YouTube’s Ongoing Purging Of Syrian War Footage

(TFC)— One key trait of the Syrian war is its extreme lethality towards journalists and those documenting the conflict. Writing is good, but these days nothing seems to get the point across like video. Uploading anything anywhere is a gamble, not only for your safety but for the video’s chances of getting noticed. That’s what makes YouTube’s censorship of graphic videos out of Syria problematic.

Under its guidelines to restrict graphic or extremist content YouTube banned a video recently which likely showed war crimes in Syria. The video reputedly depicted Syrian rebels and the aftermath of one of their operations. According to Sky News, YouTube has been actively deleting such videos since the war erupted in 2011.

One journalist, Eliot Higgins, has been actively tracking censorship against footage of the Syrian conflict. He’s made a name for himself using online open sources like videos and photos to further investigate the war. In his time, Higgins’ has used social media to confirm the use of cluster bombs, incendiary rounds, and the targeting of hospitals. According to Higgins, YouTube has deleted both the videos themselves, and playlists hosting them.

Many videos which were once removed by YouTube have since been republished due to his efforts. The perspective these videos give into a murky war is invaluable to international investigators and onlookers. Where journalists can’t go, the internet grants locals the opportunity to broadcast what they see. Without such renegade footage, evidence of extreme crimes of foreign involvement become difficult for international organizations to monitor.

“We’ve been working with the Syrian Archive to preserve as much as possible”, Higgins said Sky News reports, “ but it’s a fraction of the videos from the conflict, and it’s far less accessible than YouTube.” Higgins also notes how for at least some videos, those running banned accounts or publishing content may be dead or displaced. Thus, when YouTube deletes rouge footage of the Syrian war it risks erasing it for good.

The video giant stated it’s working to improve the system of flagging videos for suspension or deletion. “Sometimes we make the wrong call”, a spokesperson told Sky News. Words drained hallow by the website’s ongoing crackdown on controversial content. By and large, the removal of possibly graphic Syrian videos fits YouTube’s profile of censorship.

In a September 2017 dialogue, NPR and Associated Press journalists discussed YouTube’s new system of algorithms for content control. AP journalist Sarah Deeb noted how in the past, the site relied on a “community of flaggers, entrusted flaggers”, to detect questionable content. “In June”, she explained, “they introduced a machine-learning software that basically detects ‘objectionable material’ and then reports it to the human reviewers – people who actually look at the material and say, OK, no, this rightly should be removed from YouTube. So I think they’re introducing a new layer to kind of speed up or operate at a scale.”


“People upload videos about funerals, about bombing of cities, about chemical attacks and their aftermath, about rescuers trying to pull people from under the rubble. It’s not pretty. This is a violent conflict. So we know how to cover the Syria conflict because of these videos. So every little heartbeat of this conflict has been recorded in a video and uploaded mostly on YouTube.” AP journalist Sarah Deeb on the importance of videos uploaded from Syria’s war.


Image Source: Cory Doctorow, Flickr, Creative Commons

For YouTube, it’s about maintaining advertiser funds and controlling the spread of radical content. What began as a practical policy has snowballed into a new era of online media censorship. From deleting videos, to demonetizing channels and straining their resources. It’s difficult to believe the scale of content control, month by month, is just one big technical accident.