In Syria, YouTube and Facebook are removing evidence of atrocities, jeopardizing cases against war criminals.


Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court, where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

Worries over disappearing evidence are not just theoretical. This past summer, YouTube rolled out a new artificial intelligence system designed to identify violent content that may be extremist propaganda or disturbing to viewers. Almost overnight, it shut down 900 groups and individuals documenting the civil war in Syria. That included a channel run by Bellingcat, a reputable U.K.-based organization devoted to analyzing images coming out of conflict zones including Syria, Ukraine, and Libya. YouTube also took down content from the group AirWars, which tracks the toll of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Countless media organizations run from Syria were also shut down, including the Idlib Media Center, one of the few groups producing videos from the last Syrian province controlled by rebels. Meanwhile, in September, Facebook began removing photos and images documenting ethnic cleansing and torture of the Rohingya ethnic minority at the hands of the Myanmar government. Like the images taken by Abdulsalam, other users had flagged the Rohingya images as disturbing, and Facebook agreed.

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The Intercept