On this blog we’ve discussed how online social media platforms spread extremist propaganda.
We’ve also discussed how groups fighting the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using these same platforms in hopes of reporting realities on the ground while skirting government controlled media in the region. Now these competing factions have hit a crossroads as news broke earlier this week that YouTube, in an effort to dispel ISIS content, inadvertently removed thousands of videos aimed at documenting atrocities on the ground in Syria.
Earlier this summer, YouTube redirected its censorship program to become more reliant on extremist-identifying technology. In the past, the program depended primarily on human review, but with the onslaught of extremist content and increased pressure from international governments, YouTube adopted a “machine-learning” system in hopes of cracking down on videos that fall outside their community guidelines. While the new program continues to rely on human judgement to make any final removal decisions, many activists and civil society organizations in Iraq and Syria say the speed of the system has led to the mass removal of videos with little notice.
According to The New York Times, thousands of Syria-related videos have been removed since YouTube announced its new censorship program. At least ten such videos were uploaded by the organization Airwars who monitor and document civilian deaths caused by airstrikes. Airwars director Chris Woods emphasized the danger of this removal in an interview with CNN. “We don’t know how much material has been lost, how many playlists are permanently lost,” he said. “[The videos] may be key to restitution and reconciliation, war crimes investigations, and compensation payments. They have a profound value both for the broader community but also to Syrians themselves.”
This conflict brings to the forefront an argument that will likely grow as social media platforms overtake traditional news sources. Companies like YouTube and Facebook have long had to grapple with issues of censorship, but conflict in the Middle East has elevated the stakes. With unfiltered digital propaganda being one of the most influential ISIS tools, it is important that mediums try to ensure these platforms are not being used to enable terrorism. But in a region rife with fake new reports aimed at protecting those committing atrocities on the ground, video evidence will be the key to holding perpetrators accountable. It is YouTube’s responsibility to preserve this evidence.