|Over the past few weeks, the video streaming website YouTube has removed thousands of videos and numerous channels of organizations and individuals documenting atrocities from the Syrian conflict. Although some channels and videos were restored following complaints, many significant videos are still missing. The purge is part of a Google effort to implement machine learning technology that automates the removal of videos that purportedly violate YouTube’s Community Standards. While the automated removal system has significantly decreased the number of videos that promote violence, an unintended consequence has been the loss of evidence for current and future accountability efforts in Syria. With today’s technology, social media companies can and should accommodate human rights in their systems and policies.
YouTube has not always been equated with human rights documentation. Traditionally, human rights groups used pen and paper to record testimonies from victims and witnesses in order to pursue accountability or promote justice and rights norms. Even today, interviews remain essential to this effort, but digital tools have expanded our ability to document atrocities, and to do so in real time. Now anyone with a smartphone is able to upload a video online and contribute to human rights initiatives. Social media content, however, has had its skeptics. Many prosecutors and courts have been hesitant to forego their traditional conceptualization of chain of custody and authentication in favor of open source research and case building. However, the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued a warrant for the arrest of Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, a Libyan militia commander who has been accused of committing dozens of murders in the Benghazi area, on the basis of seven social media videos, including one from Facebook. While the ICC is certainly not the first court to rely heavily on social media, this decision marks a momentous turning point for international justice.
The proliferation of social media has no doubt led to a watershed moment. Syria, in particular, has become a testing ground for social media documentation because of the unprecedented volume of videos recorded and uploaded by activists and citizen journalists to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to publicize atrocities that in the past would go unreported. YouTube often retains the only version of a video available, making its removal that much more consequential.