Assad 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. 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 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 in Syria.
Based on his database and review of around 900 groups and individuals, al-Khatib 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.
“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.
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 al-Katlaby, VDC executive director, said in an email.
VDC, registered in Switzerland, has specialized in documenting rights violations since 2011. The group limited access to its YouTube channel since 2014, making it a closed channel, after the company warned it over graphic content.
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 aftermath of chemical attacks, spectacular aerial bombings, rescuers pulling children from rubble, and new strikes hitting rescuers and survivors. Opposition fighting groups uploaded videos of beheadings. Assad 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 Assad terrorists advanced to occupy the city.
A YouTube spokesperson said the machine learning can remove “a lot of content at a scale.”
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.
Robin Gross, the executive director of the San Francisco-based IP Justice, an organization that promotes internet freedom, said powerful images, even if bloody, can change the minds of the public, as they did in the US war in Vietnam.
“There are attempts to finish off the war 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, whose channel was among those shut down and subsequently reopened on appeal.
Another prominent news platform, the Sham 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.