use.

Twitter is a global phenomenon, but Twitter penetration differs considerably around the world. Because of my global audience—three quarters of my followers are outside the United States—and the broad range of issues on which I tweet, I have a sense of the issues that attract the most attention, at least in English. The Middle East is big. So are issues involving the U.S. government, asylum-seekers in Europe, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia, and South Asia, to name a few. The most surprising country for lack of interest is China. Part of the problem is that Twitter is blocked in China, but I’m surprised that the rest of the world that tweets in English seems so indifferent.

Twitter, of course, is also a source of information. Beyond being an easy way to keep track of the traditional media, Twitter enables anyone in the world to notify me about a human rights concern. One can never simply accept tweets from unfamiliar sources as the truth, but they do provide leads to pursue and verify, which can shape global policy and agendas. 

Some fear that social media is replacing meaningful human interaction. I think that fear misplaced; though I would never pretend that a Twitter acquaintance is the same as a real friend, there is still something to the relationship. When I follow someone, or they follow me, we often develop a degree of trust, even if we’re on opposite sides of the globe. Over time, by reading a person’s tweets, it is possible to gain a sense of his or her passions, perspectives and reliability, even if you have never met. 

I’m the first to admit that Twitter is an odd forum. But for whatever quirky reasons, it has become a central part of modern discourse. Our public conversation is richer for it. So rather than fight it, I have embraced it.