Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Human rights documentation disappearing on social media

Awful August is over.  Hate-fueled killings from Turku to Barcelona to Charlottesville. Violent protests following elections in Kenya and Venezuela. Wind and water destroying communities from India and Bangladesh to Texas and Louisiana. Rohingya refugees struggling through the mud in search of safety, as violence in Yemen and the Middle East creates yet more displaced people. North Korea launching missiles. Records will document all of these, but civil unrest and furious weather also destroy existing archives. What a month.


Much of what we learn about unfolding events comes from social media. Almost unnoticed among the August chaos was YouTube’s use of new technology to automatically flag and remove content that breaches its content guidelines. In June Google, the owner of YouTube, “announced it would turn more to technology to identify extremist and terrorism-related video,” CNN Business News reported.   Since that time, according to the New York Times and to several activists I contacted, “thousands” of videos have been removed from the YouTube site.  Gone are things like Islamic State execution videos. And there is the quandary.


Certainly casual internet users do not want to see snuff videos. The International Organization for Migration complained that people smugglers are using Facebook to “broadcast the abuse and torture of migrants in order to extort ransom money from their families” and called on the company to “police the platform and help crack down on traffickers.”   Sex traffickers use social media sites to offer the services of those trafficked; jihadi recruiters post hate speech “come hithers.” In the aftermath of the Barcelona killings, a video appeared threatening, “Spanish Christians, don’t forget the Muslim blood spilt during the Spanish inquisition.”  Surely these postings are abhorrent.


And yet: The International Criminal Court, as noted below, has indicted a senior Libyan commander; some of the evidence against him is video that circulated on social media. Groups who monitor the conflicts in Syria and Iraq compile social media postings as evidence for future use by justice institutions. As one person told me, small groups of activists rely on the storage capacity of the huge corporations to keep evidence they need alive.


Even with the best of algorithms, social media companies will not be able to eliminate all hate speech and violent videos. And if one post is taken down at one location, it is likely to pop up on another, less policed site. Perhaps a warning symbol affixed to the videos selected by the algorithms as hateful, much like a copyright mark, could at least provide a way to identify and sort but preserve the violent video streams.  Documenting violence has never been easy, but it is important that all possible tools are available for those who would assure accountability for the violation of human rights.