I am fascinated by the potential intersections between public history and social activism, and an article I found through the "Archives in the News" Google group provides an interesting example. On Tuesday, August 29, ABC News Australia posted a story about the "Documenting the Now" project, which seeks to document the vast amounts of information regarding human rights violations in the United States uploaded via social media, particularly Twitter and YouTube. This initiative is a joint effort between Washington University in St. Louis, University of California in Riverside, and the University of Maryland.
This article addresses a number of important archival issues that these institutions face in this project. One such issue is consent. Ed Summers, a researcher at the University of Maryland, asserts that consent is particularly important in documenting individuals' tweets if doing so could place them in danger. A more basic concern that Summers and his colleagues have regards the volume of information they document. This seems to be a question of accession. Summers asks how much they should keep, and how they should make those choices. Although this is always a difficult question to answer, Summers and his team have limited their intake by prioritizing higher profile tweets; those shared by celebrities, or that have otherwise been shared tens or hundreds of thousands of times, increasing their visibility.
Another platform, that this initiative focuses on is YouTube, because we often receive proof of social injustice through videos uploaded to the internet. Problems here are that the video materials could be edited to skew viewer responses. A positive point, however, is that the sheer volume of visual materials uploaded after an event allows viewers to reach more reasonable conclusions. One example is a Euromaiden Protest in Ukraine, for which video evidence enabled the apprehension of the responsible group of riot police.
The overarching question for this archive of human rights activist social media content, for me at least, is who has access to these materials, and who has control over the content and its organization? Access is always important at an archives, but with these ethical issues of anonymity and consent, how can people like Summers determine who they allow into their archives? Furthermore, in class this week we discussed evidentiary vs. informational value. My interest here lies with the evidentiary value, which stems from the archives original organization and creation. How have these archives been organized, and what might that tell us now, or researchers in the future about the history of human rights activism today, and how we document it?
1) Antony Funnell, "Meet the Digital Librarians Saving Social Media Posts to Protect Human Rights," ABC News Australia, August 28, 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-29/archivist-as-activist-human-rights-in-a-digital-world/8852068.