Remixing human rights: Rethinking civic expression, representation and personal security in online video
First Monday

Remixing human rights: Rethinking civic expression, representation and personal security in online video by Sam Gregory and Elizabeth Losh

This essay examines how remixes that combine human rights footage with popular songs complicate our understanding of the relationship between media production and civic participation. We argue that editing and compositing complicates establishing the authenticity of source material and that rapid dissemination of digital files through distributed networks may compromise the agency of victims. Furthermore, we raise questions about how so–called “conflict porn” that depicts graphic violence is received by Internet audiences. We offer a number of basic ethical principles for remixers of citizen journalism to consider in the post–Arab Spring milieu.


Remixers, curators, and spoilers
Privacy, consent, and other ethical principles
Providing historical framing for representations of political violence
The agency of victims and survivors
Calls to action
Corporate actors
Righteous remixes




“They Don’t Care about Us,” a 1996 popular song by Michael Jackson, has traveled the world as online remixes have appeared on YouTube during the past decade that incorporate human rights footage shot in over a dozen countries. From Iran photographs of those awaiting execution by the hangman’s noose are followed by green–clad election protestors filling the streets of Tehran [1]. An Egypt–themed remix presents a montage in which armored vehicles with water cannons clear the street, and exultant crowds burn tires, throw rocks, tear down images of Mubarak, and wave the national flag [2]. A Tunisian version appropriates footage of abuses committed under long–time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the cable television station Al Jazeera and splices it into Jackson’s staged jail cell rendition [3]. The popularity of Jackson’s song for international civil liberties purposes may be understandable, given the fact that the singer released an authorized music video version during his lifetime that included famed clips from the beating of Rodney King by white police officers and the tank stand–off with Chinese military forces in Tiananmen Square [4]. Yet how do such human rights treatments of this anthem for revolution differ from other YouTube remixes of the same song? After all, there is also a version of Jackson’s “They Don’t Care about Us” starring obedient prisoners moving in lockstep at Cebu Prison in the Philippines [5] and even a zany Daft Punk mash–up intercut like a speeded up cartoon [6]. Certainly, examples from the “They Don’t Care about Us” human rights meme, just as much as they localize a global meme, could also be said to trivialize as well as popularize their dramatic pathos–filled source materials that have captured scenes of persecution and protest from across the globe.


Egyptian version of human rights meme
Figure 1: Frames from an Egyptian version of the “They Don’t Care about Us” meme.


In this essay we argue that such human rights remixes present an important case study for a more general understanding of both remix culture and the media of bearing witness and that cultural artifacts such as the “They Don’t Care about Us” remixes circulate iconic images and shape attitudes about civic engagement in ways that don’t easily fit either celebratory narratives about the joys of YouTube democratization or dire warnings about mass desensitization and fragmentation from the guardians of traditional forms of testimony. Building on the concept of “networked publics” that are constituted by forms of mobility and interconnection that transform our relationships to place, culture, politics, and infrastructure in ways that both weaken and strengthen social connection [7], we observe that there are specific costs and benefits of promoting the genres of remix videos to existing practices within the human rights community and to adapting to the cultural norms of an attention economy shaped by the expectations of online video. The transformative nature of reworking source footage often functions in the context of complex community expectations, as has been previously argued by critics studying the fan vidding of Star Trek or the creation of anime music videos by devotees [8]. The temporality of specific rhetorical occasions for remix response is also frequently a critical aspect of composition in the fast–moving chain of cascading events in recent political revolutions.

Many of these incidences of the “They Don’t Care about Us” meme emerged during the recent “Arab Spring” in which masses of citizens took to the streets to protest authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen — during which the Internet and mobile media–making (combined with social networks and the satellite broadcasts of Al–Jazeera and others) were given much of the credit in the American press for stirring popular uprisings in the Middle East by the young and disenfranchised. Citizen–shot video and vernacular video forms common on the Internet were a significant part of the tactical media efforts of democracy activists. News stories about Egyptian protests noted the rhetorical power of the vlog of Asmaa Mahfouz that urged mobilization or the Facebook page for police murder victim Khaled Said that was created by regional Google executive Wael Ghonim, an influential member of the Egyptian digerati who was posting Twitter updates up to the moment that he was arrested by regime authorities, and one of the most watched videos from Egypt during the first days after the initial Tahrir Square protests remixed a series of images and testimonies and ultimately attracted over two million views [9].

Although it is clear that online videos of brutal crackdowns or spontaneous uprisings and citizen testimonies of resistance and repression played a role in the events of 2010 and 2011, this essay raises a number of questions around the assumption that access to online video as a means of expression and as a tool for activism automatically spurs practices of democratic inclusion and civil society, or that the aesthetic forms generated by participatory video activism are necessarily unproblematic. Rather than theorizing about all forms of video activism, we focus on how remix and montage approaches to video evidence raise questions around authenticity, consent, safety, representation, and efficacy. Above and beyond how the initial gathering of footage may raise questions, how do second–order interactions with the footage by people watching, and then re–using the footage operate? This essay argues that it may not always be appropriate to celebrate video remix unconditionally, as Henry Jenkins seems to, as an expression of “access, participation, reciprocity, and peer–to–peer rather than one–to–many communication” [10] or accept the assertion of Lawrence Lessig that a video remix “can’t help but make its argument, at least in our culture, far more effectively than could words.” [11] Alongside this, via specific examples, we consider ways in which remix rationales and approaches have been used to facilitate solidarity activism and organizing, as well as local engagement on global issues.



Remixers, curators, and spoilers

Questions of authenticity (in the evidentiary sense of the who, what, and where in which truth claims are grounded) bedevil the use of online visual media for securing accountability. Certainly it can be difficult to establish authenticity when digital files are so easily reposted, edited, and manipulated. In 2004, photographs that appeared to show the rape, torture, and sexual humiliation of Iraqi women caused outrage throughout the Middle East in a region already inflamed by sadistic photographs of prisoner abuse scandals at the Abu Ghraib facilities. Although the photographs were eventually shown to be culled from American and Hungarian pornographic Web sites with actors costumed as soldiers [12], references to the images were still circulated in anti–American e–mail messages and blog postings that identified them as genuine records of human rights abuses and the proof of the use of rape as an instrument of war by Western armies long after most journalists had discredited their authenticity [13].

Questions about provenance and accuracy have also been critical during the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the moments when social media circulated within a country has moved into international news or information sites. Alongside the curatorial efforts of individuals working within spaces like YouTube, organizations have drawn on crowd–sourcing to ensure an accurate translation from local to regional to transnational contexts. For example, Alive in Libya, a group founded in March 2011 that is dedicated to “transcribing the voices of Libya” with “a team of a full–time staff and volunteers located around the world,” is known for supporting video and text focused on the daily life of Libyans that is “conceived and shot in Libya, translated by a team of volunteers, and then produced and edited by Small World News staff in the United States” [14] and uses the open–source Universal Subtitles tool to rapidly translate footage for global audiences, and minimize bias in translation. Other sites such as the Hypercities project Election Protests in Iran have focused on pinpointing geographical locations and providing accurate timelines for events that unfolded rapidly and sometimes chaotically on the streets [15].

At the same time, the mainstream and emergent media, from the BBC to Al–Jazeera to Storyful [16], have increasingly focused on the best ways to authenticate citizen media by looking at questions of source reliability. Such outlets generally privilege trusted sources or previous uploaders rather than “scrapers” of others’ content and have also learned to gauge how others in a social media ecosystem react to a particular piece of content. They may also invest investigative resources in assessing accents and languages, researching the original upload to determine date, examining weather reports and shadow patterns to corroborate timing, comparing locations to Google Earth and Google Maps, and checking weaponry, vehicle, and license plate details against the correct country information [17].

For example, the New York Times has begun to feature online video in a witness journalism series called “Watching Syria’s War.” This newspaper of record also provides additional reporting that allows readers to triangulate information that not only includes a brief summary that describes the video’s content in the context of news coverage of the war, but also provides additional accompanying paragraphs that detail “What We Know,” “What We Don’t Know,” and “Other Videos.” [18] Local activists willing to be identified by name may corroborate the authenticity of material via Skype, or reports from other journalists working in the area may be cited, and links to videos showing the same event from different angles or with different periods of coverage may be provided. Similar efforts are being undertaken by the social media news–gathering organization Storyful in their verification of citizen footage on the recently launched Human Rights Channel on YouTube [19].

These questions of authentication face a second order challenge when witness videos are repurposed in the online rhetoric of remix videos. When it comes to remix, even the most well–intentioned may remove critical information about names of witnesses, geographical location, or the timing of an event, as in the case of the many YouTube remixers who take footage from documentaries and news items about child soldiers in very divergent socio–political conditions across Africa in order to craft universal narratives about victimhood and vulnerability [20]. Once the clips have been re–edited and set to music, critical information about the nature of specific conflicts, national policies, and the languages, ethnicities, and religious identities of the civilian populations depicted is lost. Oftentimes these videos contribute to the common popular media tendency to depict Africa as a generic continent of conflicts. At their worst, the reuse of traumatic images becomes a “hubristic undertaking which does not necessarily seek to understand the conditions which spawned the original images but rather is a self–congratulatory form of art–making for both the remixer and the spectator,” [21] as media blogger Eli Horwatt argues in Recycled Cinema.

Remix video complicates questions of authenticity because of its focus on generating meaning via montage and juxtaposition rather than on the indexical evidentiary value of its underlying source material. Authenticity, and its corollaries in terms of indexicality and spatially/temporally–grounded narrative may be alien to the organizing principles of remix practice. In some cases this departure from indexicality is, of course, deliberate, and follows from the use of unexpected juxtapositions and of found footage from other communities of practice and creation that share common video–sharing spaces. Such found footage can be used to create an unexpected emotional connection between one community of practice (for example on YouTube, the subgenre of sing–alongs or renditions of popular songs [22]) and a separate community of footage and practice co–existing in the same video–sharing space. This type of hybridity between different types of media generation is a reflection of a site like YouTube as what Jenkins calls a “shared space where many different cultural flows intersect and ‘diversely motivated’ media producers brush against each other.” [23] For example, Mark Marino’s Viva La Revolutions begins with splicing together a cappella versions of Coldplay’s song ‘Viva La Vida“ that show U.S. residents in bedrooms, bathrooms, and home offices performing stock vernacular video roles before introducing clips from the streets of the Egyptian revolution that are sequenced to the same tune [24]. Using materials from the local to make connections to the global, an individual U.S. citizen can express support for protestors thousands of miles away by using the language of Western pop music and the rhetorical conventions of YouTube amateur performance.

However, even advocates who celebrate remix culture acknowledge that online communities often present rhetorics of contradiction rather than rhetorics of corroboration. For example, in Convergence Culture, Jenkins observes the importance of “spoilers” in digital culture who seek to expose the fictions and subterfuges of the powerful in the culture industry. Such spoilers establish their authority as experts online by drawing attention to key details that seem to support different explanations of a given event. Some spoilers expose falsehoods in online human rights remix videos seemingly to foster transparency and a rational testing of truth claims when the demands of creating powerful and persuasive montage have taken precedence over indexical truth claims. Often this spoiling is in the service of a greater aggregative or truth–telling project. For example, at 3:47 on the timeline of the rock video commemorating Iranian street protests “Scream till Freedom,” in which a series of graphic images and pictures of protestors present a strong narrative of protest and repression, an annotated text appears to inform the uninitiated that the particularly graphic images shown at this point are actually not from Iran [25]. This particular annotation has been added by the curator of this channel, the Iranian expatriate activist Only Mehdi. Only Mehdi is Mehdi Saharkhiz, the son of a prominent imprisoned Iranian journalist who has become one of the foremost curators and aggregators of video from Iran. He is best known for gathering hundreds of videos shot in one curational location on YouTube, where he often showcases multiple angles of an incident (for example, a police car driving over a protestor) and provides corroborative and corrective detail [26]. In the same way that he assesses the validity of a verité, cell–phone shot clip of a Basiji beating a woman in the street, he also applies the same criteria to a remix video.

By the same token, however, conspiracy theorists may latch onto videos that show well–documented human rights abuses that are widely accepted as factual occurrences and create counter–narratives that introduce doubt about the suffering of victims. Although the gory death of protester Neda Agha–Soltan in the streets of Tehran spurred outcries from Western observers, pro–government apologists have posted YouTube videos that claim that elements of the video, which was shot by a bystander on a mobile phone, were staged or otherwise faked. For example, one remix asserts that it is “clear that the tenth second of the video and after that is recorded separately” [27], and another insists that a suspicious man with a measuring tape can be spotted at the beginning of the video [28].


Frame from pro-government Iranian spoiler video
Figure 2: Frame from pro–government Iranian spoiler video.


This range of remixers and spoilers is also reflected in the diversity of content–creators who supply the multimedia source materials of online video; it is an extremely heterogeneous group that includes victims, bystanders, perpetrators, and many different classes of other intentional and unintentional witnesses. At the level of the individual media experience, one of the consequences of this heterogeneity of sources is an unpredictable fluctuation in the power dynamic between the online viewer and the online viewed. This is caused by a fundamental change from the ethos of documentary filmmaking and professionalized news journalism (and indeed traditions of testimony collection) to distributed witness journalism and remix activism, and to an environment of circulation in which one perpetrator–created video of Egyptian police slapping a detainee [29] has been remixed into several of the “They Don’t Care about Us” videos.



Privacy, consent, and other ethical principles

Many of these fluctuations and uncertainties arise because of the changing dynamics of ethical relationships around consent, representation, and circulation. In recent years, the entry of many more people into the process of filming, documenting and sharing has disrupted the one–on–one negotiation of consent, rights, and usage between a documentarian and a subject [30] and traditional journalistic ethics around sources and reporting — both defined largely by a single binary relationship or a defined series of stable social relationships that are embedded in a professional ethics of traditional image–making culture [31]. Instead, those who capture footage on mobile devices or remix it on home computers participate in an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re–combining, and being re–used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators, the filmer and the filmed [32]. Unlike historians, journalists, legal advocates, or ethnographers, internationally dispersed and increasingly diverse cadres of online video creators, sharers, and remixers lack any common codes of conduct.

Such a shift also raises questions about how we handle the constellation of perceived responsibilities around a person who testifies to a human rights violation, or as a victim/survivor embodies it. Both human rights culture and academic discourses place a privileged or protected status around the testimony of the witness and the integrity of both the address to an audience and the visual representation of violations. As Roger Hallas and Frances Guerin describe it (particularly in relation to ‘acts of witnessing based on appropriation and re–use of found and archival images’), responsibility is central to discourses about human rights:

Ethical responsibility to the integrity of the victim is one of the defining criteria of authentic witnessing to trauma. This is especially urgent when the sufferer is no longer able to speak. The one who carries the continued memory of suffering also carries the responsibility to do so in a manner that empathises with, rather than violates, the silent victim. [33]

The role of perpetrator and abuser footage (often featuring graphic content) within online circulatory culture is critical in this respect. Whether such perpetrator footage is found accidentally, as in the case of the humiliation of Roma children by Slovakian police that was left on a cell phone, or disseminated purposely by abusers, as in the case of the sodomizing of Egyptian bus driver Imad al–Kabir by police officers that was sent to other drivers as a warning, it raises fundamental questions about the privacy and consent of the victims who appear, and about how we handle the recirculation and remix of the graphic violence therein.



Providing historical framing for representations of political violence

Much as lynching photographs of the past century were often shot by vigilante brutalizers and even gleefully disseminated to others through postcards that depicted the graphic violence of the extrajudicial killing of people of color, in the contemporary era both official video documentation or trophy videography may be created by those who abuse their access to and authority over victims. Recent scholarship and art about the history of lynching photography has focused attention on depictions of perpetrators and witnesses in ways that may be useful to those who work with online remix videos and to promote understanding of more contemporary forms of the circulation of images of human rights abuses. For example, in his series Erased Lynchings, that draws attention to the lynching of Latinos and other ethnic minorities artist Ken Gonzales–Day digitally removes the image of the body of the victim and the lynch ropes from the frame in “a conceptual gesture intended to direct the viewer’s attention, not upon the lifeless body of lynch victim, but upon the mechanisms of lynching themselves: the crowd, the spectacle, the photographer, and even consider the impact of flash photography upon this dismal past” so that “perpetrators, if present, remain fully visible, jeering, laughing, or pulling at the air in a deadly pantomime.” [34] As Amy Louise Wood argues in her book Lynching and spectacle: Witnessing racial violence in America, 1890–1940, civil rights advocates actually have a long history of drawing attention to the spectatorship of perpetrators and bystanders as they repurpose lynching photographs in pamphlets and advertisements to promote racial justice. For example, copy on one 1935 anti–lynching pamphlet showing the lynching of Rubin Stacy reads “Do not look at the Negro. / His early problems are ended. / Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle.” [35]

As Susan Sontag points out in Regarding the pain of others, displays of lynching photographs such as those in the recent book and traveling exhibition Without Sanctuary can “cater to voyeuristic appetites and perpetuate images of black victimization – or simply numb the mind.” [36] While Sontag is often critical of the fundamental political disengagement promoted by the scripted sanctimoniousness of official museum culture around atrocity, she disputes the central assertions of Guy Debord’s Society of the spectacle that an assault of images delivered through modern media numb us into inaction. Although in the age of the Internet we may “surf” on “little screens” for “images” and “brief reports of disasters throughout the world,” Sontag repudiates the desensitization hypothesis and asserts “it is probably not true that people are responding less” even if it also does not mean that “the capacity to think about the suffering of people far away is significantly larger” because “there is a superfluity of things to which we are invited to pay attention.” [37]

Sontag also notes that it can be difficult to predict how a given example of what others have called “conflict porn” may shape the specific political actions of its audience. She reminds her readers that “in the scope of history documenting the slaughter of noncombatants” images of civilian casualties and collateral damage might actually “foster greater militancy on behalf of the Republic” instead of stimulating the repudiation of war that pacifists might hope [38]. In the case of the Arab Spring, images of contemporary martyrs murdered in public places for challenging the authorities through non–violent means have been used as a call to action for armed struggle and even jihadist actions against comfortable civilians in the West who imagine themselves as noncombatants while U.S. foreign policy supports pro–American dictators.



The agency of victims and survivors

Sometimes publicizing obviously dramatic humiliating human rights abuses may actually violate the stated wishes of the abused. When private images become public property, victims may become unwilling political actors who are put at further risk by both national party politics and local sexual politics that may recapitulate and elaborate their abuse. As a case in point, over a hundred thousand people have watched the so–called Malaysian “Squatgate” video on YouTube [39], but the woman shown has begged that the video be taken off–line, because it shows her doubly humiliated in her nudity and her imprisonment. If human rights begins with dignity, violating her wishes for consent becomes deeply problematic for advocacy organizations. In handling the relationship between testimony and evidence in the court of public opinion on the Internet, maintaining personal dignity in bearing witness can be a critical component that is frequently absent for people in crisis.

Sometimes family members are able to defend the honor of victims who may be vulnerable to accusations of promiscuity or subjected to prurient questions, as in the case of the family of Libyan law student and alleged rape victim Eman Al Obiedy, who attested to her personal, professional, and political integrity. But families can also become part of the collateral damage when a human rights video is circulated, goes viral, or becomes fodder for remixes that carry it even further away from its original context or re–contextualize it in challenging or risk–enhancing ways. For example, the father of mutilated teenage victim Hamza al–Khatib featured in a graphic video watched by hundreds of thousands was detained by Syrian authorities even after state television cited him as an authority in an hour–long program that assured viewers that no human rights abuses had taken place [40].

At other times, victims or survivors are able to actively assert control over the ways that footage of themselves is used and remixed, using the power of citizen video to challenge a dominant narrative. In Syria, a video still circulates of bound men lying on the ground in a small town, while gun–toting security forces kick them. (The video had apparently been shot by a member of the abusive security forces themselves.) When it leaked online, the Syrian government claimed the video was a fake, that it was shot in Iraq, and that U.S. military servicemen could be seen in the background. Ahmad Biasi, a young man clearly visible in the original video being kicked by a security forces member, responded by revisiting the town, showing the road sign, and pointing out the scene of the violence that was clearly identifiable as the location in the video. Then, standing in front of the camera, Biasi holds up his identity card to confirm that he is a Syrian national. Rather than hide his identity, he challenges the re–framing of the original clip by the Syrian authorities. Subsequently he was imprisoned, and finally appeared in a Syrian government television program, delivering a potentially coerced statement as his media representation shifted from victim on the ground to empowered citizen challenging the state and then on to tool of poor state counter–propaganda [41].


Ahmad Biasi holding up his identity card in testimony video
Figure 3: Ahmad Biasi holding up his identity card in testimony video.




Calls to action

Beyond concerns of authenticity, consent, and representation, participatory culture, particularly as experienced at one remove from the sites of human rights and humanitarian crisis, can fail to translate online interest in issues into real–world action and advocacy. Viewing such frequently sampled video may actually encourage passive spectatorship and detachment from substantive policy issues. Much like the Pulitzer Prize–winning image of the summary execution of a handcuffed prisoner on a Saigon street in 1968, contemporary moving images on YouTube — such as those of a protestor shot in Bahrain in 2011 — can be replayed to the point of desensitization or aestheticized as iconic pop art objects.

It could also be argued that some of the most effective human rights footage focuses on imagery that is quotidian, banal, and constituted by everyday interactions rather than more obviously dramatic or high–stakes events. Non–violent actions shown without consequences can sometimes be more persuasive than actions that are shown with tragic repercussions. For example, hundreds of thousands of people have watched an uneventful video of Manal al–Sharif driving in Saudi Arabia to promote women’s rights to transportation in the region, even though nothing particularly exciting happens during her time behind the wheel [42]. (The video has even become a meme in itself, judging from the fact that the video has been parodied on YouTube by a male comedian in drag [43].)

The allure and repulsion of graphic violence may require remixers to adopt certain strategies of abstraction or stylization to encourage meaningful reflection, critical thinking, or grassroots organizing. Kash Gaines, who created the YouTube video “RIP Oscar Grant” to commemorate the murder of Grant by police officers in a Fruitvale, California public transportation station that was captured on a cell phone camera chose to use only audio from news broadcasts rather than remix the original amateur footage; the creators of the video publicized police brutality in this case with a stylized hip hop ballet in the train station [44].

Others have combined the techniques of data visualization with the techniques of video remix to make human rights arguments. For example, VJ Um Amel, the pseudonym of one of Jenkins’ graduate students Laila Shereen Sakr, has spoken of her data–mining work with Twitter streams and other real–time linguistic data from online social networks and its expressive power for her as an Egyptian–American feminist and activist who frequently remixes online video. Thus YouTube critic Alexandra Juhasz claims that VJ Um Amel is using a fundamentally different set of rhetorical conventions from the cinéma vérité at work in many popular remix videos.

I’d like to reflect on the differences between the video you made that is a more abstract data visualization and the mix tapes of live “realist” footage. I have written about how viral YouTube videos of protest move quickly because of their simplistic, iconic effect which is often easy to consume and as easy to misunderstand given that it flows without context and because of the strong associations linked to vérité images. For this reason, I think your experimentation with non–vérité renditions of revolution are really exciting (for communicating across difference, as well as to communicate more complex ideas then, say, “freedom,” or “courage,” or “arab” that iconic images can reduce themselves to). [45]

Rather than merely replicating the information–poor aesthetic that characterizes superficial pop culture consumption with the raw materials of the Arab Spring, Juhasz sees VJ Um Amel challenging the epistemological poverty of visual clichés.

As a critic, Juhasz has become known for her concern that YouTube often promotes certain kinds of video genres that foster distraction, isolation, chaos, and entertainment, because of the popularity metrics and search mechanisms that structure the architecture of the site. However, Juhasz herself has argued that there do not always need to be trade–offs between empathy and critique and that YouTube can serve as both “problem and solution” [46], because YouTube’s central binaries of distraction/depth, isolation/connection, chaos/control, and entertainment/education, according to Juhasz, can also stimulate live and asynchronous discussion and debate [47].

Video remix has also functioned in the immediate context of the Arab Spring not only as a tool for successful organizing and external audience engagement, but also as an individual participatory act of solidarity with the original creators. Both of these functionalities are combined in one of the most viewed videos about Egypt’s January 25 revolution, which was produced by an Egyptian student living in Georgia, Tamer Shaaban. Interviewed on CBC [48], he describes how he was video–chatting with his mother and sister, started to come across the video emerging from Tahrir Square, and reacting to it, wanted the world to share his experience. Over the next five hours, he created the video “Egyptian Revolution Jan 25th 2011 — Take what’s Yours,” [49] also known in other uploads online as “The Most AMAZING video on the internet #Egypt #jan25” [50], combining strong testimony, images of protests, and images with iconic resonance, such as a single man standing up to a water cannon that evokes images like the Tiananmen Square “tank–man.” Tamer had an audience and community of circulation in mind as he created the video — people in Europe and the U.S. who would not know, in these first days of the revolution in Egypt, what was going on [51]. He also explicitly sought out found images and interviews that, to his mind, challenged audience perceptions about the Arab world — including a central clip of a bearded young man declaring that everyone — Christian, Muslim, atheist — should stand up, demand their rights and not be silenced.


Tamer Shaaban's remix video on the Egyptian Revolution
Figure 4: Tamer Shaaban’s remix video on the Egyptian Revolution.


Although Tamer himself does not identify any genre cues for his own video or any existing models nor was he aware of the existing Egyptian video activist organizing online and in social media such as “We are all Khaled Said” and the “April 6 Movement,” he did consider how his video would operate in the YouTube ecosystem, and how this would impede or enhance circulation. Specifically, he did not include graphic images in order to give no reason for YouTube to block it or to make it “sign–in’ only, which would prevent viewers without YouTube accounts from seeing it [52].

Alongside this decision–making around audience and circulation, sits a more personal motivation of using his expressive capacities to take action [53]. In his own words, “one of the main reasons I made this video was because I felt useless sitting in Atlanta not being able to help the people that were suffering there, and who were working really hard to get their freedom. So I thought, if I wasn’t going to be able to be over there, and help them protest ... . I was going to continue helping the revolution from the United States, and through YouTube and through the Internet” [54]. In addition to Jenkins’ frameworks of participatory culture discussed earlier, an additional framework with which to understand Tamer Shaaban’s actions can be found in Livia Hinegardner’s descriptions of forms of remix and other forms of film–making in solidarity movements in Mexico [55] where film–making is a form of direct action and a “way of transforming their personal role from bystander to participant,” to provide an opportunity to someone to militar (“to be politically active”).

Although Tamer Shaaban’s video was one of the videos that spread and captured a zeitgeist moment both for Egyptians and others, its initial genesis was in that moment of acting in solidarity; an act in itself, not just a decision to create a communications conduit to a defined outside audience. This combined motivation in the act of finding footage, remix, and circulation provides an interesting footnote to Tamer Shaaban’s activism: although he subsequently produced additional vides on Egypt [56] and was in contact with viewers who responded to his initial video (and the existing movements on the ground such as “We are All Khaled Said”), when he was later contacted by people working in other revolutionary movements, for example to create a similar video for Libya, he said those impetuses of communication “felt forced” [57]. The personal motivation and engagement that enabled his act of solidarity in the Egyptian instance was absent.



Corporate actors

Tamer Shaaban’s concerns about graphic violence and the risk of take–down on YouTube or a sign–in requirement were proved correct when his video did go up on YouTube. His video is currently sign–in only on YouTube, which is one of the reasons that he supported the multiple re–uploads of the video by other users, to ensure that it continued to be available. However, YouTube’s evolving policies on human rights video and graphic material do reflect an evolution in understanding that some graphic violence may have social purpose, and in understanding how a community of practice operates around human rights footage on YouTube. YouTube’s community guidelines start with the admonition to “Respect the YouTube Community” before going on to note that “We’re not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly, and brain surgeons. We mean don’t abuse the site.” [58] They note that “Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone being physically hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don’t post it.” [59] However, in the Community Guideline Tips YouTube goes on to add:

The world is a dangerous place. Sometimes people do get hurt and it’s inevitable that these events may be documented on YouTube. However, it’s not okay to post violent or gory content that’s primarily intended to be shocking, sensational or disrespectful. If a video is particularly graphic or disturbing, it should be balanced with additional context and information. For instance, including a clip from a slaughter house in a video on factory farming may be appropriate. However, stringing together unrelated and gruesome clips of animals being slaughtered in a video may be considered gratuitous if its purpose is to shock rather than illustrate. [60]

This policy reflects an evolution of YouTube responding to its use by a community of practice of human rights video–makers. Human rights video on YouTube often faces flagging for political reasons (by political opponents of issues as well as government proxies), and also because of graphic content. In November 2007, YouTube responded to the flagging as offensive of the footage of police brutality in Egypt mentioned earlier by suspending the account [61] of leading Egyptian activist Wael Abbas. As Wael tweeted at the time: “disaster: youtube disables my account claiming there were complaints about my police torture videos!!!” [62]

As a consequence these videos were taken down not only on Wael Abbas’ YouTube channel but everywhere else where they were embedded in blogs elsewhere on the Internet, with significant consequences for the public activism that drew on the material [63]. Following discussion of the particular needs and concerns of the human rights community when operating within YouTube, the video–sharing site subsequently permitted footage of graphic violence during the Iranian Green Revolution (albeit with the a sign–in requirement) under its EDSA policy (the acronym stands for “educational, documentary, scientific or artistic”) and also re–emphasized the role of contextualization in their decision–making about take–downs [64]. However, it is likely that there will be continued competition and contradiction between the expectations of the broader YouTube community about what is acceptable content (and “acceptable” graphic violence) and the expectations of specific human rights community users. Although it is not always clear when flagging takes place from general users concerned about graphic violence, and when it is politically motivated, this competition has been seen most recently in relation to footage from Syria of regime violence towards children, as in the case of the Hamza al–Khatib footage [65].



Righteous remixes

YouTube’s evolution around graphic content and its acknowledgement of the need for the curation with an eye to context has been noticeable in this challenging arena of visual culture where powerful interests often want to control what is shown and not shown. Notable changes also include supporting the launch by WITNESS and Storyful of a Human Rights Channel on YouTube with a “Film it. Share it. Change it.” motto and a #video4change hashtag [66]. Although many activists remain wary of corporate partnerships with technology companies that often have poor human rights records, YouTube has at least begun to address some of the concerns that the human rights community — both as an online community of practice and as an off–line professional field — has raised around human rights footage presented online and in remix formats.

Some recent experiments by the human rights organization WITNESS and others in the field of video activism, have explored how issues of privacy, safety, security, dignity, and consent, as well as practical questions of effective expression of civic activism, can be further embedded in engagement with increasingly ubiquitous human rights video. These new forms of human rights video culture are concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors, ethical witnessing, and the preservation of the intentionality of the original creators of material as well as the original indexical value of the material as documentation of human rights crises. The experiments detailed below focus on how differing ethical responsibilities to victim, survivor, and the original intention are balanced with the potential of remix and aggregational approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that generate activism (and the opportunity to militar) in a younger digitally–literate generation, and produce creative, effective, and individualized advocacy videos. Both experiments detailed below focus on one axis of remix video — localizing a broader issue, rather than the opposite axis, globalizing and/or universalizing a specific, localized issue [67].

As a case in point, Rachel Shapiro of Syracuse University asked the college students enrolled in her Writing 302 classes to do a “righteous remix” assignment, in which they take a video that is posted at the Hub [68] (a multimedia online sharing site for human rights hosted by WITNESS) and edit it to address a local audience more effectively. Shapiro explains that she expects her students to “make TV” rather than just “watch TV,” as Lessig puts it, and to join a global participatory culture of online dissemination and advocacy for human rights. “Digital witness and activism are fast–growing ways that citizens around the world are sharing information and spreading awareness about local political struggles, including contemporary slavery, governmental abuse and oppression, rape as a weapon of war, famine, racial violence, and women’s rights issues among many, many more.” [69]

The range of videos created by Shapiro’s students cover a range of remix formats and content. One of Shapiro’s students, Maria Sanfeliu, chose to do a video about abuses committed by a company from the United States, Blackwater, which had a number of lucrative security contracts with the government. The students were expected to conduct research rather than merely mash–up the footage based on aesthetic criteria. Sanfeliu conducted interviews and included a veteran with first–hand knowledge in her remix video, as well as “other materials such as a cartoon video which parodies Blackwater, pictures that show Blackwater mercenaries in action and songs” in order “to create awareness in students at Syracuse University about this problem.” [70] Her video as well as another video focused on the implications of drug policy on farmers in Colombia, bear the closest resemblance to the genre of video that has been termed “political remix videos” [71] by the remix activist Jonathan McIntosh in which creators “critique power structures, deconstruct social myths and challenge dominant media messages through re–cutting and re–framing fragments of mainstream media and the popular culture.” Other videos bear a closer resemblance to personalized versions of mainstream documentary — for example, a video that highlights content on attitudes to LGBT people in small–town America as well as the U.S. military’s stand on gay service people alongside an interview with a gay student at Syracuse, and opening and closing sequences set on the university campus. Of note is that none of the student remixes utilize to any great extent unedited found footage from the sites of human rights violations, possibly because the topics discussed lent themselves more to incorporating a local perspective into an existing narrative structure.

WITNESS has also collaborated with networks of activist student organizations making use of purposeful remix in a coordinated campaign. In the lead–up to an advocacy push on implementation of the recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Taskforce (a bi–partisan Taskforce that provided concrete steps for U.S. administrations to take to prevent genocide worldwide) student chapters from around the country that were members of the STAND anti–genocide movement developed video advocacy remixes as part of the “Pledge on Camera” campaign [72]. Members could choose either to record their own and others’ direct appeals to camera or if they chose, to participate in a collaborative remix project.

Chapters participating in the collaborative project were provided with a template video that articulated arguments around more effective preventative measures, and included graphic footage and testimonies from genocidal situations past and present — including Rwanda, Congo, Darfur and Burma, as well as framing arguments from leading national experts on the issue. They were then encouraged to think through how to “personalize” the video for their U.S. Senator — what voices should they introduce, what additional video footage would be necessary — in order to individualize their remix based on the interests, passions, and commitments of their Senator. Participants were told they could edit the intro and outro of the template video, re–edit the template video or if they wanted, edit a new video.

A particular emphasis in the remix project was on adding voices of people familiar with or resonant for their audience of one. The Guidance from the Pledge: On Camera — FAQs page suggested: “Chapters participating in the collaborative video initiative should be strategy [sic] in who they select for their videos. These are short, so we want to get the people who have the most influence over our senators on camera supporting our cause. This can be your senator’s faith leader, biggest donor, or even their middle school science teacher.” [73] In the videos subsequently produced by participants some chose to incorporate influential leaders from within their particular state — academics, religious figures, non–profit executives. Others identified local human rights activists or survivors of crimes against humanity, such as the Lost Boys from Sudan [74], while others focused on using the chorus of their own and other student voices delivered to camera in the vernacular style of the vlog or video chat.

In the video produced by students from California [75], they combine many of these aspects: a prize–winning local activist, a senior NGO leader, and a human rights–focused academic make personal appeals to Senator Boxer, while at the end the students, sitting in front of computer cameras in bedrooms and studies across California, form a chorus of words (often completing each others’ sentences) to make their own appeal to the Senator to support the legislation. The videos were utilized on 9 November 2009, when over 800 youth anti–genocide leaders from around the United States gathered in Washington D.C. to lobby their senators and representatives as part of the largest genocide prevention lobby day in U.S. history — carrying over 50 of these personalized videos to show on the Hill. Participants noted the value of the video in terms of opening the conversation with their representatives’ staffers, and in providing a cohesive and grounded argument relevant to them [76].

Alongside these remix storytelling experiment, one further analysis undertaken by WITNESS has looked at how the current system of Creative Commons licenses — focused primarily on paradigms of commercial/non–commercial and share–alike/adapt — might be adapted to create a licensing system that recognizes intentionality. Such a system would place greater value on the questions of intention than on considerations of monetary value or the artistic integrity of the original material, emphasizing the desire to see a piece of visual media spread while still holding onto the motivations underlying its creation. For example, a piece of media might have an intention license that noted, “You may use this video in any way you like, provided you push for redress for violence against women in the Central African Republic.” WITNESS has been looking practically at how such information might be embedded in media items via its collaboration with the Guardian Project on a new metadata standard — the J3M/JSON evidentiary metadata standard [77], which allows for this type of information to be embedded in media at point of creation, alongside other types of information (for example, around who in a video has given informed consent).

Looking at these questions of consent, representation and circulation we believe that it is possible to articulate a set of principles (originally proposed by one of the co–authors of this paper and Patricia Zimmermann) [78] oriented around the creation and usage of footage from sites of crisis (including in acts of “righteous remix”) that might include the following list of working guidelines.

  1. An image uploaded, bluetoothed or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped, and all ethical assumptions should be based on this.
  2. Consent — emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics, and social science, and grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground — is central. However, moving from a professionalized context to a more diverse creating, sharing and remixing community, it needs to be re–grounded in new communities of practice such as exist in spaces like YouTube and in the creation and sharing tools these communities utilize.
  3. Respect for human dignity, emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy, is central.
  4. Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer/re–user, reliant on internalized and externalized context.
  5. Remix and aggregation offers us an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fits preconceived ideas, yet require new frameworks of combinatory and aggregative ethics and raise questions about how to generate ‘responsibility to act.’ Ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware — and their engagement is critical to this project.

These principles acknowledge the value of many–to–many participatory video practices that are oriented around user–generated content, because these practices can create richer, more complex, more inclusive human rights narratives, but they also acknowledge the potential risks of including not only political bad actors from repressive regimes, but also careless researchers and insensitive gawkers.

So ultimately what does it mean for over two million people to have seen a rock video of Egyptian protest remix footage set to the tune of “Into the Fire” by Thirteen Senses [79] or a half–million people to have seen a montage of policy brutality videos with a soundtrack from System of a Down? [80] While more traditional organizations still curate video archives of testimony in the model established by the Shoah Foundation, such as Voices of Rwanda or the Spanish Civil War Archive, and emphasize the importance of uncut narration and single authorship in a sustained and professionally created interview that observes conventions established by ethnographers and also still often oppose the re–use of their material in remix, there is no question that the field of video film–making has undergone tremendous changes in the era of digital journalism. Now individuals may exercise their agency to participate in such struggles via remix, and potentially very large audiences might watch human rights videos in vernacular and remixed forms. Rather than celebrate remix unconditionally as an inclusive and leveling cultural practice, however, we argue that it is important to consider its ethical and pedagogical dimensions and account for both its benefits and pitfalls. End of article


About the authors

Sam Gregory is Program Director, WITNESS, as well as an internationally recognized human rights advocate, trainer, and video producer who helps people use the power of the moving image and participatory technologies to create human rights change. In 2010, he was a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Resident on the future of video–based advocacy, and in 2012 he was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He teaches on human rights and participatory media as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School.
E–mail: sam [at] witness [dot] org

Elizabeth Losh is Director of the Culture, Art, and Technology Program, Sixth College, University of California–San Diego and author of Virtualpolitik (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009) and co–author of Understanding Rhetoric (forthcoming). She is a board member of UCIRA and a steering committee member of HASTAC.
E–mail: lizlosh [at] ucsd [dot] edu



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2. thetalentedmrman, 2011. Egypt Anti Government Protest Revolution — They Don’t Really Care About Us — China Revolution next? (30 January), at

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7. Kazys Varnelis (editor), 2008. Networked publics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

8. See Francesca Coppa, 2008. “Women, Star Trek, and the early development of fannish vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures, volume 1, at, and Mizuko Ito, 2010. “The rewards of non–commercial production: Distinctions and status in the anime music video scene,” First Monday, volume 15, number 5, at

9. The Most AMAZING video on the internet #Egypt #jan25, at

10. Henry Jenkins, 2006. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press, p. 208.

11. Lawrence Lessig, 2008. Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press, p. 74.

12. Sherrie Gossett, 2004. “Bogus GI rape photos used as Arab propaganda” (4 May), at

13. Sherrie Gossett, 2004. “Fake rape photos infuriate Arab world” (9 May), at

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16. Malachy Browne, 2012. “Inside Storyful – Storyful’s validation process,” at

17. Alex Murray, 2011. “#bbcsms BBC processes for verifying social media content,” at, and Mark Little, 2011. “Storyful — the Human Algorithm,” at

18. New York Times, n.d. “Watching Syria’s War,” at

19. YouTube Human Rights Channel [BETA], and, Jennifer Preston, 2012. “New YouTube Channel Aims to Add Context to Activist Videos,” New York Times (25 May), at

20. See search ‘child soldiers video’ on Google Search: Videos.

21. Eli Horwatt, 2011. “A Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing: Contemporary Found Footage Practice on the Internet,” Scope: An Online Journal of Film & TV Studies, issue 19, at

22. See discussion of the related genre of home dance in Kathrin Peters and Andrea Seier, 2009. “Home dance: Mediacy and aesthetics of the self on YouTube,” In: Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vondereau (editors). The YouTube Reader. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, pp.187–203.

23. Henry Jenkins, 2009. “What happened before YouTube,” In: Jean Burgess and Joshua Green. YouTube: Online video and participatory culture. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 107.

24. Anonymous, 2011. Viva La Revolutions (2 March), at

25. onlymehdi, 2010. Scream till Freedom (4 February), at

26. onlymehdi’s channel, at

27. AleYasin110, 2009. Neda Agha Sultan Death Scene Video Is FAKE! (27 June), at

28. johnnyasia7, 2009. Neda video was staged — There’s a man with a tape measure at the beginning of the video (22 July), at

29. Misrdigit@l, 2007. Egyptian Police Brutality 1, at

30. Issues discussed in: Brian Winston, 1995. Claiming the real. London: British Film Institute; Brian Winston, 2000. Lies, damn lies and documentaries. London: British Film Institute; and, Patricia Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi, and Mridu Chandra, 2009. Honest truths: Documentary filmmakers on ethical challenges in their work. Washington D.C.: Center for Social Media, American University, at

31. Yale University Human Rights Law Clinic. 2005. Frameworks for informed consent: Perspectives from law, ethics, journalism and human rights, unpublished; at

32. WITNESS Video for Change blog, 2010. “The ethical engagements of human rights social media,” at

33. Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas, 2007. The image and the witness: Trauma, memory and visual culture. London: Wallflower Press. For further discussion on this question of responsibilities of witnessing, and the conventions of documentary testimony in human rights, see also: Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker (editors). 2010. Documentary testimonies: Global archives of suffering. New York: Routledge.

34. “Ken Gonzales–Day”, n.d., at

35. Amy Louise Wood, 2009. Lynching and spectacle: Witnessing racial violence in America, 1890–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 197.

36. Susan Sontag, 2003. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 92.

37. Ibid., p. 116.

38. Ibid., p. 8.

39. jacoblee776, 2006. Squatgate Video — Kemaluan Malaysia — Noh Omar Kurang Ajar (5 January), at

40. Shiv Malik, Ian Black and Nidaa Hassan, 2011. “Teenage victim becomes a symbol for Syria’s revolution,” Guardian (31 May), at

41. Alastair Beach, 2011. “Protestor who exposed lies at the heart of Syria’s regime,” Independent (23 May), at and WITNESS blog.

42. Hala Al–Dosari, 2011. “Saudi women drivers take the wheel on June 17,” Al Jazeera English, 16 2011, at


44. Cash Gaines, 2010. TURF FEINZ “RIP Oscar Grant” | YAK FILMS | Fruitvale BART shooting in Oakland, CA | Police Killing (31 December), at

45. Henry Jenkins, 2011. “Confessions of an Aca/Fan: Archives: Media–Making Madness: #Arab Revolutions from the Perspective of Egyptian–American VJ Um Amel (Part One),” Confessions of an Aca–Fan (21 February), at

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47. Pato Hebert and Alexandra Juhasz. PerpiTube, at

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51. Authors’ interview with Tamer Shaaban (4 October 2011).

52. Authors’ interview with Tamer Shaaban (4 October 2011).

53. In contrast David Dusa’s 2010 fictional film Fleurs du Mal, which incorporates actual witness footage from YouTube and Google Video showing violence done to protesters in Iran, depicts the female Iranian exile protagonist, Anahita, as a passive and powerless watcher of Internet images who must return home to take an in–person active role in social change.

54. Authors’ interview with Tamer Shaaban (4 October 2011).

55. Livia Hinegardner, 2009. “Action, organization, and documentary film: Beyond a communications model of human rights videos,” Visual Anthropology Review, volume 25, number 2, pp. 172–185.

56. Most notably: tshaaban88. The Egyptian Revolution — The World Calls for Peace #Egypt #peace, at

57. Authors’ interview with Tamer Shaaban (4 October 2011).

58. YouTube Community Guidelines, at

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid.

61. Misrdigit@l channel, at


63. Further discussion of the channel suspension available at Sameer Padania. “Wael Abbas’ YouTube Channel Suspended,” The Hub [UPDATED: 29 November 07], at

64. Matisse Bustos Hawkes. “A Peek Behind the Digital Curtain: Discussing YouTube’s Take Down Policy,” at

65. Ari Gelber, 2011. “YouTube Reinstates Blocked Video of Child Allegedly Tortured in Syria,” Nation (31 May), at

66. YouTube Human Rights Channel [BETA], at

67. For discussion on this dynamic of globalization/localization of human rights struggles see Sam Gregory, 2006. “Transnational storytelling: Human rights, WITNESS, and video advocacy,” American Anthropologist, volume 108, number 1, pp. 195–204.

68. The Hub, at

69. Rachel Shapiro, 2011. “Righteous remix,” Writing 302 (10 October), at

70. Maria Sanfeliu. “Righteous remix,” at

71. Political Remix Video. n.d.

72. STAND, n.d. “Pledge: On Camera,” at

73. STAND, n.d. “Pledge: On Camera — FAQs,” at

74. MarilinStand. “Pledge to Protect FL video,” at

75. mianewm. “California Calls on Senator Boxer to follow GPTF Recommendations: a Witness–STAND project,” at

76. Chris Michael, 2009. WITNESS & STAND Partnership Spotlight: Pledge on Camera, at

77. J3M, “JSON Evidentiary Mobile Media Metadata Standard,” at

78. WITNESS Video for Change blog, 2010. “The ethical engagements of human rights social media,” at

79. hadi15, 2011. The Most AMAZING video on the internet #Egypt #jan25 (27 January), at

80. Hellbomber, 2006. Police Brutality (29 July), at


Editorial history

Received 11 June 2012; revised 14 July 2012; accepted 14 July 2012.

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Sam Gregory and Elizabeth Losh.

Remixing human rights: Rethinking civic expression, representation and personal security in online video
by Sam Gregory and Elizabeth Losh
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 8 - 6 August 2012

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2020. ISSN 1396-0466.