War crimes evidence that is disappearing from social media and may be lost forever
Evidence of possible human rights violations is at risk of being lost by being removed by technology companies, according to a BBC investigation.
Social platforms are removing graphic videos, often using artificial intelligence, never mind that images that can aid prosecutions of the perpetrators of these abuses may be removed without being archived first.
Meta and YouTube stated that their goal is to balance their obligations of report and of protect users from harmful content.
However, Alan Rusbridger, who sits on Meta's Supervisory Board, asserted that the industry is being "too cautious" in its moderation.
The companies explained that they have exceptions for graphic material when it is in the public interest, but when the BBC tried to upload images documenting attacks on civilians in Ukraine they were quickly removed.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can delete harmful and illegal content on a large scale.
However, when it comes to moderating violent images related to wars, programs are unable to identify what might be human rights violations.
The most recent example
Ihor Zakharenko, a former tourism journalist, came across this problem in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion he has been documenting attacks on civilians.
The BBC met him in a Kyiv suburb where, a year ago, men, women and children were shot dead by Russian troops as they tried to flee the occupation.
The man Ffilmed the corpses -at least 17- and vehicles calcined.
He wanted to post the videos on the Internet so that the world could see what happened and counter the Kremlin's version. But when he uploaded them to Facebook and Instagram they were removed quickly.
“The Russians themselves said they were fakewho had not touched civilians and who had only fought with the Ukrainian army,” Ihor explained.
The BBC uploaded Zakharenko's images to Instagram and YouTube using fake accounts.
Instagram removed three of the four videos in less than a minute.
At first, YouTube applied age restrictions to the same three, but 10 minutes later he removed them all.
We tried again, but they didn't load. The firm rejected a request to restore the videos, despite claiming they included war crimes evidence.
They ask to tune the systems
Key figures in the sector affirmed that it is urgent that social networks prevent this type of information from disappearing.
"You can see that they have developed and trained their machines so that the moment they see something that looks traumatic they will remove it," Rusbridger told the BBC.
The Meta Supervisory Board, of which he is a part, was created by Mark Zuckerberg and is known as a kind of Independent “Supreme Court” within the company that owns Facebook and Instagram.
“I think the next question for them is how do we develop the machinery, whether human or artificial, to make more reasonable decisionsadded Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the London daily Guardian.
The director of the United States Office for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaak, stated that no one disputes the right of technology companies to regulate content.
“I think where the concern arises is when the information suddenly disappears“, specified the head of the office that advises the US government on war crimes and crimes against humanity.
YouTube and Meta said that, within their exceptions for public interest graphic war images, content that would normally be removed may stay online with restricted viewing to adults.
However, the BBC's experiment with Zakharenko's videos suggested otherwise.
Meta stated that it responds “to valid legal requests from law enforcement agencies around the world” and “we continue to explore new avenues to support the international accountability processes (…) in line with our legal and privacy obligations”.
YouTube, for its part, stated that although it has exceptions for public interest graphic content, platform is not a file.
“Human rights activists and organizations, researchers, citizen journalists and others documenting human rights abuses (or other possible crimes) must observe best practices to secure and preserve your content“, the firm specified.
The Syrian case
The BBC also spoke to Imad, who owned a pharmacy in Aleppo, Syria, until a bomb from Bashar al-Assad's government fell near him in 2013.
The man recalled how the explosion filled his establishment with dust and smoke. Hearing cries for help, he went out to the market and saw hands, legs and corpses covered in blood.
Local television crews captured these scenes. The images were posted on YouTube and Facebook but were taken down.
In the chaos of the conflict, Syrian journalists told the BBC that their own recordings of the original footage were also destroyed in shelling.
Years later, when Imad was applying for asylum in the European Union (EU), he was asked to produce documents proving he was at the scene.
“I was sure that my pharmacy had been recorded. But when i went on the internet it took me to a deleted video", he recounted.
protecting the evidence
Faced with this type of incident, groups such as Mnemonic, a human rights organization based in Berlin (Germany), took action on the matter and began to archive the images before they disappeared.
Mnemonic developed a tool to automatically download and save evidence of human rights violationsfirst in Syria and now in Yemen, Sudan and Ukraine.
So far they have saved more than 700,000 images of war zones before they were removed from social media, including three videos showing the attack near Imad's pharmacy.
Each image could contain a key clue to discover what really happened on the battlefield: the place, date or author.
But organizations like Mnemonic can't cover every conflict zone in the world.
Proving that war crimes have been committed is incredibly difficult, so it is vital to have as much evidence as possible.
“Verification is like solving a puzzle: seemingly unconnected pieces of information are put together to build a bigger picture of what happened,” explained Olga Robinson of BBC Verify.
Institutionalize Evidence Protection
The task of archiving open source material - available to almost everyone on social media - often falls to people helping family members caught up in violent conflict.
Rahwa lives in the United States and has family in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, ravaged by violence in recent years and where authorities tightly control the flow of information.
However, social networks allow a visual record of a conflict that would otherwise remain hidden from the outside world.
"It was our duty"Rahwa stated.
“I spent hours researching, so when you see this content arrive you try to verify it using all the open source intelligence tools at your disposal, but you don't know if your family is okay,” he said.
Human rights defenders claimed that There is an urgent need to create a formal system to collect and securely store deleted content.. This would include the preservation of metadata to help verify content and prove that it has not been tampered with.
“We need to create a mechanism that allows us to keep that information for possible future accountability exercises. Social media platforms should be willing to compromise with accountability mechanisms around the world,” Van Schaak said.
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