Documenting and archiving: their role in achieving justice and writing the narrative
The Syrian context—since its inception of the social movement in mid-march 2011—moving through various stages and transformations during the past 12 years has produced a huge amount of documentation, the hours of which exceed the hours of the conflict itself. The amount of visual, audio, and print material was not only produced by journalists and media organisations, but mostly citizens who suddenly found themselves on unequal battlefields. Their phone cameras were a means of communicating their voices to the world—in opposition to the singular voice of the media.
It’s likely not a coincidence that activists and citizen journalists relied on social media. Facebook specifically was used during the first years of the Syrian conflict as the platform was popular amongst young Syrians shortly before the conflict. Allowing communication far from what was permitted and prohibited by official media institutions, the social media site developed as a platform for coordination, alerts, and the dissemination of news and visual content because of its ease of use, low cost, and community. Each account then became an individual archive, acting as its own media institution.
Although this use of social media platforms allowed for a transformation of accounts into individual archives for collecting visual content, users however did not have the necessary training to maintain their accounts and ensure the preservation of their content, which allowed for the removal of a significant amount of important content. The loss and deletion of content is because of many reasons, most notably the practices of suppressing or obscuring evidence by perpetrators of human rights violations—as occurred in the bombing of Al Kahf Hospital by Syrian and Russian forces or in incidents where chemical weapons were used. The policies of social media platforms in removing graphic content, the targeting or closure of media organisations, the arrest or killings of content creators and removal of their pages, the damage of mobile devices and external hard drives, systematic reporting campaigns, and the lack of financial ability to safely archive this content has also led to the removal of vital content showing the Syrian conflict.
As of March 2023, 217 of the 1,751 Twitter accounts whose content is preserved by Syrian Archive are no longer available online. As for YouTube, 418 of the 4,226 channels whose content is preserved by Syrian Archive are no longer available online and about 443,111 videos already archived by Syrian Archive have been removed and are no longer available online. This is not to mention other platforms such as Facebook, where we do not have the statistics on the volume of removed content.
This removal and loss of content online has a negative impact on both preserving the content and verifying what has happened, whether it is related to building evidence for litigation or understanding the history of the conflict
The importance and volume of materials uploaded by activists on social media platforms as well as the automatic removal of content from these platforms using algorithmic systems, makes the process of investigating and highlighting the information included in the content difficult, specifically the vital processes of preservation and documentation.
In light of the large number of incidents and difficult accessing and verifying these incidents while on Syrian soil, the threat of content removal or loss has increased the importance of archiving as a necessity for collecting, preserving, processing, analysing, and verifying content for later use in investigations conducted by humanitarian groups, journalists, international bodies, and accountability mechanisms looking into international crimes and human rights violations.
The close relationship between building documents and archiving necessitates their mutual presence, sometimes one takes precedenceprecedent over the other, but each always necessitates the presence of the other. Here, we do not mean building documents as in filming videos or writing news reports as thousands of journalists and citizen journalists have already produced, but rather the process of converting these materials of videos and reports into organised documents with attached analytical tags after they were fairly unorganised materials on the internet, most lacking metadata that would enable them to be found and used in the first case. This process is the backbone of the concept of archiving. It allows the smooth access to information and the production of databases, thereby guaranteeing the accuracy of information and its reliability, the ease of search and access, and above all the preservation of documents from loss, damage, or deletion.
Over the past twelve years, Syrian Archive has collected content from more than 5,000 sources showing the various areas of the Syrian conflict and has preserved over 4.5 million materials, including text, videos, and pictures. Syrian Archive relies on these materials to produce databases, analyse and investigate prominent incidents in depth, in addition to responding to legal requests and other legal work to share materials preserved by the archive that are no longer available online and are directly related to human rights violations in Syria.
These numbers are still increasing, and they only depict a part of what is happening in Syria. The internet contains a multitude of unarchived materials that are threatened by deletion or loss at any moment, making archiving projects a race against time to find any unpreserved content and saving it before it is lost forever. There are incidents where all its online documentation has been completely lost and is even inaccessible to the content creators themselves. Other incidents do have content available online but much less compared to the amount of content originally available online. Facing the difficulty of accessing lost content and the absence of witnesses, the archive is trying to keep alive—by saving what can be saved— a history at risk of loss.
After twelve years, today Syria appears to be in its various regions an arena of conflict where hardly any day is without human rights violations. With the development of documentation and archiving processes, whether individual or institutional, there is increasing speeds and abilities in deleting, reporting, and diluting evidence, which poses greater challenges in preserving and restricting content threatened by loss or removal.
This continuous and rapid erosion of content places the public between two obligations: a legal obligation to document what happened and preserve evidence of the perpetrators of violations; and a moral obligation to ensure the documentation of historical narratives, appreciating their diversity and providing them with a guarantee that they are not manipulated towards a single Syrian narrative as the matter is not only related to the past, but also is fundamentally related to the future, its tools, and its mechanisms.
Contact us if you or your media organisation has been affected by the removal of content on YouTube, Facebook, or other social media platforms, or if you need help archiving documents securely at firstname.lastname@example.org.