Esra’a Al Shafei : Amplifying Unheard Voices With CrowdVoice

What do you do when there is injustice around you and the system you’re in is consuming anything that goes against it? What do you do when any voice that is raised gets lost in the noise everywhere? Today on OK, Intrnt we speak to a voice that spoke on behalf of hundreds of thousands of oppressed. Esra’a Al-Shafei, growing up in Bahrain, witnessed the inhumane treatment of migrant workers. She went on to found Mideast Youth, a non-profit focused on amplifying voices of dissent throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Over time it has grown into an organization that creates platforms and web applications that promote freedom of expression and social justice. Al-Shafei is a senior TED Fellow and an Echoing Green fellow. She is the recipient of the Berkman Award for Internet Innovation from Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harward Law School in 2008 and in 2012, she received a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship for her work on the open source platform CrowdVoice is an open source service that tracks voices of protest by curating and contextualizing valuable data, such as eyewitness videos, photos, and reports as a means to facilitate awareness regarding current social justice movements worldwide.

CrowdVoice - Ok, Intrnt
A screenshot from website

Tell us something about where you began from and how it led to activism and blogging.

I had been experimenting with different websites in 2004 and 2005 for campaigns that focussed on minorities in particular, and the issues people were not talking enough about, like discrimination, persecution, censorship. Coming from a country like Bahrain, freedom of speech is not a given. When I started using the Internet, I knew it right away that this medium would challenge everything before it. It would be the gateway to freedom of expression. But curating information about human rights issues was a big and time consuming challenge. We wanted to figure out a way to crowdsource information, and put it in context so other people could learn more about this issue and be able to engage with the content.

What kind of issues did you deal with initially? And did you face any resistance then?

In a place like this, there will always be resistance, regardless of how controversial you are.  The first thing I wrote about was the issue of migrant workers. It’s an issue of human trafficking, of slavery. It is a massive issue. I also wrote about LGBT rights, and the role and influence of music in bringing about social change. We founded MidEastTunes, which brings out work of independent musicians. A lot of these artists address social issues in the region.

Considering how difficult things are in Bahrain, have you considered moving out?

It has crossed my mind several times because I was offered a lot of fellowships and opportunities abroad. But whenever anything required me to leave the country, I would reject it right away. I find it difficult to be someplace else and still be motivated and inspired. It is important that I limit the risks in the things I do so I practise a lot of self-censorship to keep myself and my family as safe as possible while doing the work that I do.

Could you tell us something about CrowdVoice, how it works and what its goal is?

When I founded CrowdVoice, the idea was to for it to be the hub for information when it came to social justice movements. Initially, CrowdVoice was only an internal experiment to curate information for our campaigns on minority rights, Kurdish rights, LGBT issues, migrant rights, freedom of expression and many others. We were collecting information over email which was not sufficient, not secure and not transparent.  We also knew that there was a lot of content out there that we were not exposed to. After many requests from activists, we opened up the platform for submissions. It gained momentum when the Arab Spring started. There was a lot of information on YouTube videos, on blogs, tweets, and compiling this was important for journalists who would have otherwise not been able to access all of this due to language barriers or because they weren’t looking in certain places. We realised that this platform was not just for activists but also for journalists, researchers and academics. This is why you also see the backstory and infographics now. It helps people understand these issues and why they are important.

What is the role of social media like Facebook, Twitter when it comes to these movements?

The role of social media in this space is very exciting. It is a tool for human expression, but not intended to be used specifically for human rights. But you see them being used for the purpose anyway. But there are also the Governments, PR companies who are using it, to influence people’s opinions on certain issues. There are people you align yourself with, and people who want your voices to be died down. There are voices out there, but archiving and compiling them is important for research, awareness and even advocacy efforts. There are tweets and images there that could serve a purpose more important than getting buried under other topics that would soon start trending.

What do you think of these social media giants giving in to pressure from Governments and censoring content?

It is very disappointing. We have seen cases of countries like Turkey and even the US asking YouTube to take down videos that expose police brutality, corruption, government inconsistency and a lot of things that shame them. Unfortunately we are not the target audience of these companies. Their target is people who can help them make money. Censorship will only mean they have less content, less potential and active users and therefore less revenue. So when these companies resist censorship, they are mostly thinking only about their finances. Facebook is not very trustworthy because its obsession with making money is much bigger than their role in connecting humans, even if they have to give away user data. Similarly for other VoIP services like Skype or other platforms which have it in their terms of use that they can give away user data to third parties without consent.  Twitter is one of the very few companies that have resisted. They have resisted court orders concerning access to private user data. The Turkish Government requested WordPress to censor some data, but Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress refused. It is necessary that we don’t just sit and complain about these issues but take initiative towards alternatives.

Have you received any requests from the Government to censor any data?

We do not receive requests, the Government censors data when they want to. Several of our websites have been censored in several countries. Even where our sites exist, we advocate the use of anonymous tools and software to access them to ensure user safety. Having said that, one must be responsible even when using the anonymous tools because as any developer would say, nothing is completely safe and there is always a loop somewhere that can cause issues.   

Why do you think news is so short lived in the traditional media and there is such little awareness of global issues?

One important reason is lack of access. Some areas are really unsafe for journalists to be in. In other cases, there is lack of journalists themselves, for example in the case of Kurdish rights abusers. Another reason is censorship which prevents voices from being heard from everywhere and limits the amount of information going out. That has become better with the Internet where sharing information has become that much easier. There is also lack of interest sometimes, unfortunately. Conflicts only make it, when they are relatable, or when they are interesting. Several months ago, women being kidnapped in Nigeria was front page news. Now we do not hear about it. It is important that we raise our voices whenever we have access to content, physical or digital, without waiting for some organization or a journalist to come and do it. Twenty years ago, people found it difficult to understand the Palestinian conflict but now they understand it to be as horrendous as it is today, because so many people are writing about it!

How can citizen journalism have its true impact when the affected areas are usually also the ones with low internet and technology penetration?

People are hungry for information and are striving to be connected. Mobiles with internet accessibility is getting more affordable. I would never have thought Bahrain would have the kind of internet penetration that it does today. One of the first investments a person living in poor conditions makes is a cell phone! The cell phone has become necessary not just to communicate with people but also to access information. Corporations also are playing their part in trying to improve access in such areas, be it Google, be it Facebook with Facebook zero, or Wikipedia where an SMS help you fetch information. When I started using internet, it was very expensive so I used to go to school libraries. Today, going to an internet café for an hour is as cheap is buying a bottle of water!

In places like Yemen, the penetration of the Internet is not very high but the role of internet is huge. People take what’s online, print it and find the means to publicize the content. You see videos that are taken by people ending up on BBC. Migrant workers cannot read and write and they do not have access to Internet. But they call home and tell their stories, journalists go to these homes and get these stories and that is how we get these stories from them!

There’s just a lot of desire and that hunger for information will never die. As long as there is this hunger, information will find its way.

[Tweet “@ealshafei – Keep spreading the goodness! #OkIntrnt”]

As part of OK, Intrnt’s efforts to connect people, we asked Esra’a if she would like to speak to some of our readers directly and she happily agreed! Write to us and we will get back to you and tell you how you can reach her!

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Category: Game Changers