The war in Ukraine, resulting from the invasion of Russian troops, has been raging since 24 February 2022. Due to the lack of journalists and independent reporters on location in Ukraine, a lot of the information on which third party assessments of the situation are based comes from material shared on social networks. A key challenge in this context: to gain access to this data and then check the veracity and validity of such content.
Journalists, fact-checkers, human rights organisations as well as military / security personnel have been working overtime to get an idea of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine since the war started. In order to fact-check material (and thereafter store / archive it), a pre-condition, however, is that this material is available. This is where respective social media platforms come in.
The dilemma of content removal
Due to rules, regulations and especially platforms’ Terms and Conditions, platforms remove a lot of material from public view, especially content that includes graphic imagery or is potentially disturbing or distressing, or content that in other ways does not conform to their rules and guidelines (said Terms and Conditions).
Digital content analysis and removal is often done (or at least assisted) by algorithms due to the sheer volume of content in question. While this is understandable on the one hand (not exposing social media users to e.g. potentially traumatizing or disturbing content), it is highly problematic on the other hand: such material is not brought to the attention of those investigating, documenting and archiving content from wars and conflicts, such as journalists or human rights violations investigators.
The necessity to preserve all types of digital content and make it accessible to select groups
Archiving and preserving digital content around war and conflict is nevertheless vital! Ideally, this would happen in a coordinated fashion and be facilitated and supported by both platforms as well as technology. Technology, for example (ranging from pattern recognition to object or location identification to similarity retrieval) can significantly support in item analysis, verification and its annotation.
Platforms (e.g. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, TikTok etc.), in turn, should make sure all digital content dealing with war and conflict uploaded to their platforms is preserved and made available to respective stakeholders, following clearly defined access criteria.
Experts and groups active in verification, documentation and archiving activities, in turn, should be provided with adequate resources for their work, following agreed-upon cross-industry annotation standards. Investing in such activities would facilitate access of archived and annotated content by historians, prosecutors and others in the years to come, making it available for various purposes.
Recommendations – how to move forward
The war in Ukraine highlights once again the important role digital content plays in finding out what really happens ‘on the ground’. It furthermore makes evident that content removal also poses a problem with regards to situation analysis, documentation of events and using such material for subsequent actions like the prosecution of war crimes. That is why a number of actions should be seriously considered and are recommended here:
- Social media platforms should be obliged to preserve and also systematically annotate material surrounding war and conflict, especially material they remove from public view because it violates their terms and conditions (e.g. gruesome or potentially disturbing material). This content needs to be made available for researchers, historians, prosecutors and others conducting related activities of public interest and relevance, following clearly defined access criteria;
- Research and technology projects and initiatives dealing with digital content analysis, verification and annotation of material coming from war and conflicts should be supported and funded adequately to advance the topic and related technologies. It needs to be made sure respective material is preserved and can potentially be used for all sorts of purposes, especially documentation and the potential prosecution of those who are responsible for war crimes, human rights violations and such like;
- Common archiving standards (metadata, annotation, verification, access, transferability) should be established and agreed upon. This includes making annotations machine-readable, working across technical platforms and making sure they are verified undisputedly beforehand if at all possible.
For examples of war and conflict documentation see
a) Mnemonic / Syrian Archive documenting events surrounding the war in Syria
b) Bellingcat or Cen4infoRes mapping, documenting and verifying incidents during the war in Ukraine.
Further reading (selection)
Hadi Al Khatib and Dia Kayyali (2019): YouTube Is Erasing History. New York Times, 23 Oct 2019.
Yvonne Ng: How to Preserve Open Source Information Effectively. In: Dubberley, Sam; Koenig, Alexa; Murray, Daragh (eds.) (2020): Digital Witness. Using Open Source Information for Human Rights Investigation, Documentation, and Accountability. Oxford University Press;
Jeff Deutch and Niko Para: Targeted Mass Archiving of Open Source Information: A Case Study. In: Dubberley, Sam; Koenig, Alexa; Murray, Daragh (eds.) (2020).
Human Rights Watch (2020): “Video Unavailable”. Social Media Platforms Remove Evidence of War Crimes.
Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law (2021): Digital Lockers: Archiving Social Media Evidence of Atrocity Crimes.
Fred Abrahams (2022): When War Crimes Evidence Disappears. Human Rights Watch, 25 May 2022.