Twitter plans to archive, delete inactive accounts threaten Syria war crimes evidence

Twitter plans to archive, delete inactive accounts threaten Syria war crimes evidence
Twitter’s announced plans to archive and delete accounts that have been inactive for several years could have a devastating impact on documentation of war crimes in Syria.
4 min read
25 May, 2023
Billionaire Elon Musk has made several unpopular decisions since he took over Twitter last year [Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty]

Twitter’s plans to archive and delete inactive accounts could have a devastating impact on documentation of war crimes in Syria and elsewhere, activists and investigators have said.

The plans were announced by Elon Musk, the owner of the social media platform, earlier this month. He said the move would help free up handles which had been abandoned for years.

But those who have been investigating war crimes committed in Syria and elsewhere have described the decision as "concerning", saying that the deletion of some of these accounts will mean that information that could prove vital in investigations into war crimes and human rights abuses will be lost.

To look into war crimes and rights violations in Syria, human rights groups are heavily dependent on social media accounts run by local activists for photos, videos and other potential sources of evidence for their investigations, Fadel Abdel Ghany, founder and CEO of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told The New Arab.

This is because the censorship and repression of media in Syria limits access to credible news reports, he added.

"We hear about a lot of the news from the local activists, they reach out to us or we are following their personal account," Abdel Ghany said.

"If those [accounts] are removed, we will lose thousands and thousands of photos, videos, and bits of news."

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The Syrian regime has committed a host of war crimes and human rights violations in the now 12-year-long war in the country, including massacres, deadly bombings in densely-populated civilian areas, and torture of prisoners, to name but a few.

Other actors have also committed crimes and atrocities against civilians but on a smaller scale.

More than 500,000 people have died as a result of the conflict, and half of Syria’s population have either been internally displaced or fled the country altogether. About 100,000 Syrians are currently missing. 

Regime officials are now on trial for war crimes in Europe. Evidence posted to social media has in the past been central to bringing perpetrators to court to face prosecution.

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Investigators and researchers have been frustrated before by the removal of accounts that were vaults of useful documentation with which to look into potential war crimes and human rights violations.

Both Facebook and YouTube have enacted policies through which accounts dedicated to documenting war crimes in Syria and elsewhere were removed after being flagged by other users or by AI as containing offensive content.

Some of the impacted accounts then turned to Twitter as the main vehicle with which to share their content – but use of that space now looks to be in jeopardy too.

Emily Tripp – director of Airwars, a UK-based organisation that tracks, archives and investigates civilian harm from air warfare in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere – said Twitter's decision was "concerning".

"Twitter has been an essential platform for individuals and organisations to document and share their experiences of rights violations and other acts of violence - to which there is often rarely any other recourse for accountability," Tripp told The New Arab.

"There are very logical reasons for those accounts no longer being active - users may be afraid to post again if the security environment has changed, they may have left the context, or they may have been harmed in some way," she said.

"None of those reasons in my view justify taking down those earlier important reports."

Human rights activists and journalists are among those most likely to be arrested, imprisoned and killed by the Assad regime and other groups that control different parts of Syria, their social accounts a relic of the work they did to expose rights violations.

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Abdel Ghany asked that these accounts be given special consideration by Twitter.

"I don’t think of Twitter as the owner of the accounts, more as the facilitator or as the platform. But this decision needs to be reviewed, and categorisation put in place," he said.

"If someone died and their account became inactive — who is this person? Maybe their account is valuable for their community, their society.

"This kind of account should not be removed. This is part of the history for the country, for all of society."

The New Arab contacted Twitter through its press email address for updates on its plans for inactive accounts but received no serious response.

Twitter owner Musk has made a series of unpopular decisions since taking over the social media platform last year, including removing existing verification from accounts and replacing it with paid-for verification.

On the role social media platforms ought to play when it comes to the documentation of war crimes, Tripp said: "I think there needs to be a recognition of the importance of archiving and preservation of materials, and systems and processes to be put in place accordingly."

"Those systems should be informed directly by organisations and individuals documenting and reporting on human rights abuses, to ensure that it works for them in a safe and secure way."