His­tory of Syria’s war at risk

YouTube moves to rein in vi­o­lent con­tent

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

BEIRUT: Syria’s civil war has been one of the mod­ern world’s most bru­tal con­flicts and one of its most heav­ily filmed. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of am­a­teur videos up­loaded to YouTube doc­u­ment ev­ery heart­beat of the war over the past seven years, from mo­men­tous events like cities un­der bom­bard­ment to in­ti­mate scenes like a fa­ther cradling his dead chil­dren.

Syr­ian ac­tivists fear all that his­tory could be erased as YouTube moves to rein in vi­o­lent con­tent. In the past few months, the tech gi­ant has im­ple­mented new poli­cies to re­move ma­te­rial con­sid­ered graphic or sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of videos from the con­flict sud­denly dis­ap­peared with­out no­tice. Ac­tivists 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 me­moirs - 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, AlKhatib said some 180 chan­nels con­nected 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, AlKhatib’s group se­cured the re­turn of about 20 chan­nels, sal­vaging about 400,000 videos. But about 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. 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 will set up 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 spe­cial­ized in doc­u­ment­ing rights vi­o­la­tions since 2011. Its founders are prom­i­nent ac­tivists, in­clud­ing one still miss­ing af­ter be­ing kid­napped by gun­men in Syria. The group lim­ited ac­cess to its YouTube chan­nel since 2014, af­ter the com­pany warned it over graphic con­tent. But not ev­ery­one can af­ford to go on their own. Also, YouTube pro­vides ac­tivists with per­sonal ac­counts for free and tech­no­log­i­cal tools to edit, trans­late and up­load any­time - vi­tal for peo­ple out in the field in dan­ger­ous cir­cum­stances tak­ing video of events.

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, so did the videos, catch­ing the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of chem­i­cal at­tacks, spec­tac­u­lar aerial bomb­ings, res­cuers pulling chil­dren from rub­ble, and new strikes hit­ting res­cuers and sur­vivors. Mil­i­tant groups up­loaded videos of be­head­ings. Govern­ment sup­port­ers up­loaded their own im­agery and pro­pa­ganda.

Of­ten, the images were the only thing to grab the world’s at­ten­tion in an in­tractable con­flict. A 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 from rebels. YouTube pre­vi­ously re­lied in part on a sys­tem of com­mu­nity flag­ging of con­tent deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate. In the Syr­ian con­text, that of­ten turned po­lit­i­cal. Sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of the Syr­ian govern­ment have waged dig­i­tal wars re­port­ing each other’s chan­nels or videos, prompt­ing YouTube to close some. Many videos were lost, in­clud­ing footage of a 2013 chem­i­cal at­tack in a Da­m­as­cus sub­urb.

Un­der pres­sure in Europe and the West to do more to rein in ex­trem­ist con­tent, YouTube in­tro­duced a num­ber of new mea­sures, in­clud­ing ma­chine learn­ing, which trains it­self to rec­og­nize pat­terns in enor­mous num­bers of videos and po­lice “ob­jec­tion­able” ma­te­rial, which then is re­viewed by hu­man ex­perts to de­ter­mine if it should be taken down. A YouTube spokesper­son said the ma­chine learn­ing can re­move “a lot of con­tent at a scale.”“The vast ma­jor­ity of time our re­view­ers get it right. And when we make mis­takes, we act quickly to cor­rect them,” the spokesper­son said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity in line with com­pany reg­u­la­tions.

The spokesper­son said ac­tivists need to im­prove their data when up­load­ing videos, prop­erly iden­tify them as doc­u­ment­ing rights vi­o­la­tions and pro­vide con­text. Mean­while, the ma­chine learn­ing is be­ing tweaked. But the clo­sures’ sud­den­ness and breadth stunned those doc­u­ment­ing the con­flict. Many op­po­si­tion ac­tivists al­ready feel the in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal world is turn­ing against them as the Syr­ian govern­ment and its al­lies make ma­jor bat­tle­field gains. Some were con­vinced the YouTube shut­downs were be­cause of po­lit­i­cal pres­sure.

“There are at­tempts to fin­ish off the con­flict in Syria by any means, in­clud­ing hav­ing no cov­er­age or a to­tal black­out on the me­dia by the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion,” said Tala Khar­rat, spokesman for Qa­sioun News Agency, a news plat­form whose chan­nel was among those shut down and sub­se­quently re­opened on ap­peal. An­other prom­i­nent news plat­form, the Shaam News Net­work, has nearly 400,000 videos on its YouTube chan­nel, viewed some 90 mil­lion times. In July, its op­er­a­tors found a mes­sage say­ing their chan­nel no longer ex­ists.

Mizyan Altawil, spokesman for SNN, said his net­work is no stranger to scru­tiny of its con­tent, but this time the shut­down was dif­fer­ent, with no prior warn­ing. Even more con­fus­ing, the chan­nel was re­in­stated, only to be closed again, then re­opened. “We are con­stantly on the alert,” Altawil said. 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, an ex­pen­sive and la­bor-in­ten­sive en­deavor. 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 the con­cerns over pro­lif­er­a­tion of vi­o­lent con­tent, and that it was al­ways a “grey area” how long YouTube would han­dle graphic ma­te­rial. But, he said, the best ev­i­dence for war crimes can come from videos show­ing vi­o­lence, even ones up­loaded by the per­pe­tra­tors with the in­tent to ter­ror­ize, like an ex­e­cu­tion video. “If they take it down, there will be no graphic con­tent but there will be no ev­i­dence.” — AP

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