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The Importance Of Preserving Videos Of War Crimes


When a traumatic event occurs today, it's often followed by the quick posting of a video - mass shootings or alleged police misconduct or use of chemical weapons. They're often uploaded to platforms like YouTube and Facebook, which are then under pressure to remove videos that contain violence or graphic imagery. Videos of human rights violations can be used as evidence of war crimes in places like Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. Does deleting them help keep war crimes unreported and undocumented and war criminals free?

Witness is an organization that helps people use that technology. Dia Kayyali is a program manager there and joins us via Skype from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

DIA KAYYALI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You recently helped produce a video op-ed for The New York Times on this. Can you give us an example of a video that's been taken down that, in your view, really should be seen?

KAYYALI: Yes. And I will say that we work very closely with Syrian Archive, and they're really working on the ground and seeing a lot of this content get taken down. So just to give you a very recent example, there was a Facebook video from June that was showing a protest in Sudan. And that's just one video that we've seen get taken down, among many, that are actually just documenting protests.

SIMON: And this is being done by algorithms, not human beings.

KAYYALI: That's right. Content moderation these days still relies on some human flagging, but it also relies on content moderation algorithms.

SIMON: And how do you believe this is preventing human rights violations from being reported and documented?

KAYYALI: Well, unfortunately, what we're seeing is that these algorithms appear to really be focused on content that is coming from the Arabic-speaking world or from places with large Muslim communities. And these are videos we're seeing coming from places, as you mentioned, like Syria, that may contain content showing, for example, a barrel bombing. It shouldn't be in violation of the standards of either Facebook or YouTube, but we still see videos like that get taken down. And these are videos that groups like Syrian Archive would take and verify and put into a data collection about a barrel bombing or about a specific chemical attack.

SIMON: Now, I have made it my business to see a number of those videos. And it seems to me that you immediately see on some platforms like Twitter people saying, oh, that's fake, or, oh, that's from three or four years ago. Doesn't that indicate that maybe the platform is best to take it down sometimes?

KAYYALI: That is exactly why groups like Syrian Archive are so important because they are going through and verifying the videos using a number of different methods. So, of course, they're using geolocation. I think they make great use of Google Earth, zooming in and looking for buildings and geographical features. They're also doing things like cross-verifying with weather information, looking at different dialects that are spoken and comparing with different sources, collecting very large sets of videos that are showing the different - same events from different angles. So there is actually a way to determine whether or not a video is fake.

SIMON: I am aware of the fact that when some other websites complain that the video we're seeing is old or faked, they might be trying to pull a fast one on people, too.

KAYYALI: Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the quotes that I like to show people when I'm explaining these videos is directly from Assad. And he's speaking about a video of a chemical attack. And he's saying, you know, these videos are probably fake; you can't know if a video is faked today. And that's what he would like for you to believe. But, really, there is pretty clear and verified evidence of a lot of these incidents.

SIMON: What would you like some of these social media platforms to do?

KAYYALI: One of the really important suggestions that we have for social media companies is they need to be retaining this evidence. They can't just delete it and then have it be gone. They need to have some sort of collection that human rights researchers can still access so that it's still available for the International Criminal Court, for the United Nations, for people who are trying to understand what's happened in Syria. You know, this is, really, history that is being deleted.

And then second, of course, you know, algorithms are being used all over on platforms now, but they're being done in a totally intransparent (ph) way. We really don't know what data they're basing these algorithms on. So just being a little bit more transparent.

SIMON: Dia Kayyali, program manager for Witness, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAYYALI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.