Gaining physical access to be able to investigate and report on human rights violations in Syria is very limited and dangerous for independent journalists, international news agencies, UN investigation bodies and international human rights organisations. This is the main reason Syrian Archive and other documentation groups depend on verified user generated content to assist in criminal case building as well as human rights research.
In the Syrian conflict, there are more hours of videos documenting the conflict than there have been hours in the conflict itself. Even now, eight years after the Syrian conflict began in 2011, more than 50 videos are uploaded to YouTube each day, making it an “accidental archive” that arguably allows anyone in the world to witness a conflict for the first time in history, practically in real time.
While thousands of these videos may contain footage of human rights violations and other crimes, unfortunately, many have been deleted from online platforms like YouTube. These videos become unavailable through various ways, including:
Repeated targeting of media houses through cyberattacks, often in the form of coordinated “flagging” of videos or alternatively in hacking of media houses’ social media channels
Physical damage or technical failure to the devices (Computers and hard drives) resulting of losing the materials stored on them and not published online.
The user removes the video from fears concerning their personal safety.
Additionally, In 2017, YouTube started using machine learning technology to flag violative content on their platform for review by their teams. This process was responsible for terminating thousands of Syrian YouTube channels that were publishing videos documenting human rights violations in Syria such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center, Sham News Agency, Aleppo Media Center and many others.
The terminated social media accounts received strikes from YouTube stating videos violated its community guidelines by publishing violent/graphic content or by publishing content that incites violence or encourage dangerous activities.
We connected with the citizen reporters and media agencies who received strikes to review their content. Most of the YouTube channels we reviewed did not incite violence or encourage dangerous activities. Rather, the content can be violent because in many cases it shows the suffering of Syrian civilians as a result of attacks against them.
Losing this documentation will directly affect justice and accountability efforts by Syrian, regional and international civil society organisations as it might be the only evidence out there about war crimes that happened in Syria.
It will also risks destroying the collective Syrian digital memory formed since 2011, which will result in ignoring the violations committed by all parties in the conflict, and prevent future generations from knowing what happened in their country.
Get in touch if you or your media organisation has been affected by content takedowns on YouTube or other social media platforms or need assistance in securely archiving documentation materials.