Takeaways from RightsCon ‘22: A Conversation with Wikimedians

From top left to right. Alex Stinson by Sebastiaan ter Burg, ‘Humans of the Commons at the Creative Commons Global Summit 2018’ on 13 April 2018, available via Commons, CC BY 2.0; Luisina Ferrante by Ayelén Libertchuk at ‘Conferencia de Derechos Humanos en Entornos Digitales’ on 13 September 2019, available via Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0;  Patricia Díaz Rubio by Carlos Figueroa on 26 September 2018, via Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0; Rebecca McKinnon by Andrew Lih, CC BY-SA 4.0; Ricky Gaines by Sahand Miraminy on 26 July 2019, CC-BY-NC-SA; Spencer Graves by VGrigas (WMF) on 10 August 2017, via Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0. 

Wikimedia volunteers and staff participated in RightsCon ‘22 this June, a unique conference hosted by AccessNow, where attendees explore human rights in the digital age. We asked these participants about their experiences representing the Wikimedia movement at the conference, and how Wikimedia projects influence human rights in online spaces. We also spoke to the people who made the Wikimedia Foundation’s support of RightsCon possible, and why supporting this forum matters to advance rights-respecting digital practices.


Making it happen: Q&A with Wikimedia Foundation staff 

Why Wikimedia has a role at RightsCon: Rebecca MacKinnon, Vice President of Global Advocacy at the Foundation

Rebecca MacKinnon has attended every single RightsCon since the very first gathering in 2011. She explained that the Arab Spring was only just starting back then, and “the world was waking up to how technology can be used to advocate for human rights and social justice. At the same time, the world was also coming to grips with a daunting set of challenges: censorship, surveillance, and the weaponization of information to manipulate people—nowadays called  ‘disinformation.’” More than a decade later, Rebecca said, “there is a whole community of people working together to fight for human rights online.”  

It is important for the Foundation to participate in this collaborative effort because “the sharing of free knowledge online is a human right, and Wikimedians have a stake in whether the digital rights movement succeeds or not.” For these reasons, Rebecca argued that the Foundation’s support of and attendance at RightsCon were important opportunities to participate in the larger collective effort to advance human rights beyond the Wikimedia movement.

How the Wikimedia Foundation gave back to the digital rights community: Ricky Gaines, Senior Human Rights Advocacy Manager

This year the Wikimedia Foundation helped to sponsor RightsCon. Ricky Gaines described the decision as an obvious one: “It’s important to support work that advances the broader priorities of the organization and of the movement. RightsCon’s Connectivity and Accessibility funds present opportunities for the Foundation to lead in advancing knowledge equity by making its virtual events more accessible to people around the world.”

Ricky emphasized that the Foundation’s support “reduced the financial barriers that can keep some communities from participating in bandwidth-heavy virtual events. It also made RightsCon accessible in more languages and to individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing, in addition to providing other benefits.”

What it means for the Foundation to co-host RightsCon sessions with Wikimedians: Ziski Putz, Movement Advocacy Manager

For Ziski Putz, who coordinated the proposal submission process for the Wikimedia Foundation, this RightsCon was special because the Foundation co-created sessions with members of the wider Wikimedia community. This was an innovative departure from previous years, where the Foundation would submit its own proposals and individuals from the community would independently apply to RightsCon. “Crowdsourcing and co-submitting proposals was an important step for us to take since it reminded the public that the Foundation exists because of the work that volunteers put into the various Wikimedia projects.”

Ziski highlighted that the everyday work of volunteers is not only what sustains the massive free knowledge infrastructure known as “the Wikiverse,” but also that which materializes the movement’s values of privacy, inclusion, and access. “Showcasing the incredible experiences of Wikimedia volunteers at RightsCon,” she explained, “allows us to illustrate to the digital rights world what can happen when passionate individuals work towards a common goal. In our case, it means the longevity of public resources like Wikipedia.”

RightsCon in retrospective: Q&A with Wikimedians

Five sessions at RightsCon ’22 were co-created by Wikimedians and the Wikimedia Foundation’s Global Advocacy team. Here’s what our partners from the Wikimedia movement had to say about their time at RightsCon, and the role that creating and sharing free and open knowledge plays in digital rights conversations.

1. Why was it important for you, as a Wikimedian, to share your work at RightsCon?

Luisina Ferrante, from Wikimedia Argentina, who has presented at RightsCon before, helped run two sessions this year: one on using constructive conflict to create quality articles about human rights, and an edit-a-thon workshop. For Luisina, participating in RightsCon was an important opportunity “To show how Wikipedia works, what we have to take into account to add and create content from our territories, and how societal changes are reflected in changes on Wikipedia. Once people understand this, then they grasp why it is important for communities to know how to add content that reflects their lived experiences.”

Spencer Graves, who co-hosted the session on constructive conflict with Luisina, found it important to share his work because “Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects are an extremely valuable resource to shed light on important issues that news media might not report on sufficiently or even ignore.”

Other participants echoed that the opportunity to explain the inner workings of Wikipedia was a major benefit of participating in RightsCon. Alex Stinson, a Foundation employee who helped run the edit-a-thon workshop with Luisiana, explained how “there is always a tension between the ‘theory of Wikipedia’ and the ‘reality of it,’” which is why it is important for people to “start thinking about Wikimedia as a building block for public access to knowledge in the most impactful areas: for instance, human and digital rights.”

Patricia Díaz Rubio, from Wikimedia Chile, connected the value of sharing this “reality” with Wikipedia’s prominence. “Wikipedia, as the most visited information website, is no stranger to topical social and political problems, many of which are related to the different uses of technology and how it affects human rights. Wikimedia projects are not simple, dry websites, but a community where knowledge is produced and debated too.” 

For Kate Levan, another Foundation employee and co-host of Patricia’s session on countering disinformation, it was important to share the Wikimedia movement’s unique perspective on content moderation and how to stop government censorship. “It was a privilege,” she said, “to discuss the merits of our model with people who may not have been aware of it beforehand.” 
Amir Sarabadani, a Farsi Wikimedia projects volunteer and Foundation employee, saw RightsCon as a space to emphasize the politics and risks associated with free knowledge projects. “Sharing information freely is inherently a political act. That is why fighting to be able to share knowledge is a fight for human rights, and vice versa.”

2. Which topics or exchanges did you find most interesting during your session?

Luisina: “Many people who attended my sessions did not know that the Wikimedia Foundation and the regional chapters do such extensive work to address Wikimedia projects from a human rights perspective. It reminded me of how important it is to share the processes involved in building free knowledge from a human rights perspective, and how the Wikimedia movement can support this process in digital spaces.”

Spencer: “I was inspired when people from the Philippines logged in at 3 a.m. to attend our session and hear about the experiences of Wikimedians in Argentina and Chile.” 

Kate: “The real-world experiences that participants had with disinformation, and their concern for the future of Wikipedia given current political events in their countries, stood out the most to me.”

Patricia: “I loved being able to explain how Wikimedia chapters work!”

Alex: “It was exciting to watch folks realize that there are inclusion policies for Wikipedia, that there is a structure for making decisions about content within the community itself. People often miss this context when they visit the website as readers.”

3. What aspect of your session do you hope the audience took away with them?

Luisina: “I hope participants gained more clarity on how Wikimedia projects work and understood that the conflicts in the editing process are governed by rules set by the community of editors, and that those conflicts provide a real-time record of what is happening in society at a given time—a free, open and collaborative record.”

Spencer: “I wish that the audience grasped the value of building local Wikimedia groups.”

Kate: “My goal was to demonstrate that it is possible for community moderation to work well, and that there are many significant benefits to platforms sharing these responsibilities with their communities.”

Patricia: “I wanted the audience to see how important it is for many people to become editors and contribute to these projects. It is the only way to have richer and improved articles and information, and it is a proven strategy to protect and prevent critical articles from being vandalized or edited in ways that could affect people’s understanding of political or social topics.”
Alex: “I hope they learned that Wikimedia platforms are a vehicle for documenting key global issues.”

4. Why is it important for the Wikimedia movement to have a voice in human rights?

Luisina: “Wikimedians have a role in these conversations because they bring valuable experiences on how to record, document, and build alliances with those who have been victims of human rights violations. That’s why Wikimedia projects are great allies in the process of making visible, democratizing, and generating strategies for action from those communities themselves.”

Spencer: “The Wikimedia movement is the only place I know where people with very different perspectives come together to argue over what can and cannot be said, based on the available evidence. Everywhere else I look, people live in echo chambers.”

Patricia: The movement and its volunteers, collaborators, allies, and staff members are committed to allowing people to have access to the sum of human knowledge not only because it is a challenge to overcome, but also because that access is a human right.”

Alex: “Our mission of bringing everyone knowledge in their own language as well as our strategic focus on knowledge equity mean that we have an ambitious and never-ending task. Topics like human rights and environmental crises require that we address the globally acknowledged baselines for these problems as a global community. Doing so, we can build access and provide the most critical knowledge and information to the most affected people in their own languages.”

Conclusion

Wikimedia’s presence at RightsCon, and the feedback that presenters received, underscore the critical role that our movement plays in conversations about human rights in the digital age. Resources like Wikipedia are essential to document and inform readers around the world about human rights. Likewise, the very exercise of contributing knowledge can empower individuals to share their lived experiences, exercise their right to access information, and contribute to community-governed digital spaces. 

Watch the recordings from RightsCon ‘22, and follow the event organizers on Twitter (or the Global Advocacy team) to join next year!