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The Asylum Seeker and the Unfulfilled Role of Social Media
When asylum seekers apply for international protection, they must provide the necessary information to support their claim and persuade decision-makers that they can not return to their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. This process is called Refugee Status Determination (RSD) and it involves the collection of Country of Origin Information (COI), based on which decision-makers decide whether to grant asylum or not. Decision-makers ask the applicant to produce as much detailed information as possible, but often they do not accept documentation coming from information communication technologies (ICTs), such as social media, on the basis that it is not trustworthy. This study examines this unfulfilled potential of social media in the RSD process, calls for a change of practice in defense of a concrete democratisation of ICTs, and recommends a collaborative effort between news organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and COI researches in order to produce shareable guidelines on how to validate social media content. Equipped with such support and instructions, refugees would finally be able to benefit from the advancement in technologies.
The Asylum Seeker and the Unfulfilled Role of Social Media:
Challenges and Potential of Communication Technology in Refugee Status Determination
During the last decade, with the arrival of social media, coverage of human rights violations exploded both in terms of volume and variety. The various information technologies and their applications, including mobile phone, text messaging (SMS), the Internet, GPS, and other forms of digital technology, have allowed citizens around the world to fight for freedom to the point where social media has been enthusiastically dubbed liberation technology (Allan & Thorsen, 2009).
In determining the relevance of this phenomenon and its ramifications, one has to think about the victims of human rights abuses themselves, and how human rights violations coverage in social media can help them advance their demands for justice and protection. With this in mind, this study highlights the relevance of electronic documentation produced by citizen journalists, reporters or the refugees themselves and recognizes it is an indispensable tool for the asylum seeker in his or her effort to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her country of origin (Byrne, 2015).
Unfortunately, this kind of electronic documentation is not always accepted by the decision-makers because it doesn’t easily satisfy the basic legal requirements of authenticity and reliability in the same way as more traditional documents do. For example, newspaper articles, medical or police reports are widely accepted to support the applicant’s claim. But social media content, we all know, can easily be manipulated and neither the decision-makers nor the claimants have the skills or the resources necessary to corroborate such content. Not being able to prove the authenticity and reliability of information coming from social media, decision-makers considered it suspicious and do not allow refugees to use it to validate their application (Bromwich, 2012).
The purpose of this study is to examine the obstacles that asylum seekers face when they use social media to tell their difficult stories. My aim is to explore what efforts should be made, and by whom, to allow these digital stories to become legally viable documentation during the Refugee Status Determination (RSD), the legal process by which governments decide if a person seeking asylum will be granted international protection or not. As Justice Robert Jackson (International Conference on Military Trials, 1949) argued when discussing the trials of Nazi war criminals, when dealing with atrocities it is difficult, but necessary, to prove “incredible events with credible evidence” (p. 48). This is the difficult task of the asylum seeker and decision-makers can play a crucial role by either facilitating refugees testimonies or limiting their already scarce resources.
In summary the aim of this study it to identify the intersection between the different players involved in human rights reporting such as news organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and decision-makers in the RSD process. Some of the questions that this study will tackle are:
- How does each of the aforementioned actor approaches the task of validating social media content?
- What are the necessary skills to validate social media content?
- In which ways can this expertise be shared between the different actors?
- To what extent does each actor take into considerations asylum seekers’ specific needs in their daily work?
The purpose here is to observe in which ways it is possible to fill the gaps between these organizations and institutions that, as we will discuss in the research, tend to work in isolation instead of creating common guidelines. These guidelines would allow one of the most vulnerable section of the world population, the forced migrants that seek asylum, to take full advantage of the much celebrated liberation technology.
Social media today allows witnesses to human right abuses to record their experiences and disseminate them in real-time. Over the past decade new technologies have universalized and democratized the production of human rights documentation in troubled countries, places from where residents are forced to escape. While more affordable costs and increasing access are democratizing the use of technology and information, citizen journalists, armed with so-called liberation technology, can document human rights abuses on an unparalleled scale (Allan & Thorsen, 2009). Social media has expanded the way asylum seekers can collect Country of Origin Information (COI), which is exactly what it sounds like, information on countries where asylum seekers come from. The COI plays a crucial role in the process of RSD, because it is what decision-makers look at in order to establish if the asylum claim is well-founded or not (Byrne, 2015).
The assumption of this research is that the potential of this volume of information coming from social media is vital for the asylum seeker. But this ghit of electronic evidence has also created problems. Both the COI researchers and the asylum applicants don’t have the skills, the time and the resources needed to evaluate electronic documentation; a kind of information that requires a specific investigation on its authenticity (Byrne, 2015).
Part of the problem is due to the nature of social media itself and its inherent inability to be considered reliable. A quick look at the kind of electronic evidence that asylum seekers use to corroborate their oral testimonies will suffice to realize how easily this kind of content, also called user-generated content (UGC), can be misleading or biased. One must just think of social media networking sites (Facebook or LinkedIn), file sharing sites (YouTube), internet forums, wikis (Wikipedia), blog and microblog (Twitter), location-based services (Wikimapia) to know that their unrestricted nature opens it to manipulation (Silverman, 2012). How can the claimants, the COI researchers, or the decision-makers trust a blog, know where the content is from, by whom and when it was uploaded, and if it is reliable? What should they do when they can not verify the source of the information or when the information is deleted or altered? How should social media content be archived for future retrieval? It is essential to analyze which media organizations have the skills necessary to go through such a comprehensive verification, and examine in which ways their expertise can be transferred to other actors involved in the RSD process. Yet, to date, not enough efforts have been made to build such common practices..
The use of social media in RSD is further complicated by the absence of specific guidelines. The researchers who select COI follow international guidelines based on standards set by IARLJ, ACCORD, UNHCR, and the EU. These general standards include reliability, accuracy, and relevance and it is easy to see that they are also relevant for electronic documentation (Gyulai, 2011). But because the technology tools used to create and share news change so quickly, it has been hard to create any kind of guidelines. As a result, there is no agreement on whether social media should be accepted as COI or not. Decision-makers will judge, on a case by case basis (O’Neill et al., 2012), depriving some of the most vulnerable population the possibility to take full advantage of ICTs.
For some, this is vital. For example, for the asylum seeker who claims a well-founded fear arising from events that mainstream media did not cover, social media might be the only source of information to verify if the event happened, when it happened, and where (Bromwich, 2012). And other times, paradoxically, it is the asylum seeker’s use of social media itself that is the very cause of persecution, as Haines shows in an example where the claimant had posted online anti-government and footage content of himself attending a demonstration (Haines, 2011).
There are only very few NGOs that train citizens how to authenticate digital content. Some of them, like Witness and Frontline Defenders, offer workshops in technical skills related to authentication, preservation, and chain of custody. Others, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have developed their own practices as they also face issues related to verification and retrievability of online content.
Finally, news media organizations have also established their own practices for verifying digital content. At media companies such as Al Jazeera, the BBC and the AP part of the reporters and of the resources are exclusively dedicated to authenticate videos posted on social media (Silverman, 2012). These newsroom use TinEye, a tool that authenticates photos by discovering their origin and compares those that are similar to check if they have been modified (Turner, 2012). Some news agencies have centered all their business on social media content verification. Storyful, for example, studies the reliability and authenticity of social media sources by looking at account registration and its history, affiliated accounts on other platforms. They also pay attention to the use of language and accents in video and audio recordings, to verify if they are appropriate to the claimed location (Little, 2012). Regarding retrievability, journalists at Reuters suggest to take screenshot to archive transient online material (Reuters Handbook).
It is reasonable at this point to ask in which ways these three different actors, news organizations, human rights advocate, and COI researchers can share this expertise in a way that will benefit the asylum seeker in his quest for international protection. Keeping in mind what is at stake, the lives of thousands of individuals forced out of their home countries with the urgent need for a safe space to rebuild a life for themselves and their families, I proceed to present the methods with which we would implement this study.
In order to examine to what extent the expertise required to verify and authenticate social media content can be codified and shared by the different kind of organizations and institutions involved in human rights reporting, the method that was found to be the most suitable for this research is in-depth, semi-structured one-to-one interviews. The impossibility to set standards once and for all due to the constantly evolving nature of ICTs suggests that open-ended questions will allow for a more rich conversation, eliciting different insights and information from the interviewees and allowing me, the researcher of this explorative study, to follow-up with more questions when necessary.
The organizations and institutions where interviewees will be be selected have been chosen on the basis of their involvement in, more or less directly, human rights reporting. Given this criteria, three actors are relevant to this study:
- News organizations, in particular those that dedicate part of their resources to social media content verification (Al Jazeera, Storyful, BBC, BuzzFeed, Syria Deeply);
- NGOs focused on human rights reporting (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Frontline Defenders, Witness);
- COI researchers and specialists, because they share with the asylum seekers the duty to substantiate facts and circumstances in the asylum procedures.
Respondents still need to be identified; three will be professional journalists, three professional human rights advocates, and three COI researchers. In each category, they will need to come from and work in a different country. There is no need for gender diversity in the respondents, but for each category, at least one of the respondents will need to hold a senior position. This way the interviewees, considered here as key informants, will come from different fields of work and with a different international perspective on the topic, each with a specific understanding and consideration for the asylum seeker’s needs. Consequently, the analysis of their answers will allow for a more diverse and integrated understanding of our research questions.
The list of questions to be explored include:
● How do you approach the task of validating social media content?
● What are the necessary skills to validate social media content? Do you have them? If not, does someone else in your organization have them? Do you think asylum seekers have these skills?
● Would it be practical to share this expertise with other organizations and institutions involved in human rights reporting? What are the obstacles for a more strong collaboration?
● What are some obstacles, if any, that you encountered validating social media content? Lack of technical assistance? Lack of skills? Too little time?
● How can you overcome these obstacles?
● To what extent do you and your organization take into consideration asylum seekers’ needs when validating social media content? Are you and your organization aware of their needs when they apply for international protection?
● How interested would you and your organization be to focus more attention to the development of information and communication technologies with specific human rights applications?
● What practices and tools would you recommend be scaled up? Why?
● What practices and tools should be discarded? Why?
● Considering that the burden of proof falls on the asylum seeker, what recommendations do you have for refugees using social media content to claim international protection?
● Is there anything else you would like to add?
One last mention goes to an expected limitation of this study. The limited sampling and the unstructured nature of the interviews will not allow to generalize the findings. Moreover, the interviewees could give limited or misleading answers. However, it’s my belief that these disadvantages will not undermine the relevance of this explorative study. Understanding how the individuals working with electronic human rights documentation can help codify standards for admitting digital content during COI collection, would be a first critical step in boosting social media potential for the asylum seekers in need of international protection.
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 I.e. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Austrian Center for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation, International Association of Refugee Law Judges, and European Union respectively.
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