This week (December 10th) sees in Human Rights Day – a day that attempts to raise awareness of the United Nations struggle to protect and promote human rights across the globe. The choice of day marks the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and two years later the Assembly invited all member states to celebrate in any way that they saw fit. This seems particularly poignant given the news this week about Nelson Mandela.
In order to promote this event, the UN website has a number of pages that allow you to spread the word via social media using specially designed Facebook and Google+ groups as well as #Hashtags and a Storify page. To make it even easier they have also included a handy list of 20 achievements that you can highlight in order to ‘raise awareness’. This list includes absurdly minimal suggestions such as “LGBT” or “Right to participation” – what you are supposed to do with these categories it is unclear. It also has a useful link to promotional materials that can be used for designing ‘communication materials’ (including a fetching mouse mat).
I don’t want to attack the work of the UN – from what I understand of their intentions and policy they seem obviously noble – but they are just another example of the recent move to commodify, crowd-source and digitize the process of ‘raising awareness’ to an absurd degree.
Last year a video that intended to highlight the terror and injustice that was orchestrated by Joseph Kony from Uganda went viral. It was a 30-minute video with slick production values that used high emotions and political campaign aesthetics to try and ‘raise awareness’ of the issue. It was criticized by a large number of commentators for many reasons, but the most interesting complaint for me was the action that the viewer was supposed to take after watching.
The filmmakers thought that by ‘taking the night’ and encouraging viewers to congregate in urban areas to plaster the streets with posters and pre-prepared images that they could somehow affect governmental policy decisions concerning a known African warlord. The video had the single explicit intention to ‘make Kony famous’ and therefore use loud public opinion to force action.
This was just one example, but it now feels like raising awareness has become more important than actual action – Kony2012 might have been a tipping point. If information about Human Rights Day manages to spread around social networks, then the UN can claim a victory – as dissemination of info has overcome encouragement of grassroots action.
At no point in their website can I see any suggestion of action to be taken by world citizens, not even a traditional donation campaign. At a time when Conservative MPs in the UK are seriously debating abolishing the Human Rights Act, it seems like an important mission to highlight the achievements and intentions of the UN. The problem is when the issue is packaged as another slick social media event to ‘trend’ on Twitter for a couple of hours, then the public just gets alienated from the important substance of the organization.
The UN is an incredible achievement and there are huge areas of the world that no doubt appreciate their intervention in local politics and humanitarian crises. But by marketing themselves as “a conversation” to be had on social media “with friends” then they are reduced to the level of a campaign for Skittles or Apple Sourz.
The danger is that people that tweet a Human Rights logo are probably going to feel satisfied enough to then disengage with any other action as their personal quota for charity will be satisfied. In a world of images, declaration of politics through alignment with a logo on social media sites has become as rewarding as financial donations. Or in other words, displaying Facebook likes and Tweets on their intimate news feeds have become as important to people as departing with money.
Happy Human Rights Day.