Digital Image Identification: Sharing isn’t always caring

5 Oct

Why we should always blur faces in videos and photographs from protests inside Iran and any similar totalitarian regimes where the slightest sign of dissent – real or imagined – has serious, often life-threatening implications.

Reunited

Babak (Rajabalu) Dashab, first arrested in Feb 2009 and sentenced to 6 years, then re-arrested after being identified from video showing him burning a log during an Ashura protest in December 2009, has been freed from prison in Iran after serving 3 years. Three years for making a bonfire. Look at his son. Three years is a lifetime to a child of his age.

We are responsible

Before the “Arab Spring” there was the equally exhilarating “Green Wave”. Social media was our new playground; we were transformed from no-life couch-potato geeks to “citizen journalists”. The buzz of finding and sharing news about massive street protests in an increasingly paranoid and isolated country like Iran was intoxicating. Iran kicked out the foreign press. “We are the Media!” became our battle cry.

On reflection it could just as easily have been “We Are Rank Amateurs!” or “We Are Gullible Idiots!”. Most of the time news was shared regardless of source. Some of us tried to “police” the torrent, but it was largely a losing battle against an ever-rising tide of misinformation and disinformation. Photos and videos were gobbled up by an insatiable appetite for “online activism”. We were going to post our way to freedom for Iran and poke CNN et al in the eye on our way up. In those days, the “media” were slow-witted and partisan, YouTube a petty censor. Our videos were removed on a whim, so we learned to copy, clone, remix, save, re-post, find new hosting venues. In so doing, we spawned thousands upon thousands of photos and videos.

This addiction to quantity without regard for quality or fact-checking quickly revealed its dark inner core. The risks to protesters of being arrested increased exponentially because of the photos and videos we were sharing. The regime countered this green wave of social media evidence of the unrest in Iran, and turned the green tide against the green movement. Images became evidence of crimes against the state. Evidence of terrorist acts. Evidence of insulting the Supreme Leader of the glorious revolution.

My reaction was horrified guilt. I had done this. I had shared without realising what could happen as a result of my actions, and now I was an unwitting accomplice in the arrest and torture of thousands of people. I had to do something, to redeem myself, to assuage the guilt, to convert the remorse into positive action. I started trying to raise awareness of this risk, and to demand that faces in videos be blurred, which is how I found  WITNESS – a fantastic team, they firmly hoisted that banner and ran with it. I credit them with getting YouTube to add a feature which will automatically try to find and blur all faces in a video.

But..

I recall being asked by someone what they should do if they didn’t know how to blur faces? The simple answer is: ask the original poster to do it or get someone else to do it. If you can’t do that, then do nothing, don’t share. That person felt this was infeasible: they they were compelled to share, because it was so important to show “the world” what was happening in Iran. To this response, I asked: who is there to take photographs of what happens to people you helped to identify after they are arrested?

The other, more common and weakest of all excuses is that the image is “already out there”. So is AIDS – does that mean everyone should have unprotected sex? We should regard blurring faces as a prophylactic to protect against the lethal disease of brutal repression.

It’s not easy

Instinct takes over and before you know where you are, you’ve clicked! Because it only takes a click.. so really,the blurring needs to spread to the original content posters, our “enablers”. This needs massive, sustained loft to become an enduring, instinctive habit.

Apart from those misguided souls who are so fixated on their popularity that they would rather count likes and re-tweets of the content they post than actually help prevent innocent protesters from being targeted, there is also a subtle pressure from the social networks to share visuals. Just look at the “success” of the meaningless and crappy Instagram. Photos and videos are the media of social media content – which is far more interesting if it includes visuals. There are financial pressures on developers: more interesting content is an advantage in promoting social media platforms to advertisers and investors. But is it essential: surely you’ve heard about events that did not include images, but which nevertheless are broadcast wholesale by established media? The first examples that come to mind are President Obama declaring that he would not release images of  “the killing of Osama Bin Laden” and the alleged stoning of a young couple in Mali in July 2012. Not only were there no photos or videos of the reported stoning, it’s unlikely that any exist. Yet you will see these “facts” repeated ad nauseum in established media.

The reality about what gets covered in the press belies the worn-out excuses: traditional media outlets prefer to have images but they do publish controversial news without evidence, and they do accept these stories from citizen reporters or people claiming to be witnesses.

It is never too late to do the right thing

Go blurry:

How to Blur Faces in Photos Using GIMP free image editing software

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL49Ox-zetA]

Reblogged from I wish I’d never seen Babak Dashab « @lissnup.

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