Innovation?

04.19.15 4:01 AM ET

Crowdsourcing Freedom

An Interview with David Keyes

This story was originally posted on author Sam Harris’s blog.

David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and has been called a “pioneer in online activism” by The New York Times.  He is working to find new ways to spread political freedom globally, and he recently launched Movements.org as a crowdsourcing human rights platform. Movements gives people the ability to connect directly with activists on the front lines.

David and I spoke about tyranny, radicalism, and how we all can help defend the rights of vulnerable people elsewhere in the world.

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Harris: Please tell our readers more about Movements and about why you launched it.

Keyes: Movements is a crowdsourcing platform that links human rights activists from closed societies with people around the world who can help them. It’s a new approach to an old problem.

Uber, Amazon, Craigslist, and Airbnb all recognized that there are millions and millions of people who need something and millions and millions of people who have something. By taking out the middleman, these platforms allow for many more organic connections to be made. We’re doing the same for human rights. New technologies aren’t the solution to radicalism and tyranny, but when used smartly, they can help empower moderates around the globe.

The challenge in human rights has changed dramatically over the past few decades. During the Soviet period, for example, the free world did not know what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. Dissidents would smuggle out rare pieces of samizdat, or underground literature, to alert the world about the gulag archipelago. Much of it was published by Advancing Human Rights’ chairman, Robert Bernstein, who also founded Human Rights Watch and headed Random House for 25 years.

Today, by contrast, everyone knows what is happening in Syria, because a YouTube video of a slaughter is uploaded every few minutes. ISIS proudly shows its videos of beheading journalists, including a few friends of mine. There isn’t exactly a lack of information. The challenge has morphed from getting information out of closed societies to getting help in.

I took over Movements in 2012, when it was hosting conferences for digital activists and writing how-to guides. We got some funding from Google, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what innovations were most needed in human rights. It struck me that there were so many activists living under dictatorships who desperately needed help and were not getting it. Traditional approaches fell far short of the demand.

Hundreds of billions of dollars from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, and China are funding forces of regression and radicalism. Many more people need to be mobilized if we are to challenge these influences. And so I decided to build a crowdsourcing platform to do just that.

We launched it a few months ago, and tens of thousands of human rights activists have come to the site. People are getting help every day. North Korean defectors connect with technologists; former Iranian political prisoners write to policymakers; Syrian refugees get representation from lawyers; the Russian opposition and Pussy Riot collaborate with songwriters in New York to make a music video commemorating slain Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky; An Assyrian whose hometown was overtaken by ISIS was highlighted by major Western media..

Members of parliament in Canada and Australia speak to democratic dissidents from Syria and Iran. Several US senators use Movements to hear directly from formerly jailed democracy activists. The only Russian member of parliament to vote against Putin’s annexation of Crimea is connecting with media.  A former Iranian minister is on Movements to highlight the brutality of the current regime.

There are many more success stories. Crowdsourcing is a far more efficient and effective way of getting help to those in need.

Harris: It seems to be an especially depressing time in the Middle East. Do you think such an approach can overcome extremism there?

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Keyes: The situation can seem dire. As you know well, deeply illiberal cultures and ideologies rule much of the world today. In the Middle East in particular, members of the LGBT community, religious minorities, blasphemers, women, liberals, secularists, and atheists are under constant siege. They are brutalized, silenced, and often killed by ISIS, the Saudi and Iranian regimes, and many others.

The question that obsesses me is: Are we truly doing everything in our power to defend people who are trying to build more tolerant societies? The answer to that question, I’m convinced, is a resounding no.

There are thousands of political prisoners in Iran alone, for example. Do we know their names? Do Western policymakers raise their cases in meetings with Iranians in Geneva? Are Iranian diplomats confronted every time they walk outside their missions anywhere in the world? No. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we could be doing to raise international pressure on dictatorships and empower democratic dissidents. It is a travesty that in today’s day and age, more people aren’t galvanized to defend human rights.

I think Movements is part of the solution because it gives ordinary people the ability to contribute directly to activists on the front lines. On the site, activists simply select what they need: media attention, technology help, public relations, legal advice or a variety of other options.  On the other end, people who want to help can offer their skills: music, editing, web design, policy-making and much more. Sometimes we have a family member of a jailed political prisoner post an article asking for help. One person translates it, another edits it and another publishes it.  This is a bottom-up rather than top-down approach to human rights.

Whenever I give speeches around the world, the question I get asked most often is: What can I do to help? I don’t think writing your member of Congress or attending a rally is enough these days. It doesn’t tap into people’s unique skills.

Today there is no mass mobilization for human rights. Whenever it comes up that I worked for Natan Sharansky, Jews around the world tell me what they did to help secure his freedom. They wore bracelets, attended rallies, chained themselves to Soviet embassies, and much more. Hundreds of thousands marched on the Washington Mall to stand in solidarity with Soviet Jews. Almost every member of the American Congress and the Canadian parliament were engaged at some level. A former U.S. arms negotiator told me he started every meeting with the Soviets by bringing up Sharansky’s name.

Today, it seems that many people suffer from a combination of isolationism and fatigue—not to mention moral confusion. ISIS is sweeping over two entire countries, slaughtering anyone who stands in its way. Syria is falling apart. Saudi Arabia beheads people in the street. Iran acts with impunity as it jails thousands who dare to criticize the regime. Egypt has returned to military dictatorship. Putin is gobbling up territory. China seems too powerful to touch.

Americans are unsure what they can do. But I genuinely believe that everyone has a role to play. Whether you’re a journalist, a policymaker, an artist, a technologist, a PR expert, a writer, an editor, a translator, or just someone who cares about the issue, you can lend your voice to threatened dissidents in some way. We’ve had a comedian offer to make fun of dictators and a Juilliard jazz drummer offer to dedicate songs to political prisoners.

No single act is going to topple tyranny, but they are all cracks in the wall.

Harris: But what is really on the other side of that wall? No doubt there are liberal voices in these societies, but they are essentially powerless. Why is it so important to support individual dissidents? 

Keyes: Many people look at the Middle East today and see a binary choice: dictators or religious fanatics. Frankly, the West has been supporting some dictators for decades, while theocratic groups like ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas have gotten enormous support from Qatar, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

But there are real liberals out there, too, who believe in individual rights. I’ve spent many years working with them. They are undoubtedly small in number, but that makes it even more pressing to support them. Change takes a long time, but every minute we wait is a minute wasted.

Democratic dissidents almost universally feel betrayed, isolated, and alone. They desperately need support to win the war of ideas. This support can take many forms: moral, economic, cultural, rhetorical, and political. Long before using the military, we can spread values by defending the right ideas.

Dissidents are a bellwether for the health of a society. They are symbols that remind the world of universal truths—that slavery and tyranny are evil.

They underscore that the nature of regimes matter. I strongly believe in the old adage of the Soviet dissidents: “Trust states as much as they trust their own people.” And as Vaclav Havel said, “Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and their state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.”

Can a regime that murders its own people in the streets be trusted with nukes? Can governments that jail students for years for questioning a leader be responsible international actors? The answers to these questions are intuitive. Countries that wage war on their own people are unlikely to wage peace with their neighbors.

In addition to the moral duty, there is a strategic case to be made for defending human rights. Not that long ago, senior American officials would bring up the names of jailed dissidents at the start of their meetings with Soviet authorities. I’ve read the memoirs of Soviet leaders, and they were driven mad by this tactic.

Constant pressure bore results. When Advancing Human Rights’ board member Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister of Canada, asked Mikhail Gorbachev why he had freed Cotler’s client Natan Sharansky after nine years in prison, Gorbachev responded:


I never knew anything about Sharansky. I never even knew the name. I came to Canada when the minister of agriculture and I appeared before a Canadian parliamentary committee on agriculture, but instead of getting questions about agriculture, I got questions about Sharansky. I left the parliament building and saw placards of Sharansky. Wherever I went, I was confronted by Sharansky. So I came back to the Soviet Union and I said, “Who is this guy Sharansky?” I got the files and said, “Well, he might have been a troublemaker, but he isn’t a criminal.” So we ordered his release. It wasn’t worth the international price we paid.

Senator Scoop Jackson wrote legislation to tie most favored nation status for the Soviet Union to free emigration. Many people disagreed with this approach and thought Jackson was risking war over what amounted to a tangential human rights issue. But just the opposite was true. He understood that the more open the Soviet Union was, the less it would threaten the world. The link between internal freedom and external peace was clear.

Pressure continues to work today. In 2013, after a lunch I attended with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, I asked him if he thought it was ironic that he enjoyed posting on Facebook when his government banned it in Iran. He laughed and said, “Ha! Ha! That’s life.” I asked him when the jailed student leader Majid Tavakoli would be free. He told me he didn’t know who Tavakoli was.

I published this exchange in The Daily Beast, and it went viral inside Iran. Thousands of Iranians wrote Zarif on social media asking how it was possible that he didn’t know Tavakoli. It was picked up in media around the world. The foreign minister attacked me repeatedly on his Facebook page. A few days later, Tavakoli was temporarily released from prison. When the media attention died down, they quietly re-imprisoned him.

If raising one name can have such an effect, just imagine if more people were mobilized. Dictatorships are brutal, but they are also brittle. This was shown again in China’s response to my initiative to rename the street in front of the Chinese embassy in DC Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after the jailed Nobel Prize winner. A few dozen members of Congress supported the idea, and the House Appropriations Committee voted to rename the street. Even though the street wasn’t officially renamed, the Chinese government went ballistic and issued multiple furious denunciations.

Why were the Chinese so upset? Because the story was covered in nearly every major Western media outlet, and they understood that this could lead people to question the regime and the status quo. Think of all the resources China spends trying to control the thoughts of its citizens. China actually cares about its global reputation, too.

Another reason dissidents are so important is that they seem to be much better predictors of events than diplomats are. Sharansky and I recently wrote an article in The Washington Post comparing the predictions of the two groups. From 2009 to 2011, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton spoke repeatedly about how Syria and Egypt were stable. In 2006 and 2007, Kamal Labwani and Kareem Amer, both of whom were tortured in prison in Syria and Egypt, wrote from their jail cells that these dictators were leading their countries to instability and chaos. Labwani, a famed democracy activist, wrote that radicalism would soon rise as a result of the brutal Assad regime. Amer, a blogger, wrote that the Egyptian dictator would soon fall.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates said that it wasn’t until 1989 when the CIA first predicted the collapse of the entire Soviet Union. The Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, by contrast, wrote a book in 1969 titled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?

The diplomats were so wrong and the dissidents so right because the latter understood that no regime that must control the thoughts of its citizens can last forever. They viscerally felt the deep instability of fear societies.

I felt the same thing in the summer of 2006, when I was studying Arabic in the slums of Cairo. I came away from that experience believing that Mubarak’s collapse was only a matter of time. The country was falling apart, and for decades the Muslim Brotherhood had been organizing and getting stronger. Radicalism was thriving in the shadows. I was perplexed and saddened that more wasn’t being done to build liberal ideas as an antidote to dictatorship and fanaticism.

If we are to avoid constant instability, coups, war, and terror, it is in the keen interest of people everywhere to help open closed societies. Radical ideologies must not only be defeated, they must be replaced with better ideas of tolerance and pluralism. This is a real war, and we must do everything in our power to guarantee that the ideas that animate ISIS and the Saudi and Iranian regimes do not win the day.

Defending human rights is not a tangential issue but a core, strategic one. We can begin by ensuring that every democratic dissident has the tools, expertise, and resources he or she needs to succeed.

Harris: The way you’re addressing these problems is fascinating, David. Many thanks for your time, and I wish you the best of luck with your work.

Keyes: Thank you, Sam. And I hope your readers will go to Movements.org to offer help or answer the requests of brave human rights activists. 

This story was originally posted on author Sam Harris’s blog.