The relationship between genocide, hate speech and censorship — Christopher Tuckwood, Executive Director of the Sentinel Project

head shot of christopher tuckwood, the sentinel project

Can you think of the last time you talked about genocide? The erasure of large numbers of people from a particular group isn’t exactly considered dinnertime talk, but it’s an issue that deserves more of our attention. At least, I believe so.

And so does Christopher Tuckwood, the Executive Director at The Sentinel Project. The Sentinel Project is a non-profit organization that assists communities threatened by mass atrocities worldwide through direct cooperation with the people in harm’s way and the innovative use of technology. Much of their work involves on-the-ground projects with communities in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and more.

While the number of deaths resulting from genocide has, thankfully, been on a sweeping downward trend since its peak in WWII, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Depending on where you are in the world, genocide may be an issue that rests solely in the back of your mind. However, for millions of people around the world, hate-fueled crimes and genocidal regimes are simply part of everyday life.

So, let’s talk about it.

Chris was gracious enough to speak to me about his work in this field, how to garner more interest in preventing genocide, how to deal with hate speech and the effectiveness of censorship.

Chris covered a lot in this interview, so to make it easier to navigate, feel free to jump to a specific section:

1. What led you to do work in helping to prevent mass atrocities such as genocide? Has it always been something that you’ve been passionate about?

This issue has been on my mind for a long time. I first really learned about genocide when I was about 16 years old and came across a documentary on television about Romeo Dallaire’s experiences in Rwanda. It’s hard to say why but something about that resonated with me more than any other issue and I decided to devote my life to trying to prevent such things from happening again. Of course, I was pretty young at the time and had limited options for taking action but I started educating myself about genocide as much as possible.

The Darfur genocide began around the time that I started university and I became a student leader in the movement focused on ending it. We were fairly successful with efforts like raising public awareness, advocating for international action, and fundraising to support humanitarian aid. However, that experience also taught me that there are significant limits to what we could accomplish working here in Canada to address mass violence on the other side of the world. That’s where the idea for the Sentinel Project and our focus on direct cooperation with the people in harm’s way came from. Other organizations already do a good job of advocating for government action against mass atrocities so instead of duplicating that effort, we wanted to fill a gap by working on the ground with threatened communities using innovative technology-based approaches.

During the worst times [of the 2017 general elections in Kenya], our team was working nearly 24 hours a day doing our best to help people navigate a dangerous and traumatic situation. While the sheer volume of public engagement with our [interactive information] system was difficult to manage, it was also encouraging since I took that as a sign that people really saw value in what we were doing. 

Christopher Tuckwood

2. Can you talk about the most rewarding moments you’ve had doing this work?

There have been a lot of rewarding moments over the more than 12 years since we founded the Sentinel Project but the highlights all come from times when I’ve done fieldwork in our project countries. Still, one specific experience from Kenya always comes to mind.

We first started working on the ground there in 2013 in response to a series of massacres that occurred between the Orma and Pokomo tribes in Tana River County. After successfully setting up our Una Hakika project there to engage people in stopping the spread of harmful rumours linked to conflict, we had an opportunity to expand to more areas of the country in preparation for the 2017 general election, including the capital, Nairobi, since Kenyan elections are often very tense.

We experienced violence, especially in Nairobi, as opposition supporters protested the election results and the police responded with often lethal force. With thousands of subscribers to our interactive information system reporting not just rumours but also actual incidents of ongoing violence, we started working more as a public safety alert service that helped to keep people informed about the evolving situation, including ways to stay safe, dangerous areas to avoid, and places to get medical assistance.

During the worst times, our team was working nearly 24 hours a day doing our best to help people navigate a dangerous and traumatic situation. While the sheer volume of public engagement with our system was difficult to manage, it was also encouraging since I took that as a sign that people really saw value in what we were doing. Although it was a serious situation with people’s lives at stake, it was also one of the highlights of my career so far. I only hope that we genuinely helped and that we’re able to do more of the same thing on an even larger scale in countries where we’re now expanding, like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Chris and team members of Hagiga Wahid, a project that provides information verification and misinformation management services to South Sudanese refugees and host communities in northern Uganda.

3. There are many groups and communities that could use the Sentinel Project’s help and resources. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for any organization or individual to help everyone all at once. What’s the process of deciding whom to help and which project to focus on at a particular point in time?

You’re exactly right about there being no shortage of communities that we could help all around the world if resources were no issue. Unfortunately, we’re still a small organization so we need to make decisions about where and how we work. That naturally involves trade-offs and there’s a difference between how we do this right now and how we want to do it in the future.

In terms of how we currently work, we have to balance different factors:

  • First, we look at the level of need in a given place, which is based on the risk level for mass atrocities.
  • Second, we consider the accessibility of a given place and whether it’s feasible for an organization like the Sentinel Project to actually work there and make a difference.
  • Third, we have to be responsive to funder priorities.

Unfortunately, the places with the most need aren’t always the most accessible, and even if those two factors do align we might not find someone willing to fund a given project. Even if we do, that can take a long time. This is why we first started doing fieldwork in Kenya. It had a risk of mass violence and, even if that risk level wasn’t as high as other countries, it was a relatively accessible place to work and funding was available. At the other end of the spectrum, we probably wouldn’t be able to have a big impact right now in countries like Syria or North Korea.

With all of that being said, we want to have a completely different way of working in the future. Our goal is to become a more flexible organization with the resources to quickly respond to imminent mass atrocities and rapidly-evolving situations. We want our decisions to be guided purely by where the need is the highest, which is why we’re starting to revive our past work on developing an early warning system. That will help us to identify countries at high risk of mass atrocities, the people and regions within those countries most in need of assistance, and the types of approaches that should be most helpful to prevent and mitigate violence.

It’s important to remind people that these [mass atrocities] are still happening, that they should matter to everyone even if they’re far away, and that we all have a moral obligation to do something about them even if our individual actions are small. We live in a world that’s more interconnected than ever and people can make small choices that add up to collective pressure on the perpetrators of genocide and other mass atrocities.

Christopher Tuckwood

4. Genocide isn’t exactly something that people are comfortable talking about, nor is it covered much in the media. Sometimes you’ll come across stories that get some mainstream media attention, like the horrific treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China, but it doesn’t feel like people are talking about it enough. What can we do to garner much broader interest from policymakers, governments, companies, and concerned citizens to fight genocide?

That’s honestly a really tough question to answer. You’re right that genocide is far from a pleasant topic and, while it’s something that I think and talk about every day, it doesn’t come up very often for the vast majority of people. Aside from just not being enjoyable to talk about, genocide is also a pretty distant issue for most people in a country like Canada. Whether they see these things more as a part of history, such as with the Holocaust, or something happening in distant parts of the world that they aren’t familiar with, such as Myanmar, most people just don’t have a reason for mass atrocities to be on their minds most of the time. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t care but it does put it pretty far down the priority list for most individuals, companies, and governments. Another challenge is that most people probably feel like there’s nothing they can do about a situation like the one in Xinjiang even if they pay attention to it.

It’s important to remind people that these things are still happening, that they should matter to everyone even if they’re far away, and that we all have a moral obligation to do something about them even if our individual actions are small. We live in a world that’s more interconnected than ever and people can make small choices that add up to collective pressure on the perpetrators of genocide and other mass atrocities. For example, in the case of Xinjiang, the region has a lot of links with international supply chains. People in countries like Canada who care about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs can put pressure on companies to ensure that they’re not dealing with products made using forced labour.

Pressure on the Canadian government could even lead to laws with similar effects. It might not seem like a lot and the actual impact might take a while to materialize but these things add up. I often think about cases like the British anti-slavery movement in the early nineteenth century and how it encouraged people to boycott sugar produced using slave labour. Maybe one individual choosing to buy a certain brand of sugar over another didn’t do much on its own but that same choice made millions of times can really have an impact and encourage others with even more influence to take action too. Actions that helped two centuries ago can still help today.

People in conflicts usually find ways to see their side as the victims and mourn their own dead while ignoring the crimes that their side has committed. Even if those ideas are wrong and it’s uncomfortable to hear them, they can fuel further hatred so understanding their perspective is critical for building peace and preventing future violence.

Christopher Tuckwood

5. In an interview with Human Rights Talks, you mention that in order to fight hate speech, one thing we need to do is try to understand the perspective of the people spreading hate rather than completely shutting them down. As difficult as that may be, it’s critical to understand where that hate speech or misinformation is coming from. Can you talk about a personal experience you’ve had with this?

You’re right that this can be a difficult thing to do and a lot of people who rationally know its importance can still find it emotionally challenging. I often run into the idea that wanting to understand a hateful perspective means approving of it or excusing it but that’s not the point. The point is to ultimately change minds. We need to remember that people who engage in hateful behaviour do so not because they were born evil but because they adopted a certain set of ideas and beliefs. These things can change, which is why we see examples of people who leave white supremacist groups to become anti-racism activists or former terrorists who renounce extremist ideologies. Those cases might still be relatively rare but they demonstrate the potential for people with hateful ideologies to change their minds. If we want to encourage that process then the first step is to understand why they hold those harmful beliefs in the first place.

To answer your question about my own personal experience one thing comes to mind. It’s not specifically about hate speech or misinformation but I think it demonstrates a similar kind of dynamic in a conflict situation. The first time that our team went to Kenya we visited Tana River to try understanding the reasons for the massacres that had happened there. I had a meeting with a lot of people in a village that was home to a group of young men who had gone to attack another village across the river. Eight of them never came home because they were killed during the attack and their bodies were burned. To the people in this village, it was a great injustice that not only had their young men been killed but that the other community also did not return their bodies. The interesting thing is that nobody in that meeting mentioned what the dead men had been doing across the river. The narrative was basically just that “Our boys went across the river and were killed. Now those terrible people won’t even give us back their bodies.”

Those eight men were part of an attack on the other community that killed 31 people including children who were hacked to death and elders who were burned in their homes. Some managed to defend themselves, which is why those eight attackers never made it home. Of course, I didn’t point this out because I was there to understand so I just listened. It was a really insightful experience because it made it clear that people in conflicts usually find ways to see their side as the victims and mourn their own dead while ignoring the crimes that they’ve committed. Even if those ideas are wrong and it’s uncomfortable to hear them, they can fuel further hatred so understanding their perspective is critical for building peace and preventing future violence.

Chris and his colleague, John Green Otunga, speaking about the Sentinel Project at UCLA.

6. With Donald Trump’s recent boot from Twitter, people are having heated debates about the pitfalls and benefits of censorship. What are your thoughts on censorship in this context? How effective or ineffective is it?

This is a complex issue that can inspire some pretty intense feelings, especially when people perceive threats to freedom of speech. Sometimes those concerns are justified, such as when authoritarian governments use false allegations of promoting hate speech or misinformation to silence dissent. However, there’s also a lot of misunderstanding around what censorship and freedom of speech are in the first place, especially in democracies. Of course, before getting into that it’s worth stating unequivocally that incitement to violence is not legally protected speech and only the most ardent free speech advocates would want it to be. Governments and corporations have a responsibility to curtail incitement so to me the question is more about what works best.

On the topic of corporations, some people get upset when companies like Facebook or Twitter remove controversial figures from their platforms but they have a right to enforce the rules which govern how people behave on those platforms. They are, after all, private property. If we imagine them as physical businesses instead of websites then I don’t think anyone would see a problem with the manager of a restaurant or a grocery store ejecting a person who starts saying hateful things to customers and encouraging them to attack each other.

Nobody is denying that person their right to say whatever they want but, at the same time, nobody is obligated to let them say it wherever they want to. It’s become sort of a cliché at this point but freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences or entitlement to a platform. A lot of people misunderstand that but it’s a critical distinction.

A relevant aspect for the Sentinel Project relates to efforts at monitoring and documenting online hate speech. Some people claim that such monitoring is a violation of privacy, which is untrue since that monitoring is happening in a public forum where people willingly share hateful content. To extend the analogy of physical space, if a person goes to a public park and starts yelling hateful things then they have no right to privacy in that context and everyone else in the park is perfectly entitled to record their behaviour.

However, monitoring is also where I do see a potential downside to censorship because it can make it hard to monitor online hate speech. While Twitter removing Donald Trump is almost definitely a good thing, when it comes to extremists in general there is a risk that they just end up being pushed into darker corners of the internet that are harder to monitor and moderate. For example, Amazon recently stopped hosting the social network Parler, which was popular with Donald Trump supporters. It now appears to be coming back online thanks to a Russian-owned hosting service. Does that mean Amazon was wrong to remove Parler? I wouldn’t say so but now Parler may be even harder to regulate if it makes a comeback.

From my perspective, the bigger risk with censorship is that it can inadvertently contribute to the polarization of extreme views. This relates to what I said earlier about needing to understand the people who promote hateful views. Ultimately, society will benefit more from trying to bring those people back into the mainstream, which requires understanding and persuasion, rather than just silencing them. While it’s still necessary to directly stop incitement to violence, especially by influential people, we have a better chance of bringing the average person out of these extremist ecosystems through engagement rather than censorship. After all, many of those same people tend to believe in conspiracy theories about governments and large corporations so what they perceive as unjust censorship of their views is likely to just harden those views further.

Learn more about the work Chris and his team are doing at the Sentinel Project.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent post! And thank you for talking about censorship too, so many people think that Facebook etc. “censor” people, which by all means doesn’t even make any sense. Polarization is a question though, but I think what’s good about for example removing hate speech from Facebook, is that “normal” people, who maybe have some racist thoughts but aren’t that extreme, aren’t fed that much racist lies and propaganda. And of course when Facebook removes a racist post, they are at the same time setting standards for what is ok and what isn’t. I’m not saying their rules are perfect though, but I think some people do learn from it too.

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