Visible Evidence 18: Engaging ethics and social media

Posted October 13th, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

The young Iranian-born media scholar, Negar Mottahedeh, stands in front of her power point slides. Showing patience and grace, she attempts to convey the political role she had adopted during the 2009 Iranian uprising. She tells the audience that social media was how she chose to tumble into the vortex of rebellion during the Green Revolution. Armed with her computer screen as both a window to see into Iranian street demonstrations and as a tool to communicate and advocate for freedom, she says that she had no doubt that this was the moment to act as a human rights activist in support of her country’s freedom fighters.

Professor Mottahedeh and I are presenting our experiences with social media at Visible Evidence 18, meeting at NYU in August 2011.  At this annual international conference of documentary film, scholars explore and debate this most exciting and malleable of media forms.

Drawn in by organizers Professor Patty Zimmermann from Ithaca College, and Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, academic participants fill our screening room. They look eager to learn more about and engage us around the situational ethics of human rights media, now rooting deeply in the participatory spaces of the internet. This is a subject that both panel organizers have been teaching and writing about for several years, while crafting a dynamic and changing set of working ethical principles.

I sense that Professor Mottahedeh is not ready yet to distance herself as scholars must, from the mounting dilemmas she’d discovered when social media meets street-level interventions and state repression and violence. She is neither speaking as a technological enthusiast nor a moralistic doomsayer, but as someone who has been profoundly changed by this experience, and is still trying to understand its implications for her own actions in the future.

While users of Facebook and Twitter signal and corral momentous change across the globe, Professor Mottahedeh tells us that she wants to identify and think about the less beneficial, if not inadvertently harmful, effects that she had been unable to mitigate while wielding and weaving a social media web of support from her home far away in the US.

There were times, she says, when the information that people were posting in real time, was no longer accurate given their intermittent internet access.

“Post a message on Monday telling people to stay away from the American Embassy because it’s closed, and later if or when the information changes, and people see the message too late, it could become very dangerous,” she says.

Pointing out the positive outpourings of user-generated media surrounding the Green Revolution, she also questions her own actions as a media advocate and citizen participant from a distance, and in this new social media space.

The video artifacts and power point slides she uses are telling one positive and hopeful story, but behind the illustrations I see her deep and mixed feelings of bewilderment, hope and judgment about this experience. She is still living with the obligation that members of the Iranian diaspora had taken on to harness these powerful new communication tools and improvise help for people dangerously vulnerable in the streets and in their family homes.

I’m able to pick up fragments of the professor’s thinking, and I’m certain they will cohere, over time, into a powerful and organized narrative. At this moment though, we’re witnessing the raw power of entering and inhabiting a land of ‘not-knowing,’ when it comes to understanding these tools.

There is great wisdom to illuminate as long as we can stay open to the ethical issues being recast for the digital age.

Opposite Attractions

When it’s my turn to present our story about the making of Lunch Love Community, I explain how I try to act as an intentional context provider with the help of media tools. By acknowledging and working around the unresolved ethical dilemmas, I notice that technology is exercising a less mysterious control over my choices.

This process that we blend into our documentary practice, includes civic engagement activities built into a new form of distribution online. The more I work with the tools of public engagement as a producer and director, the more I am divided around these issues:  losing myself in the community I’m creating the film with, and retaining the individual autonomy intentionally detached from them in order to see and shape the story more clearly.

This conflict comes from a deep desire to join and take part in the collective community – be a member, a collaborator.  However it is absolutely in my bones to create distance, and be an observer of the story being developed. To approach the truth, the work must spring from another dialogue — one that is individual to me as the creator, and internally generated.

From a Creator’s Perspective: Identifying My Ethical Issues

I point to some questions, recognizing that they’ve long haunted filmmakers and artists venturing out to work the untidy fields of public discourse. With social media tools, they loom larger, burn brighter and complicate simple resolutions.  I live with these issues every day I pick up a camera or work in the editing room.

1.    As we make films that connect with expanding stakeholder groups, what are my obligations to them and the community? To negotiating conflict that may arise? Or are we unwittingly echoing their agendas and claims?  Or the outcome desires of the funders?  Neutrality is not always an option – loyalties shift over time.

2.    What and where are the limits to the filmmaker’s freedom to express a truth she sees? Especially without a large media organization behind you supporting your work?  Another angle on this would be how does the filmmaker negotiate autonomy within the community frame?

3.    How do we create a safe space for open dialogue about conflict and misunderstanding that is neither absolute (“you are with us or you are not”) nor completely relative (“everyone has a right to eat Hot Cheetos whenever they want”).

During our panel, professors, media makers and students comment and question, obviously energized for ongoing conversation in this area. People are sparked — every comment yields more questions than there is time to discuss.

The scholar is trained to observe, study and make conclusions. The filmmaker also watches closely to see in new ways and shape this mess of life into meaning-rich stories.  And now, we discover the opportunity to be significant actors on an online stage where roles are permeable, and can switch with a click of the mouse.  In the framework of the documentary or social media video clip, Patty Zimmermann sees an expansion outward from an ethics of the cinematic image, to the ethics of the distributed network.

The issues we face while making social media cross all types of boundaries – disciplines, political, urgency, close, distance, global and community-based. Decisions to make while engaging with social media — from working in the midst of war to doing a community or neighborhood project — share many similarities. Building (and often rebuilding) relationships around trust, honesty and confidence in the process turn out to be the most important and critical factor for the good of the project and the change it wishes to inspire.

This quickly evolving participatory media culture pressures us to face and struggle with difficult ethical questions that are no longer abstract — but grounded in real world circumstances that have implications now absolutely necessary to visualize, voice and to try and make sense around.

This space is not values-neutral. Prevailing free market thinking around gadgets and wizardry cannot not be the only marker for success when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.


Helen De Michiel

September 29, 2011


Here are some provisional working ethical principles drafted by Sam Gregory and Patty Zimmermann to frame the dialogue in our panel:

1.    An image uploaded, bluetoothed, or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped. All ethical assumptions should be based on this mobility.

2.    Consent is central. It emerged from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and social science research.  It is grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground. Yet it needs to be re-grounded in new communities of practice that exist in spaces like YouTube.

3.    Respect for human dignity is mandatory. It emanates from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics. It is grounded in a culture of empathy.

4.    Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer/re-user. It relies on internalized and externalized context.

5.    Aggregation offers an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fit preconceived ideas. Yet new frameworks of aggregative ethics must be developed, including around how to generate ‘responsibility to act.’

6.    The technological operators of online services, as well as the creators of software and hardware, will condition and frame ethical issues in human rights social media.  Practitioners, theorists, scholars, and advocacy workers will need to engage not only these technologies, but these providers and their infrastructures.

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