Young Professionals Amnesty International (YPAI) Puts On “Freedom of Expression in 140 Characters or Less”

“If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest.”  Alex started the evening off with this shocking statistic that caught the audience’s attention right off the bat.  The first of many bi-monthly events for YPAI (Young Professionals Amnesty International) NYC had begun.  Our mission–to teach people how social media affects human rights both negatively and positively. We had been planning this event for months, allowing us to grow together as a team and build our skills in event organizing to put together an outcome that showcased each of our passions and areas of expertise. Thanks to Lolita Bar on the Lower East Side for being our venue, fellow human rights connoisseurs came together in the evening to mingle, sign the actions available, and drink the “Amnesty Special” that was put together by Lolita for the cause.

We were fortunate enough to have 3 amazing and inspiring speakers.  First, Kyra Stoddart, the Online Marketing Manager for Amnesty International USA in New York set the tone for social media and human rights by showcasing her experience and writing for the Human Rights Now blog.  She showed how people no longer have to rely on traditional media using examples such as Occupy Wall Street and Troy Davis where it was a tool to mobilize many people quickly and efficiently.  However, on the negative side, there are many countries where freedom of speech is not respected by the government.  Social media could be the only tool that citizens have to get information out and try to create a change.  However, since platforms such as Google Plus and Facebook make it necessary for people to use their real names, this information can become lost.  It is essential that a fake name is used to avoid being arrested, sadly.  This is where things can get complicated, but these companies are aware and working on a way to make expression possible.

Speakers (left to right): Kyra Stoddart, Raja Althaibani, Bryna Subherwal

Next, Raja Althaibani spoke.  She currently works at Witness, but before that spent time in Yemen covering the areas that needed change there and following the revolution.  She listed several issues with social media use in Yemen: access to internet is very low, it is difficult to mobilize with social media since the majority of users are the elite.  It was difficult for her to cover on the ground footage while she was there since the mainstream media is very secure-which is where citizen journalism becomes important.  However, even while she was there she found it was very difficult to gain the attention of the international community.  “Yemen was being pushed out of the light because of Egypt,” Althaibani said.  So how do you bring attention to an area that the world isn’t paying attention to?  “Social media gives faces to stories,” explained Althabani, “if 10 people died and you show who they are it will add context over statistics.”  However, in Yemen you are risking your life to push information through social media channels.  “People with cameras (like herself) were at risk of snipers, I had my SD cards confiscated and AK 47s aimed at my face,” Althaibani said.  She asked herself, “is this movement worth putting my life at risk?”  But when she saw the people and the faces first hand her answer was clear–“yes”.

Finally, Brenna Subherwal talked about the opportunity social media gives to create connections.  However, in the United States, it is common for facebook users to worry “my colleague or relatives are going to see this post” where in other places you would worry about police coming to your door and arresting you.  It’s even common for the government to make up charges to convict those who are using social media to portray their society negatively.  Obviously not the case in the United States where politics are freely  bashed and criticized commonly on the internet.  However, these individuals know they are risking their lives and freedom to stand up for what they believe in, and they still do it regardless.  So what can we do?  “We can tweet at other countries, stand in solidarity with those in prison,” Subherwal said.  She also stressed an important point, that social media can be a good tool for social media, but is not necessary.  For example, in Egypt the government cut of power, but sometimes these limitations on social media are what drive innovation.

After the event there was opportunity for actions to be signed.  We focused on three cases of injustice brought upon people due to human rights.  Please take a look and show your support for these three individuals who are currently in prison for expressing their rights:  Jabbar Savalan Shi Tao Maikel Sanad

The YPAI Board with speakers.

We encourage other New York City Young Professionals who are passionate for making a positive change in human rights to join us for our biweekly meetings. Please join YPAI NYC on Facebook and Meet Up to become involved. We thank everyone who came, our three speakers, and Lolita Bar for making our first of many events a success. We also ask-how do you use social media to make a difference?

Please check out our Flickr for additional photos from this and previous events!

All photos are credit of Kelly Samardak, we thank you for capturing this event for us!