Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 1

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This post, part one of a two-part series, comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

Protest materials have long found their way into archival repositories, and collecting initiatives such as the gathering of signs from January’s Women’s March are not unsurprising in our currently volatile political climate. While still fraught with their own set of ethical considerations, as was evidenced by Occupy Wall Street archive custody concerns, traditional protest ephemera does not harbor the explicit privacy and legal consequences that have arisen as a result of the increasing online presence of protest movements.

The internet is a richly generative arena where movements are born and developed, either with or without a coincident physical presence. The way it is mobilized for protests can vary–from coordinating and publicizing traditional actions, to communication and information sharing, community building, fundraising, and movement organizing. Its rapid and reactive nature means that the parameters of a movement can be constantly adjusted and redefined, often across social media networks. Social media content by design yields much more information about its creators and can therefore be harvested and analyzed differently than traditional material, and due to its increasing ubiquity, it warrants new conversations where traditional legal and social notions of the public and private domain may no longer be adequate. As the volume and variety of this content grows on an unprecedented scale, so, too, do the tools and methods by which it is subjected to scrutiny.

Curt Ellis, “Woman holds up her fist ,” Preserve the Baltimore Uprising: Your Stories. Your Pictures. Your Stuff. Your History., accessed March 15, 2017. 

Legal consequences and privacy issues

In response to this ever-growing body of online material, archivists and archival institutions have been initiating and developing best practices for web archiving projects. Web archiving and data harvesting provide opportunities to study metadata as well as content, in order to better understand the context of creation. For example, researchers may be interested in studying tweets across time, by geographic origin, or as part of a larger network of contacts.

This information is also of interest to law enforcement agencies, some of which have partnered with companies that sell tools for tracking and monitoring social media content culled from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media companies that offer programs which allow app makers to create third-party tools. One such company, Geofeedia, counts more than 500 such clients and has advertised services that were used by officials in Baltimore to monitor and respond to the protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in April 2015. Using such tools, Baltimore County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit was able to discover and arrest protesters with outstanding warrants by collecting and filtering social media photos through facial recognition software, a practice that has been shown to have serious technical flaws and to disproportionately affect people of color. Such tools are also used to assemble dossiers on targeted individuals as part of a strategy of long-term surveillance, as evidenced in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office records.

Use of social networks by third parties and law enforcement agencies has been met with opposition by many, including activists and the American Civil Liberties Union. Companies including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram cut ties with Geofeedia last year, according to the Washington Post, and on March 13, Facebook announced that police departments cannot use data to “provide tools that are used for surveillance,” a move that some consider a first step in curbing the online surveillance and targeting of activists and people of color.

Given this context, it is important for archivists to be aware of the potential ramifications of collecting contemporary protest material. For example, lawmakers in several states have recently introduced legislation that would target and criminalize protests, in some cases creating or greatly stiffening existing penalties and in others going so far as to give drivers legal license to hit protesters blocking traffic. Regardless of whether or not such pieces of legislation are passed, their existence is a testament to a political atmosphere that is fraught with serious issues for people who exercise their right to protest. As protest and movement organizing moves to an online and increasingly public sphere, the potential reach of such legislation, in conjunction with increased surveillance and data collection, could expand significantly.

Archivists should also be cognizant that many communities have complicated histories with the legal apparatus of this country. Different movements stem from different contexts, and as such the needs and aims of communities may differ with regards to visibility and their own safety. For the indigenous communities at Standing Rock, for example, the violent response of law enforcement towards protesters is the latest in a long history of dispossession.

Communities of color also often find themselves at the convergence of government surveillance and the rhetoric of legality. Some police departments, which respond to and monitor protests, have formed partnerships with the FBI, DEA, and federal immigration agencies such as ICE. These task forces facilitate information exchange between local officers and federal agencies through data-sharing agreements that provide reciprocal access to local and federal databases. Such partnerships have serious consequences for the activity of targeted communities, whether they are Muslim communities that are subject to surveillance by Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or undocumented and immigrant communities that are fearful of local officers deputized as ICE agents.

Archivists can navigate these concerns through the appraisal and reappraisal of their roles and documentation strategies, and by opening dialogues about consent. One model for ethical collecting could be the solicitation of community materials via online digital platforms. In A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, for example, professional archivists worked in conjunction with community members to develop “a safe and secure space to share any testimony, documents, or accounts that narrate or reflect on encounters or effects of police violence in their lives and communities.” In other words, members of the community self-select what to contribute, while professional archivists serve to make that material accessible.

Harvesting does not need to be inherently problematic, however. In fact, ethical concerns can inform the development of technologies themselves. DocNow, a collaborative project between the University of Maryland, University of California at Riverside, and Washington University in St. Louis, has created a suite of tools for working with Twitter data related to Black Lives Matter and other social justice actions. As part of their mission they explicitly affirm, “a strong commitment to prioritizing ethical practices when working with social media content, especially in terms of collection and long-term preservation. This commitment extends to Twitter’s notion of honoring user intent and the rights of content creators.”

A recent American History Association article by Kritika Agarwal further acknowledges technology’s potential to dismantle problematic archival constraints and to “rectify injustices associated with historic collection and archiving practices.” The article cites collaborative content management system Murkutu, which allows indigenous communities to limit access in accordance with community practice, as another example of a digital tool that places ethics at the forefront.

Issues of narrative and interpretation

In any collecting effort, archivists must consider whose stories are being preserved and why. As has been pointed out previously here, historically repositories tended to focus on rehashing, and thus elevating, hegemonic narratives. While now there is a greater acknowledgement of the power in appraisal, description, and access decisions made by archivists, and the position of privilege these often come from, issues of representation still persist.

A recent thread on the Women Archivists Section listserv spoke to issues of counter-narrative in the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project, specifically concerns over actively trying to document voices of women who chose not to participate, and the tension between respecting “intentional archival silence” and including a variety of voices in oral histories and other event documentation (Danielle Russell, e-mail message, February 15, 2017). However, narratives and collections no longer need to be limited by traditional single repository/project models. As WArS co-chair Stacie Williams pointed out, “Let’s not assume that they don’t want to be a part of the larger narrative happening here, however well-meaning our intent as archivists; they may have their own ideas for how they want to be represented.” (e-mail message, February 15, 2017)

While digital collecting brings with it a host of new challenges such as security and privacy, it also carries the potential to create tools and projects that possess community-centric values. These are not mutually exclusive imperatives. As Jarrett Drake stated in his #ArchivesForBlackLives talk, “We have an opportunity before us to transform archive-making, history-making, and memory-making into processes that are radically inclusive and accountable to the people most directly impacted by state violence.” Now more than ever, archivists need to consider the ethical ramifications of our work.

A list of tools and related bibliography will be in the next post.

This post is courtesy of the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Courtney Dean and Lori Dedeyan. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean, Lori Dedeyan, Audrey Lengel, Sean McConnell, and Daria Labinsky, team leader.

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:


2 thoughts on “Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 2 – Issues & Advocacy

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