YouTube Inadvertently Erases Syrian War Videos In Purge Of Extremist Propaganda

Sep 13, 2017
Originally published on September 13, 2017 3:20 pm
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The war in Syria is one of the first to be documented largely by the people who are experiencing it. Their videos posted online, usually on YouTube, let us see what's happening in Syria when it's too dangerous for journalists and other people to go in.

Mohammad Al Abdallah is executive director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre. It's a nonprofit supported by the State Department and a handful of European governments. And he has a database of videos from Syria. Ninety-five percent of them come from YouTube. He says some of them could be used one day as evidence during a trial against war criminals. And he says these videos are important for intelligence gathering.

MOHAMMAD AL ABDALLAH: For example, the execution of the U.S. journalist James Foley was filmed, recorded and uploaded on YouTube by ISIS. Quickly the U.S. captured the video - the law enforcement. They did analysis of the video. The guy is basically British accent, left-handed. They kept the analysis from the video, shared it with the U.K., who said, yes, we have a suspect who - in our extremist database - who his family said he left the country to join the war in Syria. And we expect that's the guy. And that was Jihadi John, who was assassinated later by a drone attack carried out by the U.S.

MCEVERS: But over the past few months, YouTube has been working to delete violent content, and lots of videos from Syria have been taken down. Sarah El Deeb is a reporter with The Associated Press who's been covering this, and I asked her to explain what's happening.

SARAH EL DEEB: There are two things. So traditionally YouTube had a - relied on a community of flaggers - entrusted flaggers - who would object to content online and call it extremist, call it hate speech, whatever. In June, they introduced a machine-learning software that basically detects quote, unquote, "objectionable material" and then reports it to the human reviewers - people who actually look at the material and say, OK, no, this rightly should be removed from YouTube. So I think they're introducing a new layer to kind of speed up or operate at a scale. One YouTube spokesperson told me that there's 400 hours a minute uploaded on YouTube.

MCEVERS: Wow. Can you just describe some of these videos for people who don't know what we're talking about - the kinds of videos that people post to YouTube?

DEEB: Everything. I mean this is how we know what's going on in Syria. People upload videos about funerals, about bombing of cities, about chemical attacks and their aftermath, about rescuers trying to pull people from under the rubble. It's not pretty. This is a violent conflict. So we know how to cover the Syria conflict because of these videos. So every little heartbeat of this conflict has been recorded in a video and uploaded mostly on YouTube.

MCEVERS: As someone who used to cover the Syrian conflict, I know how important these videos can be to that coverage. But I also remember how violent and brutal some of them are. And you know, you have to say that YouTube is within its rights to remove violent content like this. Do you think activists and others are expecting too much from YouTube?

DEEB: I mean I think this is basically the dilemma that's surrounding this issue. People say the right to know the truth is inalienable, and everyone should have that right. But also, YouTube is under pressure from governments and from its own community to control and rein in the amount of violence that's out there on YouTube. So it's - I don't have the answer for this.

MCEVERS: And beyond YouTube, are the activists coming up with other systems to archive this film?

DEEB: This is one of the fantastic groups that I found already at work since 2014 trying to find their own server and upload material that they think is essential. But it - just like it is a huge task for YouTube, it is also a huge task for six people. They are a group of six people who are basically trying to first salvage whatever has been lost or temporarily lost because of the YouTube new policy but also downloading everyday new material that's related to Syria on their server.

But what they tell me is they are specialized in human rights violations and possible war crimes. But like I was saying earlier, what's on YouTube from Syria is not just that. It's everything. It's social occasions. It's funerals. It's how people survive sieges and what they do to help each other. So ultimately things - if they are deemed objectionable by the machine, they cannot salvage everything.

MCEVERS: Sarah El Deeb covers Lebanon and Syria for The Associated Press. Thank you very much.

DEEB: Thank you.