Just as Americans have turned to their phones to document protests and police brutality from Occupy to Ferguson, in the past five years livestreaming has also caught fire internationally. But, unlike in the US, livestreaming isnt always protected by the law. And, no matter where in the world people are filming, doing so often puts the streamers life at risk. WIRED spoke with representatives from Witness, an international nonprofit that supports livestreaming for global social action, about how livestreaming has changed activist practices and perceptions of power outside the US.
WIRED: Where have you seen livestreaming catch on internationally?
Jackie Zammuto, senior engagement coordinator: We saw a lot of it in 2010 and 2011 with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. That was when people started livestreaming to document events and say, This is happening. You cannot deny that this is happening because its happening live in front of your face. More and more people, not just in the US, are using video to document police violence, especially in places like Brazil, Mexico, all across Latin America. Of the refugees that are coming through Europe, a lot more people are taking to social media and live video to document their voyage.
Have consumer-friendly livestreaming platforms, such as Facebook Live and Periscope, changed things abroad as they have in the US?
Sam Gregory, program director: Yes. In countries that have fast enough mobile broadband, it’s made it easier for activists to use their existing networks. It has also made livestreaming more accessible to people who are accidental eyewitnesses or not activists, because they grow accustomed to using it in noncrisis settings and then have the tool available to them in a crisis. That said, this opens them up to a range of risks to themselves and othersof exposure, of retaliation, of unexpectedly being placed in a live spotlightthat platforms need to do a better job of supporting and responding to.
Whats an example of how livestreaming has changed the dynamics between civilians and police?
SG: An example we like to point to from Brazil during the [Confederations Cup] protests that were happening in 2013. An activist from Midia Ninja was livestreaming a protest and a police officer came up to him and wanted to search his bag, which he did not consent to. There were questions of whether it was even a legal search, but the police officer said, You can watch the search. And he said, I am watching the search and so are 5,000 other people. And that kind of just changed the dynamic and gave, not only a sense of solidarity to the person who was filming but a real sense of purpose for the people who were viewing it.
US citizens have the right to document encounters with police as long as theyre not interfering with an investigation, but this isnt true for many other places in the world. Are there particular instances where people have been killed or jailed for livestreaming?
SG: There is a range of ways in which livestreamers have been targeted over the past five years. In the most extreme case, the Syrian livestreamer, Rami Al-Sayed, aka Syria Pioneer, who frequently livestreamed on Bambuser from a particular building in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, was killed by a Syrian military bombardment. His location may have been identified from streams. And in Spain, recent laws, referred to as Ley Mordaza or Gag law, have put tight restrictions on public protests and effectively made it illegal to film the police. They’ve made it easier for the police to criminalize people filming, particularly in significant locations (in essence it’s a very broadly framed ‘anti-terrorism’ law). It has particular implications for livestreamers since they might inadvertently film something and share it live, and then be prosecuted.
Do you draw any distinction between the impact of recording a video for later distribution versus livestreaming?
SG: At Witness, we tend to focus on what is the appropriate tool to reach the right audience at the right time. There are advantages to livestreaming including instantly archiving it to the cloud or to publicize an event that is happening and generate attention or crowd pressure. However, by holding on to a video, an activist can also think more strategically about how to release it, who to share it with, and how to take precautions around who may be put at risk by its release. An example of the advantages of not immediately releasing a video is the case study of the police shooting of Walter Scott that we analyzed in our Witness Media Lab. The eyewitness in this case, by holding back a video of a police shooting and consulting with lawyers and the victim’s family, was able to strategically release it once an official police account had been released—and reveal that the account was false.
JZ: Some of the activists we work with choose to livestream using private channels. This allows them to stream in real time to a select audience and produce an automatic backup of their footage in the event that their camera is confiscated or destroyed. (This, of course, also requires taking the steps to download and preserve the content afterwards).
Do we have obligations as viewers to act when were watching something unfold online in real time?
SG: Thats something were grappling with now. What do we do? Do we treat it as distraction or entertainment, or is there a meaningful thing that we are doing in response to it? One of the things we worry about is that the video of Philando Castile got so much attention because it was the first time this has happened. The question always becomes what happens on the thousandth or millionth time?
Has this been a problem with videos captured outside the US? Is there too much material to process?
SG: Its something we faced with videos from Syria. By some estimates there are up to a million social media items showing war crimes in Syria. And we know that people have tuned out. I cant think of anything more horrendous than the idea that I would be streaming something terrible happening in my community or to someone I loved, thinking itll make a difference, taking a risk to do that, and nothing happens and no one is watching and no one cares—or people are watching it as entertainment.
Why do some videos capturing violence go viral while others dont?
SG: I was looking at the images from Aleppo, and the image of the young boy, Omran, that stuck out. Its the same group in Syria that, for many years, has taken thousands of videos of bomb attacks. I think sometimes its just because an image is iconic.
JZ: Whats interesting about the photo of the child in Aleppo, compared to the video of Philando Castile, is that the one thing that really stood out in both of those is kind of the calmness, whether its shock or disbelief. Both the child and Diamond Reynolds convey this kind of calmness that I think speaks volumes to the depth of the issue in a way that photos dont always capture. A lot of times photos and videos are more focused on the actual incident or the violation or the act of violence itself and these are in the aftermath.
In many cases, is even taking out a camera to film a political act?
SG: Were in the moment of transition and a recognition that any of us could be a witness to something. Many of the videos weve seen have been shot by people who filmed someone elses death—they may know the person or not. Thats the transitional moment were in: the idea that everyone could be a witness, both a person whos live or recording video and all of us who potentially could be watching that live.