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As The Daily Beast senior correspondent for national security and politics Josh Rogin put it: Movements.org "seeks to put activists in closed societies in touch with skilled people in the free world who can help them. It's crowdsourcing for human rights."
I had the opportunity to speak with David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights, to learn more about this project.
The original version of Movements.org was founded in 2008 by then-U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen to organize an annual summit of human rights activists. In 2012, human rights activist David Keyes took over the project based on his work to develop CyberDissidents, an important online resource during the Arab Spring.
Keyes made Movements.org into a marketplace for human rights. He says, "The need among human rights activists now is not about finding out what is happening, but how to get activists some help."
Thirty-one-year-old David Keyes is something of a wunderkind in the field of human rights; he has already founded two important human rights organizations. They are the aforementioned CyberDissidents, and Advancing Human Rights, which he co-founded with Robert L. Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch.
After taking degrees at UCLA and Tel Aviv University and completing a tour of duty with the Israeli Army, Keyes became coordinator for democracy programs under famed Soviet dissident and Israeli minister Natan Sharansky. In 2013, he publically confronted Iran's foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif, in New York demanding the release of political prisoner Majid Tavakoli. It caused a social media furor, and the Iranian government released Tavakoli for a time.
Keyes is a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast and has written op-eds for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and many other media outlets.
Movements.org is an online skills marketplace, operating under the umbrella of the charity Advancing Human Rights. It aims to connect dissidents in closed societies with legal, media, PR, and technology experts in open societies.
Activists post their needs and request assistance; experts and various professionals post what they have to offer and respond to requests. Keyes notes some early examples of how the Movements.org crowdsourcing model is working:
I saw that most of the requests from dissidents are for media coverage or articles to be written and translated about their situations.
Offers of help are varied: website assistance and other IT support, translation services, offers to write and distribute petitions, help with social media. One intriguing offer was by an "informed Atheist who is here for answers, support, and planning." At this point there are many more requests for help than offers to help.
Keyes also acknowledged that it's tough to match lots of random skills with an equally random list of needs.
TechSoup's founder, Daniel Ben-Horin, who started TechSoup as a volunteer IT mentor matching service named CompuMentor in 1987, says: "What is intriguing to me is the potential of Movements.org to make the jump from online petitioning to a personal relationship with a cause and individual."
Ben-Horin, like many others, feels that online petitioning services like Change.org have a place in political organizing, but they also are conducive to "slacktivism" (slacker activism) in which someone can say, "I've signed a petition, now I've done my bit."
Offering direct support to dissidents goes beyond this kind of slacktivism, according to Ben-Horin: "That's sharply raising the ante from the volunteer’s perspective. The presumption is that a very large number of people feel stymied by the limitations of the petitioning process ... and that they will rise to a higher bar if it is presented well and has social aspects. I think that would be a pretty interesting shift."
David Keyes is very clear that the mission of Movements.org and in fact all of the Advancing Human Rights programs is to empower human rights activists in closed societies like Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Keyes' vision is, "If you want to overthrow your dictator and advance human rights, you go to Movements.org."
Movements.org does not target activists in open societies where human rights issues exist but where dissidence is legal. The debate about supporting open versus closed society activists is a vigorous one in the human rights field.
Robert L. Bernstein, the co-founder of Advancing Human Rights, sparked spirited controversy with his 2009 New York Times op-ed, Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast. The piece criticizes Human Rights Watch for supporting open society activists, particularly "those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state." Keyes himself has taken heat on the issue, especially in regard to his position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Keyes is not controversy averse, though. He told me that he often gets death threats and also accusations that he is a spy.
Another potential issue with Movements.org is the exposure threat to dissidents who use it. I asked Keyes, "How do you make sure that well-meaning young lawyer in Dayton, Ohio won't end up getting that Saudi dissident disappeared?”
Keyes agreed that it is a risk and something that Movements.org is still figuring out. He said, "No site on the Internet can be 100% secure despite our best efforts. Therefore, Movements.org is aimed a certain type of activist, those who are already putting their names out there, on Facebook and Twitter, and for whom more attention is only good."
What lies ahead for Movements.org? Keyes says, "The more people that come to the site and use it, the more we learn."
He adds that while Movements.org is currently crowdsourcing skills, he would like to have a funding capability like Kickstarter eventually.
He also noted: "One big challenge will be multiple languages. Movements.org is available in English and Arabic now. And we'll expand to Chinese and Farsi next and other languages after that."
Mostly, though, Keyes is looking forward to what will develop unexpectedly out of Movements.org: "We want to listen to the activists themselves," he told me.
My hope is that the site will somehow create a channel for directly telling truth to power.
Images 1 and 3: Movements.org
Image 2: David Keyes