Every day, social media platforms delete hundreds of videos showing atrocities in the war in Syria because they are deemed too violent. Yet a Syrian computer programmer living in Germany realised the incredible value of these videos as proof of war crimes, so since 2014, he has been working to save, verify and catalog these videos on his website.
On a typical day, Hadi al Khatib sits at a computer in Berlin, Germany – where he has been living since seeking refuge there in 2015 – and gathers dozens of videos posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. He then works with a team made up of six journalists and human rights activists to verify the content. If the team is able to trace and verify the footage, then they post it on the website al Khatib built, called Syrian Archive.
Together, the team has verified about 4,300 videos, which include more than a 1,000 instances of illegal weapon use. The task they’ve set themselves is daunting, though in total they’ve gathered more than 1.2 million videos.
“We’ve established a methodology for verifying these videos”
So many videos documenting violence in Syria are lost. One issue is that social media platforms like YouTube take down these videos because they are judged to be too violent. Last summer alone, between 150,000 and 200,000 videos were lost in this way. Moreover, social media platforms suspended more than 180 accounts that had posted these videos.
Other videos are lost because of the conditions on the ground in Syria. Several different Syrian citizen-journalists have told me that they lost the hard drives where they had been stocking videos during bombings or clashes.
I’m a computer programmer by trade, so I got the idea to save all of these videos on a server. That was how the idea for the Syrian Archive was born.
In 2015, my colleagues and I started to professionalise our verification methods because lawyers were starting to reach out to us to ask for help researching their cases involving human rights violations. So we established a methodology for verifying these videos.
In 2017, we got our first grant from the Open Knowledge Foundation, which is supported by the German Ministry of Education and Research.
“We are interested in any clues that can help us confirm the location”
The first step is that the videos that we gather are automatically saved to two different servers through a software that we developed.
Next, we verify the source that posted the video. We work with a network of journalists in Syria to try and identify the person. We first ask them if they know that person. Then, we check if that person has already posted videos from the same location or if that person tends to share footage from different locations. We focus on firsthand videos, which were filmed by the person who posted them.
We also check to make sure that the videos weren’t uploaded in the past by doing a reverse image search.
We also look at the footage carefully to check for any clues that could establish the location. It could be anything from a natural feature, like a mountain or even a line of trees, to a building or the minaret of a mosque.
To do this, we compare the footage with satellite images from Google Earth or Digital Globe. We also examine the metadata from each video, which can also provide information about when and where it was filmed.
Then, we compare the videos with the testimonies of witnesses to the incident that were gathered by trustworthy media sources and human rights organisations investigating these events.
We sometimes team up with other organisations that specialise in verifying images, like the investigative journalists who work with Bellingcat.
We also work with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic [Editor’s note: this Commission was created by the Human Rights Council in August 2011 to investigate and record human rights violations and allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes]. They sometimes reach out to us about specific events and we provide them with verified videos.
Currently, we are building a database including all of the chemical attacks against civilian populations in Syria since 2012. Sadly, this kind of attack is common. The most recent one occurred February 1 in East Ghouta, near Damascus.
In 2017, we gave full access to our database to UN investigators working with the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.
On the Syrian Archive website, you can search by the kind of weapon used, the location or even the kind of violation or abuse. Footage gathered by amateurs and posted online has started to appear as evidence in more and more courtrooms. In August 2017, the International Criminal Court used a video posted on YouTube to get an international arrest warrant on an officer of the Libyan army accused of war crimes.
Al Khatib is also working to convince YouTube to stop deleting content considered too violent. He was able to convince the platform to reinstate several suspended accounts that post videos showing atrocities in Syria. He also provided YouTube with a list of about a hundred trustworthy sources.