Interview by Kevin Laddapong
Kevin Laddapong: You have been researching indigenous and postcolonial politics throughout your career, and it is very interesting that your new book shifts towards the positionality of vernacular politics in the digital ecosystem. How did the internet come to engage with your attention? What inspired you to embark on this project? And were there any trajectory changes during the research and writing process?
Ronald Niezen: My first major research project after the PhD was on the international movement of Indigenous Peoples in the 1990s for The Origins of Indigenism (2003). That’s when I encountered the paradox that the people and organizations defending the rights of those with lives based on the simplest technologies were sophisticated users of the most advanced. It became clear to me that the global indigenous movement as we know it would never have existed without the connectivity and communities of the internet. This wasn’t just an outcome of the activist will to use new tools to organize and campaign, and so on; it also came from the organizational demands of the UN. Participants in annual NGO meetings, for example, had to register online, a requirement in stark contradiction with the ideals of participation.
This basic contradiction must’ve been in the back of my mind when I broadened out and began to think about online activism more broadly. It was impossible for me to think about a cutting-edge tool without at the same time considering the gaps it left, the people left behind, the impact it had on power relations, and so on.
The main trajectory change in #HumanRights came by adding state-sanctioned surveillance, disinformation, and censorship to the mix. Some aspects of online activism do look the same as they did during web 1.0 in the 1990s; but a revolution pretty clearly happened somewhere in the five years from 2005 to 2010, which is when we saw the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the simultaneous invention of smartphones that found their way into the hands of billions of users. Not to mention new machine learning tools and AI being applied to global governance. To understand this (still unfolding) revolution required a pretty sharp change in trajectory toward the digital arms race between activists and oppressive regimes. I think we all feel the whiplash to some extent.
#HumanRights takes us on a survey on the connections between digital technologies and the politics of human rights around the world, crowdsourcing and justice investigation on Bellingcat.com; Whatsapp and resistances in Taureg communities; and digital archives and contesting politics of memories in postcolonial Namibia. How did you choose your case studies to reveal these connections?
Working with the Tuareg communities was the most straightforward. I’d maintained some contact with the peoples of the Central Sahara since my PhD research in northern Mali—they were present at the UN and I participated in a few of the annual meetings of the Tuareg Diaspora in Europe. It was there that I saw their really active, creative use of media and communication technologies. But I couldn’t go back to northern Mali. It was simply too dangerous, and still is, nearly a decade after the 2012-13 insurgency by Ansar Al-Dine and Al-Qaida (now joined by ISIS). My work in Namibia was a way to return to the field, to see how justice claims in Africa played out in the communities from which they originated. I had the luxury of research funds that allowed me to explore southern Africa inductively, go to the field and see what was happening. Once I encountered the Herero and Nama justice causes, I then did the same thing in Germany, see how the genocide claims were being leveraged there.
Bellingcat drew my interest a little differently. There was something about this organization that was edgy. Cool. Using new digital investigation methods to take on perpetrator states that were otherwise able to shelter behind the structures of the UN Security Council—that struck me as a compelling development in digital activism worthy of exploring. If I were ever to offer a panoramic view of the uses of digital technologies in activism, I’d be remiss to leave that out.
Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you jump back and forth between old and new, analog and digital practices of justice claims, graffiti to digital writing, investigative journalism to forensic crowdsourcing, museum curation to Facebook page administration. Why are these linkages between traditional and digital important to your analysis?
Ronald Niezen: If we don’t consider the way older technologies are updated and combined with the new—what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’—we get a distorted idea of the way technologies are actually being used and what their consequences are. We get drawn into the ‘shiny new thing’ way of thinking. There’s a tendency to look at the world like crows or magpies, drawn to little trinkets and baubles one can fly away with. But that isn’t how things work with human actors. People use any means at their disposal to share and leverage opinion. So, in the most extreme example, we see the ancient technology of graffiti used in conjunction with the internet, reaching both passers-by in real life and social media users online. Other aspects of activism and outreach, it seems to me, have this same quality of old and new, even in the midst of a full-blown digital revolution.
Kevin Laddapong: Concerns around fact and truth seem to be the main theme of this book. For example, you analyze how the distinction between the media use between the Malian government, global human rights claimants, and Taureg people themselves ends up creating different sets of facts and methods of truth-seeking; or you discuss how the ideological contest between the memories of Herero and Nama genocide between colonizer and colonized result in echo chambers and disputes. What would you like readers to pay attention to when they encounter similar phenomena in this post-truth era?
Ronald Niezen: Ah, yes. The question of truth. I had a feeling that was coming. One way or another, we’re all in a situation in which we don’t—can’t possibly—have the specialized expertise to know whether something is true or false or somewhere confusingly in between. The political anthropologist in me looks for motive: what do people stand to gain when they make a particular truth claim? I do this cynically, knowing that humans everywhere seek power. Maybe not every individual but humans as a rule. If you can get a handle on the hegemonic motives behind truth claims, you’ll get closer to what those claims actually mean, and what we stand to gain or lose by investing in them.
Kevin Laddapong: At the very end of the book, you discuss the ways that the politics of identities are intimately tied to digital human rights claims, resulting in public sympathy and victimization or naturalization of nationalism. Why is that so, and what are the great challenges regarding this moving forward?
Ronald Niezen: The dynamics of activism, public outreach, and identity follow from the near-total absence of compliance mechanisms in human rights law. Yes, there are sanctions wealthy states can impose on those who egregiously violate human rights and international law. The IMF can leverage its financial clout. In extreme cases, as in Sudan, the International Criminal Court can issue indictments. But on the whole, activist groups and organizations have very little recourse when it comes to human rights violations. The UN will receive information, complaints, and so on; it will review a state’s record of compliance; but when it comes down to it, much depends on public will, the influence on the powerful of the popular politics of shame. This means that activists are in competition with one another for public attention and sympathy. As soon as one enters into that situation, a hierarchy of victimization comes into play. Narrative plays a central part in justice claims and causes. There’s a tendency to oversimplify perpetrators and victims alike. At the same time, there’s a retreat into the group, the source of affirmation and justice. All of this is accentuated by digital technologies, especially social media platforms, that call for constant streams of collective representation.
The great challenge moving forward is liberating oneself and one’s justice cause from this trap. That involves recognizing the complexities and grey areas of perpetration. It involves being clear-eyed about public constructions of ‘ideal victims’ and who gets left out by them. And it means reaching outside the comforts and consolations of the bubbles in which we willingly enclose ourselves, partly as a buffer against the discomforts of a very quickly changing world.