If private tech companies can harness the power of crowdsourcing and the global reach of the Internet to raise gobs of money, why can’t a human rights group do the same to advance its cause?
That’s a question the folks at Movements.org have spent the past year trying to answer by creating a vast Web-based marketplace — it’s free, by the way — that with the click of a button connects dissidents in oppressed corners of the world to pro bono lawyers, public relations and technology specialists, journalists, politicians and others from open societies like the U.S. and Western Europe.
The platform’s co-founder, David Keyes, says he began pushing to establish Movements.org after realizing in his more traditional work as the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, Movements’ parent organization, that the power of the Internet was simply not being tapped as it could be to help the oppressed.
“Almost daily, human rights activists from Syria, Iran, North Korea and beyond would tell me they did not have even the most basic tools, knowledge or resources,” Mr. Keys said in an interview. “At the same time, every time I gave a speech, people would ask me what they could do to help. I felt that petitions and press releases were not enough.”
Then came the idea.
“Amazon, Uber, Airbnb and many other platforms connected between millions of people who have something and millions of people who want something,” Mr. Keyes said. “Movements is doing this for human rights.”
“Through Movements, Syrian refugees are connecting with lawyers in New York. Iranian political prisoners’ families are connecting with senators in Washington and members of parliament from Sweden, Canada, Australia and elsewhere,” he said. “Technologists, journalists, musicians, editors, translators — and so much more — are connecting with activists from dictatorships around the world.”
Anyone can join Movements.org. Well, anyone with access to an Internet connection, that is.
While that may sound counterintuitive — since oppressed societies are usually where such connections are hardest to find — the more than 1,000 dissidents who have posted pleas for help since Movements.org went live in July 2014 suggest that people in some of the most closed societies are, indeed, finding a way.
“The iranian regime is using propaganda in America to spread false messages,” one dissident posted in May, saying he is a “former minister of housing in the Iranian government” seeking to connect with “students at American campuses to explain the brutal nature of the Iranian regime.”
Within days, there was a response: “Sir, i am a high school student with many friends who are very interested to hear about Iran’s bad reputation when it comes to human rights! I really hope we can speak!”
Movements, which explicitly warns users to “be cautious about posting personally identifying information,” allows those connecting on the platform to communicate directly — and in private, if they choose — via a secure messaging portal.
It’s an essential protocol that Movements’ staff has created in hopes of ensuring the platform’s authenticity. Other measures aim to prevent the platform from becoming gummed up with fraudulent posts.
A registrant has the option of filling out a biographical questionnaire. The platform’s staff determines whether the answers are verifiable, then gives each user a legitimacy rating on a scale of five stars — whether the person is a dissident seeking assistance or a lawyer offering to help.
Movements swears by the system and points to a host of “success stories” as proof that it works. Among the more prominent examples is that of Leonid Martynyuk, a Russian activist closely affiliated with the late Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
Mr. Martynyuk left Russia in 2014, fearing imprisonment for his political activities, and now is seeking U.S. asylum. By tapping the Movements platform, he was able to connect with an attorney who has agreed to take on his asylum case on a pro bono basis.
Movements’ director of partnerships, Julia Sibley, points to the case of a group of secular bloggers from Bangladesh who were placed on a terrorist hit list in their country. With three from the group having been killed and the rest living in fear for their lives, the Movements platform connected the bloggers to a human rights lawyer in London willing to work on their plight free of charge.
Movements has friends in high places. Advancing Human Rights launched the site with a startup grant from Google Ideas, whose director, Jared Cohen, is considered a Movements co-founder.
Mr. Cohen also is regarded by many as a U.S. foreign policy insider who once had a career as an adviser to former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Movements has since partnered with The Daily Beast to publish articles by activists affiliated with the website.
But it’s the platform’s merits that seem to have drawn the attention of key human rights advocates in Congress.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, told The Washington Times that “Movements.org brings 21st century tools to the fight against human rights abusers and closed societies.”
“As the co-founder of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, I know that we must have all options available to empower those struggling against oppression and injustice,” he said.
Mr. Kirk personally joined the platform in February, posting that he wants to “know about the untold stories of dissidents, political prisoners and victims of human rights violations,” and asserting that he would respond by striving “to be a voice for the voiceless.”
While the senator’s staff declined to say whether he has taken any specific actions to help dissidents that he has connected with through Movements, a public page on the platform shows that Mr. Kirk has been the recipient of dozens of requests for help.
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also joined the platform in February, posting at the time that he wants to hear “stories of political prisoners or threatened dissidents in Iran, Cuba and elsewhere that aren’t getting enough attention.”
As with Mr. Kirk, the post triggered dozens of responses, but Mr. Rubio declined to comment for this article.
Going after dictatorships
One congressional insider who spoke anonymously said part of Movements’ appeal can be tied to the reputation of the platform’s co-founder as among the more creative human rights activists operating in the U.S.
“David Keyes is a real agitator, so some of us up here are really interested in what he’s doing,” the insider said. “It’s appealing to those of us who are focused on human rights.”
In April Mr. Keyes made headlines by handing out balloons and hosting a “Free Ice Cream!” party on the campus of New York University to “celebrate” the Iranian judiciary’s hanging of 1,000 people over the course of 18 months.
The event kicked off just as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was arriving to deliver a speech at the university.
“It’s an outrage that senior diplomats from a theocracy which murders gays, jails activists and tortures bloggers get treated with such a pass,” he told The Times.
“Movements takes out the middleman in human rights and creates links to strengthen dissidents and weaken dictators,” states the website’s “About” section.
“There is so much more that could be done to raise the pressure on dictatorships. So much more can be done to provide comfort and solidarity to human rights activists on the front lines. I hope, in my own small way, to contribute to that,” said Mr. Keyes. “Dictators seem to have all the power — massive armies, secret police, surveillance systems and more.”
“We should never take for granted what an incredible blessing it is to live in a free country without fear that the government will kick your door in in the middle of the night for criticizing a president or religious figure,” he said.
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