Exclusive: Researcher Eliot Higgins On YouTube’s Deletion Of Syria War Videos

(TFC)– YouTube recently caught heat after a video possibly showing Syrian war crimes was removed. The deletion opened a Pandora’s box of controversy online and revealed an ongoing pattern. As a follow-up, TFC contacted Eliot Higgins, research fellow for the Human Rights Center.

Higgins has spent years cataloging, studying, and preserving online renegade footage from Syria and other conflicts. His work with the Syrian Archive–currently in beta-form–aims to gather film evidence of conflict abuses.

Most of the videos are gathered through open sources, particularly YouTube and blogs. With few western journalists left in the embattled country, any footage from contested areas is invaluable. Sometimes, the clips come from areas where it’s not safe for NGO’s and human rights organizations to travel.

When asked if the video deletions do a disservice to those taking risks to capture and upload footage, Higgins agreed. “I think it does”, he began, “especially when earlier on in the conflict there was quite a bit of encouragement coming from Google that their platform should be used for uploading this sort of material.”

Higgins cites “badly implemented policies by social media platforms” as some of the biggest threats to the Syrian Archive. In his experience, these are “based on policies of a range of governments who generally don’t have an understanding of how social media is being used in conflict zones.”

He doesn’t think the deletions have anything to do with Trump being in office and didn’t notice any particularly aggressive removal during Obama’s years. The recent video deletions coincide with YouTube’s so-called creators’ crackdown. Swaths of channels have been deleted, or videos demonetized, under the company’s new content guidelines. The new rules restrict violent, controversial, vulgar, or sensitive content to various degrees. I’ve personally seen my channel affected, including videos I’ve produced on a local police department.

Eliot Higgin’s, however, doesn’t feel YouTube intentionally deleted the war clips. “I think it’s two independent things”, he emailed TFC. “In the case of the Syria content, it seems like their new attempts to deal with violent and jihadi content has resulted in some false positives.” When content is flagged, often times the channel is removed or blocked. Due to the conflict’s intensity, uploaders might not live long enough to republish content.

Some of the deleted videos, Higgins pointed out, were rightly removed under the community guidelines. “But because it’s [the video removal] replied retroactively”, he stated, “content from 5 years ago is getting flagged, and that ends up with accounts with tens of thousands of other videos being deleted that don’t have the same sort of content. I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt to cover anything up, just an awkwardly implemented system.”

Part of the content’s uncertainty comes from the various entities uploading the videos. “Generally local media centers”, Higgins explained to TFC, “armed groups, groups like the Syrian Civil Defence and medical facilities. Because of restricted internet access, there’s very little content in opposition-held areas that is coming from civilians posting about their day to day lives.” Most of these videos come from “opposition-held areas” checkered by different rebel groups.

Overall, the deletion of videos isn’t unique to the Syrian war. “I’ve seen videos from all sorts of conflicts and events censored”, Eliot Higgs told TFC, “recently videos from Myanmar were removed, others from Kenya, it’s just some are more viewed and therefore their deletion gets more notice.”

In an every shifting arena of online policy, YouTube’s deletion of Syrian war content rests in an odd grey space. While the censorship component is apparent, how directed the actions are by human intentions, and what’s just robots, is debatable.

As video removal and demonetization continues, YouTube may change its guidelines. Striking balances between open information, and controlled content within a new digital horizon. Videos from Syria and other war zones confront social media platforms with difficult choices. When those choices are left up to robots, then critical information for international investigators can be lost.