Human-rights groups have long gravitated toward images to “mobilize spectators and shame perpetrators,” Herscher points out. But over the past decade or so, these organizations have gone from treating satellite imagery as circumstantial evidence to elevating it as self-evident “proof” of human-rights abuses, and even as “a surveillance system that can deter human rights abuses from occurring.” This latter ambition is embodied by George Clooney and John Prendergast’s Satellite Sentinel Project, which launched in 2010 and encourages people to monitor conflict in Sudan through satellite imagery under the slogan, “The world is watching because you are watching.” Human-rights groups used to release satellite images to spur public action. Today, viewing these images has itself become a form of public action. Herscher believes this phenomenon is breeding passive activism. (A 2013 study by former Satellite Sentinel Project staffers found that while the organization generated considerable publicity for evidence of mass graves in South Kordofan and some of its other important findings, it had failed to force governments to respond to atrocities in Sudan and thereby prevent future atrocities from taking place.)
Lyons claims that cases like the satellite images of Baga, where the pictures in and of themselves are trumpeted as proof of an atrocity, are rare. “For every Baga, we release dozens of other reports where the satellite imagery has played an important role in the research but are not covered by the media with the headline ‘Satellite evidence of…'” he told me, adding that satellite data is also used for internal purposes such as approving and planning field missions—an application that rarely receives media coverage.