Blog: Back from Brussels

20th April 2017
Post by Eleanor

This year, the “intersection of technology and human rights” was located in Brussels.  I’m talking about RightsCon, an annual conference which brings together technology companies, universities, NGOs, frontline human rights defenders, government representatives, legal experts and business leaders.  There were over 250 individual sessions covering 21 themes and around 1,500 participants from 100 countries.  Tibet Watch was invited to attend and talk about Martus – the encrypted system which we use to keep our information safe from the prying eyes of Chinese cyber-surveillance teams. 

I had hoped that the Senior Researcher from the research team in Dharamsala would be able to join me at RightsCon but unfortunately his visa application was rejected (we still don’t know why), so I went alone and attended as many sessions as I could.  It really was a fascinating few days.  There were practical sessions on digital security, policy discussions, campaign ideas and tech companies showcasing new software.  One of the most interesting forums featured researchers talking about artificial intelligence and the use of ‘bots’ on social media.

Apparently, there are over 48 million bot accounts on Twitter.  And, in case you’re wondering, yes – the term ‘bot’ is short for web robot and is a basic form of artificial intelligence.  Some bots are friendly and are often used in customer service.  Virtual assistants like Siri or Cortana are essentially bots. However, many of them are designed with far less friendly intentions and are widely used for political purposes, such as manipulating the direction of conversations on social media in the run up to an election.  They can be used to create a general sense of anger and discord, or to abuse and intimidate specific individuals.  In some countries they are used to threaten human rights defenders or to create division within certain communities.  When they are used in this way they are very similar to ‘trolls’.

Photo from the conference

At Free Tibet we have a number of trolls on our social media.  Trolls are people who get involved in online discussions and then deliberately post offensive or inflammatory comments with the intention of provoking people.  Some people just do this for their own amusement.  Others do it to promote a certain political agenda e.g. inciting racist or homophobic behaviour.  We obviously see a lot of trolls pushing Chinese propaganda about Tibet.  In 2014 we exposed a web of fake Twitter accounts which China had set up to spread exactly this kind of propaganda.  Now we know that these kinds of accounts aren’t just fake, they’re not even human.  They’re political bots and there are millions of them out there.

Fortunately, one of the most effective ways of dealing with bots is very simple.  Their power to do harm lies in the fact that people think they’re human.  Researchers are currently working on ‘good’ bots that will trawl through social media looking for bot behaviour and will simply identify the accounts.  It’s a lot easier to walk away from an argument or an insult if you know that there’s nothing on the other side but some computer code.

Uprising Day Protests

My foray into the digital world came at the end of a very busy month.  We commemorated Uprising Day on March 10th by gathering at Downing Street with Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan Community UK, Tibet Society and hundreds of Tibetans and Tibet supporters.  There, we submitted a letter to the Prime Minister before marching through London to a rally held outside the Chinese embassy.  In the evening we held an event which showcased a mixture of Tibetan culture and campaign actions.  We also had the debut screening of our Larung Gar video (below).  Earlier in the week we also participated in a lobby day at Parliament and a wreath laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey’s memorial to the innocent victims of oppression, violence and war.

March is always a tense time in Tibet and the Tibet Watch team received news of a self-immolation protest which took place on 18 March.  The protester was a 24-year-old man named Pema Gyaltsen.  It sounded like he survived the protest but he was taken away by security forces and we have been unable to confirm his location or condition.  This isn’t surprising.  There is always a crackdown in the aftermath of protests in Tibet.  Internet connections and phone lines are sometimes cut completely and there is always increased surveillance.  Relatives of the protester may be arrested, even beaten and we have been able to confirm that this happened to Pema Gyaltsen’s family.  However, it can take weeks or even months for additional details to emerge. 

There was a second self-immolation protest over the Easter weekend. The team is working to verify the details but it may take some time.  Fortunately, we were able to secure decent media coverage of the latest protest, including an article in the New York Times.

There are many different reasons and motivations behind the self-immolation protests but they all stem from the occupation and China’s ongoing repression of Tibet.  The protesters all want the world to know what is happening in Tibet.  I’m glad that Free Tibet and Tibet Watch are able to help amplify their message.

Eleanor is Director of Free Tibet and also of our research partner Tibet Watch. She joined the movement professionally in April 2013, having previously been Director of Casework for legal charity Amicus, where her work focused on the death penalty in the US. With a law degree and an MA in human rights, Eleanor has worked for many other campaigns and projects, including One For Ten, PeaceBrigades International, the Burma Human Rights Documentation Unit and the British Institute of International & Comparative Law. She has been a supporter of Free Tibet since her student days and has supported the Tibetan cause for over 20 years. Read updates from her on Twitter and each month on our blog.