As It Happens

How YouTube's new algorithm could put Syrian war crime prosecutions at risk

In a bid to crack down on extremist content, YouTube has inadvertently removed thousands of videos documenting atrocities in Syria, says Keith Hiatt of the ICC.
A Syrian man carries his sister who was wounded after a government airstrike hit the neighborhood of Ansari, in Aleppo, Syria. (Abdullah al-Yassin/The Associated Press)

Story transcript

In a bid to crack down on extremist content, YouTube has inadvertently removed thousands of videos documenting atrocities in Syria.

In a country where independent journalism has been nearly extinguished by war, YouTube videos are an important digital record, says Keith Hiatt, a member of the International Criminal Court's technology advisory counsel.

After being alerted by the producers, the company has since reinstated many of the videos.

But Hiatt told As It Happens guest host Jim Brown that YouTube needs to take a closer look at its algorithm, as the loss of these videos could jeopardize future war crime prosecutions in Syria. Here is part of their conversation. 

Can you describe some of these videos that have been wrongly pulled from YouTube?

The videos that we're talking about, in some cases, were probably correctly taken down. That's fine. We're not so much concerned about that.

The question, though, is context. YouTube has community guidelines that articulate what's acceptable and what is not acceptable. Some videos, in some context, might be unacceptable, like terrorists recruiting videos.

You could imagine a video that involves an armed militia pledging allegiance to a particular faction being used as a recruitment video. But you could also imagine it being used to put together information about who's loyal to who, command structure, chain of accountability, chain of authority, location of terrorist factions or armed factions.

Those kind of videos can also be used to glean extremely valuable information. 

Residents walk through the destruction of the once rebel-held Salaheddine neighbourhood in the eastern Aleppo. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

So there is an intelligence gathering benefit of a lot of these videos that are being pulled down?

In my opinion, the best available reports on the use of chemical weapons in Syria was done by Bellingcat. And Bellingcat basically uses fully open source information, information that is openly available on the internet in places like YouTube.

After the Idlib attacks, the chemical weapon attacks involving sarin gas in Idlib province, Bellingcat put together a playlist showing about 50 different videos, different angles, different perspectives, putting together the case that it was actually sarin gas deployed by the Syrian regime. That playlist gets deleted, you lose that evidence.   

So then potentially future war crime prosecutions could be affected by this?

We have an eye on using this sort of information for accountability proceedings in the future. Right now there is not a tribunal with competent jurisdiction for the Syrian conflict. But we already have had prosecutions from different European nations — prosecutions against members of the regime, or different factions that have been involved in the fighting. And they will rely on this kind of information.

In a closed society, open sourced information like YouTube videos are the richest source of information about what's actually going on. 

So then why are these videos coming down now?

YouTube made it clear over the past few months that they were going to implement artificial intelligence filtering to deal with some of this content.

Usually those decisions were made by people. I think they had maybe a thousand people working on content monitoring and making judgement calls about what kind of content, what kind of videos they needed to remove.

They have automated a lot of that, which makes total sense. They've got hundreds of millions of videos being uploaded, and anyways, it's the world's worst job to have to watch really terrible,horrific content. So it's to everyone's benefit that this gets automated.

The question is, what kind of algorithm, what kind of decision making process are you going to instruct this machine to have? How does a machine make a judgement call? And that, right now, is up for grabs.

How hard is it for someone on the ground to get a video put back up on YouTube if it's been taken down?

Right now if you have a relationship with Google or with YouTube it's a little bit easier to get your videos put back up. I'm more worried about the dozens and dozens of civil society organizations and human rights organizations working inside Syria who don't have those kinds of existing relationships or a way to get through to Google. That's really a problem.

I'm even more worried about ... people who may have uploaded videos and then disappeared, died, lost their internet access. That's the stuff that's going to be really hard to recover. And in that case we're talking about people who have made serious sacrifices, maybe even the ultimate sacrifice, to have a witness to what they saw.

Keith Hiatt says 'in a closed society, open sourced information like YouTube videos are the richest source of information about what's actually going on.' (Keith Hiatt)

If these videos are gone for good, in a larger sense, what have we lost?

We'll lose the ability to corroborate and do real, authenticated, verifiable journalism. If the Syrian regime tells us that they did not use sarin gas, and all the videos that show the horrific effects of sarin gas are taken down from YouTube automatically, how will we know what happened?

These videos are the history of the Syrian conflict. Removing them automatically would be akin to or analogous to taking the newsreel footage that was recovered after the liberation of the concentration camps post-World War II, and having a machine automatically burn it.   

That's the kind of testimony, the kind of witness that we're talking about in the form of these videos that have been deleted from YouTube. We don't want to lose that history.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Keith Hiatt.