Assad's crimes may be forgotten as YouTube censors content
Syrian activists fear all that history of Bashar al-Assad and allies crimes could be erased as YouTube moves to rein in violent content.
In the past few months, the dominant video platform has implemented new policies to remove material considered graphic or endorsing terrorism.
Hundreds of thousands of videos from the Syrian conflict have suddenly disappeared without notice at the dismay of activists. They say crucial evidence of human rights violations risks being lost — as well as an outlet to the world that is crucial for them.
Activists are rushing to set up alternative archives, but they also recognize nothing can replace YouTube because of its technological infrastructure and global reach.
“It is like we are writing our memories — not in our own book but in a third party’s book. We don’t have control of it,” said Hadi al-Khatib, co-founder of the Syrian Archive, a group founded in 2014 to preserve open source evidence of crimes committed by all sides of the Syrian conflict.
Based on his database and review of around 900 groups and individuals, al-Khatib said some 180 channels with a proximity to Syria were shut since June, when YouTube began using machine learning protocols to sift through videos on the site for objectionable content.
Working with YouTube, al-Khatib’s group secured the return of about 20 channels, recovering some 400,000 videos.
However, around 150,000 videos remain in jeopardy, pending a decision from YouTube, which is still reviewing whether to reinstate them, he said.
“Nothing is lost forever yet,” al-Khatib said, speaking from Berlin. “But this is very dangerous, because there is no alternative for YouTube.”
YouTube, which is owned by Google, says it will correct any videos improperly taken down and that it is in dialogue with the activists on a solution.
|Evidence for war crimes can come from videos showing violence, even ones uploaded by the perpetrators with the intent to install fear,|
But many activists fear a repeat or a permanent loss. The shutdowns were chilling for a community that had just celebrated a possible precedent for Syria when the International Criminal Court in August issued an arrest warrant based on video evidence for a Libyan military commander.
One prominent Syrian human rights group, the Video and Documentation Center in Syria, said it will stop using YouTube and intends to create its own storage and platform.
“The risk became very big now and we don’t trust this platform anymore for keeping violations evidence,” Husam AlKatlaby, VDC executive director, said in an email.
VDC, registered in Switzerland, has specialised in documenting human rights violations since 2011. The group limited access to its YouTube channel since 2014, making it a closed channel, after the video giant had warned it over graphic content.
However, setting up an independent platform is an expensive luxury, which not many could afford.
YouTube gives activists with personal accounts free tools to edit, translate and upload instantly. These are vital tools for people taking video out in the field in dangerous circumstances.
Activists used YouTube first to report on the peaceful protests that erupted in 2011 against the rule of President Bashar Assad, using videos taken on mobile phones.
As the conflict got bloody, due to Assad's violent suppression of the peaceful process, the videos became more graphic.
Activists began recording the aftermath of chemical attacks, spectacular aerial bombings, rescuers pulling children from rubble, and new strikes hitting rescuers and survivors.
Often, the multimedia taken from the ground were the only thing to grab the world’s attention in an intractable conflict.
A viral video last year that was viewed more than 4.3 million times showed a child covered in blood and dust after surviving an airstrike in Aleppo, as government forces advanced to recapture the city.
The Syrian Archive reached out to activists and media groups affected by the removal and contacted YouTube to restore them.
With a team of six and a budget of $96,000, the Archive is also downloading videos to its own server. This is both expensive and labor-intensive. The group is partially funded by Google through its Digital News Initiative.
Al-Khatib said the group knew the issue will come up one day, given concerns over proliferation of violent content, and that it was always a “grey area” when considering how long YouTube would handle graphic material.
Though, it is undeniable that the most effective evidence for war crimes can come from videos showing violence, even ones uploaded by the perpetrators with the intent to install fear, such as an execution video.
Sometimes these videos even identify and show the faces of militants.