With swollen eyelids and bruises, a woman appeared in a video with horror and pain on her face, saying that her brother and ex-husband beat her and intended to kill her. It was only a few hours before the hashtag “#Sanaa_Al-Hula”, the name of the woman in the video who was in Cairo at the time, went viral on Twitter, with tweets demanding to save the Kuwaiti women.
Thousands of tweets were published carrying the hashtag, calling on the Kuwaiti embassy in Egypt to communicate with Sanaa, provide protection, and hold her brother and ex-husband accountable.
The tweeters directly messaged and tagged the official Twitter accounts of the Ministry of Interior in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti embassy in Egypt, Kuwaiti officials, activists and related human rights organizations. After 24 hours, official Kuwaiti media outlets announced that the Kuwaiti ambassador contacted the victim, provided her with protection and communicated with the Egyptian authorities to collaborate on an investigation into the case.
Sanaa is not the only victim of multiple human rights violations who resorted to social media platforms to find a remedy. Over the recent years, hundreds of similar campaigns were launched by individuals, groups, or official organizations to support victims of violations.
This approach starts with a hashtag carrying the name of the victim or incident to mobilize supporters and public opinion for the cause or victim which could he lp bring about real change.
Many people’s lives have become attached to social media. These platforms have been used for trade, marketing, conferences, education and entertainment, so it is not surprising to see human rights issues being discussed on this arena as well.
However, there are several reasons, other than keeping pace with modernity and technological development that prompted victims themselves, their families, or believers in certain causes to turn to these platforms seeking change.
How did these platforms become the closest way to fulfilling the victims’ demands or supporting them?
Legal procedures taking too long
Experiencing child custody problems due to husbands’ refusal to grant mothers the custody of their children or allow visitations caused some women to resort to social media platforms. Women publish videos and create posts talking about their problems and psychological pain.
“Muallaqat” or “suspended” wives (who are abandoned for years by their husbands but are not divorced) also resorted to the same platforms to force their husbands to divorce them.
Since judicial systems process cases through many court sessions over a long period of time for various reasons, women find themselves forced to talk openly about such personal issues, as their cases could take months or even years to be resolved. Such delay is found to cause great psychological harm to these women.
Despite the harsh societal view of being accused of spreading family secrets or shaming ex-husbands, women turning to social media platforms has significantly risen. This is because many women have successfully mobilized public opinion and attained help from local human rights organizations to restore their rights.
Combating oppressive regimes’ influence
Repressive regimes in various countries around the world suppress opponents, journalists, or activists who criticize the government and express their rejection of its policies; whether through demonstrations, articles, or, more recently, through their personal accounts on social media.
Thus, to ensure they continue to rule without disturbances such as, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, repressive regimes forcibly hide critics to create an absence in opposition and anti-corruption movements from public opinion.
It should be noted that the constitutions of the countries ruled by these regimes, in addition to international laws, guarantee freedom of opinion, expression, and peaceful assembly of their citizens. This means that subjecting critics to enforced disappearance, detention or trial (usually under fabricated charges or confessions extracted under torture) clearly violates the relevant national and international laws.
More recently, regimes face new challenges in terms of silencing dissidents, as social media platforms amplify issues regarding the victims’ violations of freedom of opinion and expression.
Many names and movements have witnessed absolute support from believers in human rights causes and human rights organizations.
Thanks to electronic support campaigns, some issues have become global and have polled the attention of millions around the world, including European parliamentarians, presidents and ministers. This caused embarrassment for repressive regimes and pushed them to backtrack on some of their violations.
Loujain Al-Hathloul as a model for an individual case
Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 for her human rights activities and demanding the right for women to drive in the Kingdom. During her years of detention, many feminists and human rights organizations adopted her case.
Al-Hathloul’s family was the most active in raising awareness about her case on Twitter. Her brothers Walid, Alia and Lina took advantage of being outside the Kingdom and the Saudi authorities’ inability to silence them, to launch campaigns calling for Al-Hathloul’s release.
Their campaigns began by collecting followers and communicating with human rights organizations and activists to inform them of their sister's case and expose what she had been subjected to, then mobilize support and demand her release.
Thanks to these campaigns, her case became global and was addressed at the European Parliament and other major countries such as the United States, which formally requested the Saudi authorities to release her and all prisoners of conscience.
After nearly 3 years of imprisonment, and intense lobbying and advocacy campaigns, she was released in February 2020. Her family members turned into effective defenders of all prisoners of conscience in the Kingdom, and were hosted in dozens of international channels and conferences on human rights.
The Algerian Hirak detainees are a model for a group
The Algerian popular movement (Hirak) began in February 2019, protesting the candidacy of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term. Despite Bouteflika's response to the popular demands by resignation before the elections were held and the winning of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the protests are still taking place . The people’s demands expanded to include government reforms, improving the economic and living situation and releasing prisoners of conscience in the country.
Over the period of the protests, demonstrators and journalists were arrested and prosecuted for their work, which angered human rights activists and human rights organizations around the world. They did not stop calling for President Tebboune to release all the detainees.
On February 19, the Algerian president pardoned many prisoners of conscience, including journalist Khaled Dardani whose arrest sparked outrage among media and human rights organizations concerned with violations related to journalistic work.
Although this was not the first time a president pardoned detainees, the lobbying and advocacy campaigns – launched by Algerians on social media which attracted the support of thousands of human rights defenders – sped up the issuance of the decision and prompted the authorities to release many Hirak detainees.
Easy and free access
Most social media platforms depend on paid commercial advertisements for profit and do not require fees to make accounts on them. This makes them accessible for all members of society regardless of their financial status.
In addition to being free, the simplicity of social media platforms enables all community members to use them regardless of age or cultural and scientific levels. The language used on social media platforms is usually informal, simplified and sometimes emotional. In addition, it is easy to use social media to access and communicate with human rights organizations, activists, and influencers who have large followings and can raise public awareness on any issue they publish.
In view of all the previous factors, social media platforms have become the most appropriate medium to encourage victims, their families, or believers in certain human rights issues to be present and expose violations.
Ability to document violations
Countries governed by repressive regimes, before social media platforms, restricted journalistic work and prevented journalists and television channels from filming, broadcasting or publishing any material that documented violations. In the meantime, however, this is now no longer an obstacle for truth seekers and the bodies concerned with monitoring and documenting human rights violations.
Social media platforms have become an effective means for exposing violations, as it has become easy for anyone carrying a mobile phone to photograph and publish the violation even if from an account using a fake name.
Exposing violations is not limited to those committed by official authorities, as it has evolved to include the prosecution of ordinary individuals who commit various crimes.
For example, last October, a man in Jordan published a video of a young man whose arms were chopped off and crying in pain after he was pursued by a group of vengeful criminals. The video sparked public opinion around the Arab world and turned millions into virtual lawyers for the victim, calling on the relevant authorities to quickly arrest the criminals and hold them accountable. They also collected donations for the victim whose treatment was covered by several parties.
Evidently, issues raised on social media platforms receive quick response from official authorities and human rights organizations which deal with these cases. Considering the deference interaction with such cases on social media platforms makes on the lives of the victims, it can be said that social media platforms have become one of the most important methods of lobbying and advocacy that mostly have a strong and immediate effect.
It is important for human rights organizations and activists active in this field to take advantage of the power of communication sites to support victims and pressure governments; not only to treat an individual case that is circulated on these platforms, but to amend all their policies that are not consistent with human rights principles.
However, perhaps what is more important is that the lobbying and advocacy campaigns through social media should not make us forget about working on the reality of victims unable to tell their stories, ask for help and achieve solutions.