Documentation of War Crimes Disappeared by Automated Tools

The Syrian Archive is a collective of human rights activists who are curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes in conflict areas—much of which comes from platforms like YouTube—in order to support the work of investigators, journalists, and advocates. Its work and the work of groups like it are invaluable; videos the Syrian Archive found on social media that document war crimes in Libya were used by the International Criminal Court to compile the evidence necessary to issue an arrest warrant.

But the Syrian Archive and other groups like them have been caught in a cat-and-mouse game with YouTube's automated detection tools, which are aimed at removing extremist content before it can spread. Over the past two years, these tools have had a chilling effect on the groups trying to locate and identify such content to expose war crimes. Not much is known about how the tools work; as the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism points out, "We don't even know what goes into the algorithms, what kind of built-in biases and structures there are."

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May 2019