Creating Technology for Social Change

Citizen Video and Networked Politics in Southeast Asia: Andrew Lowenthal at the Berkman Center

How are activists in Southeast Asia using a hybrid mix of old and new media for change?

Today’s lunch at the Berkman Center is a talk by Andrew Lowenthal, co-founder and executive director of Engage Media, an Asia-Pacific human rights and environmental video organisation who work to develop strategic networks of new citizen video producers. Engage Media also conducts research to look at the use and effect of video for social change. The organisation is 12 people, mostly in Jakarta, but also in Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, and Manilla. Before founding EngageMedia, Andrew worked with the Tactical Technology Collective as participatory technology lead on projects like NGO in a box and Message in a Box. Andrew was also involved in IndyMedia.

(links from the talk can be found at (Andrew will be joining the Center for Civic media for lunch on Thursday to talk more about technology platforms for video4change. Join us!)

Andrew starts by showing us a video “Left to Survive,” set in Papua new Guinea. The video, published by EngageMedia, features residents in the Keerom District, near the northern border of West Papua and Papua New Guinea, people who resist selling their land to palm plantation companies.

Can video create daily, very real relationships with people in another place? Companies are often much better at organising across cultures than activists, and EngageMedia aims to build similarly strong networks. Andrew frames the Southeast-asian context for the work EngageMedia does:

  • a political environment of corruption/climate/human rights
  • an explosion of media production post-Suharto
  • concentrated media filtering and bandwidth limitations
  • a lack of strategic approaches and tech knowledge by activists
  • a lack of strategic networking across national boundaries

Who’s online in Southeast Asia? 22% of people, around 55 million people are online. 47 million of them are on Facebook. Andrew thinks that within a few years, Indonesians will be one of the largest populations online. But Internet across Southeast Asia is highly variable:

  • Malaysia – 60%
  • Singapore – 75%
  • Philippines – 32%
  • Thailand – 30%
  • East Timor/Burma – 1%
(Source: Internet world stats – Dec 1 2012)

What’s EngageMedia’s overall approach? They see video as a campaign and social movement tool and try to function as a catalyst between producers and users. Sometimes, they’ll help people with limited video experience think about how to start. They also help more experienced filmmakers think about engagement online. EngageMedia also works to “reconfiguring the other” to help people cross borders and distinctions with a political intention. Andrew argues that change doesn’t just happen at a national level, and that we need to go beyond those political and mental borders. One example is, an alternative media organisation that is emerging as a major hub of activist media in Malaysia.

Witnessing may not be sufficient to gain justice. Andrew tells us the story of an attack by hardline Islamists against members of the Islamic sect Amadiyah. The entire event was captured on camera, and there were police watching. Despite this, people who defended themselves from the mob received a higher sentence than the people who attacked them.

EngageMedia also carries out applied research. They have completed a study on freedom of expression online in Indonesia. Together with the Center for Civic Media, they’re working on a project to understand video4change impact. Finally, they’re also doing research on citizen video subtitling.

Andrew tells us about Videokronik, a study they conducted about what video tools people are using, what bandwidth they have, and what audiences they need to reach. Quite often, their respondents don’t think the Internet is important, and that’s okay, especially in areas where not many are online.

EngageMedia also does a lot of training, helping media makers and activists learn how to do work safely and securely. In the mid 2000s, they were involved in the Transmission Network of Free and Open Source developers focusing on video and social change. More recently, they are facilitating workshops like Camp Sambel and the growing international network of organisations focusing on video4change. In coming months, we can expect a website sharing examples of video4change as well as a series of smaller events.

EngageMedia makes software as well. In a world of YouTube, why bother? They’re interested in creating bespoke tools to support advocates in contextualising their content. Secondly, platforms like YouTube have substantial limits, especially since there are no local YouTube servers. Andrew points us to Plumi, a Southeast Asian online video publishing site.

Finally, the EngageMedia site curates and showcases content of concern to the broader EngageMedia network. Andrew thinks that sites like theirs can offer a niche environment for content producers to discover each other’s work. They are also building a network of hundreds of volunteers who are interested in subtitling and translating human rights content across Southeast Asian regions and languages.

Andrew takes us back to the Papuan Voices project. In many cases, international media and NGOs are banned from operating in West Papua. EngageMedia is supporting citizen journalists to produce their own media and helping them stay safe. EngageMedia packages these videos onto DVDs and the web into education packs to help build campaigns. They also package that video for TV stations around Indonesia.

Andrew concludes with an open set of questions for the future of EngageMedia and video4change overall:

  • Scaling Free/Open Source video tools in the shadow of big platforms like YouTube
  • Further developing the role of niche spaces to connect organisations across boundaries
  • Deepening their role as a connector between producers and campaigners/me
  • Funding
  • Scaling their methodology


Eric Gordon of the Engagement Game Lab brings up the morality that seems implicit in a lot of EngageMedia’s videos. What if people don’t actually see injustice– what if their prejudices are affirmed? Can EngageMedia plan for that?

Andrew thinks that videos can definitely backfire. EngageMedia tries to share media in a space where people might appreciate their values, sharing videos to groups like Human Rights Watch, who can frame the material in a way that can create change.

I followed up to ask about the material they share with television stations. Does the same principle hold? Andrew responds that a lot of their content isn’t as contentious as the more controversial, violent content. A lot of the content covers concerts and local news concerns. Their partners are also

Laura (Norton) Amico asks about funding and scaling. EngageMedia is funded through Ford, OSF, Hivos, InterNews, and so forth. She asks if they have a grantwriting team. It’s mostly Andrew and a few people internal.

Andrew talks about an upcoming video4change site which will aggregate interesting training materials. EngageMedia also focuses on training trainers–people who mostly have video expertise, who can then translate materials and support their broader networks.

A participant asks if EngageMedia collects data on the results of their work. Andrew argues that 95% of video isn’t about producing a specific action. We have a Rodney King style idea about what we can do, but videomaking is all about building relationships and networks that come together later to create change.

Does Andrew think it’s necessary to develop ways to measure video for change? Absolutely, Andrew responds. He talks about an upcoming partnership with the Center for Civic Media to map out kinds of impact assessment, developing ways to measure that impact, share them back to the video4change community, and discuss new approaches.

As the session concluded, Andrew, Sasha, Mayo, and Mako discussed the place for open technologies to support autonomous media production. Andrew points out that everyone in Indonesia is on Facebook. They have to play on those corporate spaces, but they don’t have to use them for their core work.