Social media companies are facing pressure to start archiving war crimes evidence. How will that work?

Caitlin Thompson

 

On May 12, four members of Congress in the U.S. wrote to the CEOs of YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Meta asking the social media giants to create a digital archive that would preserve videos, photos, and other evidence of war crimes as people post them online.

This is not a new idea, but the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated long-standing calls for Big Tech companies to change the way they treat this kind of material. Platforms often remove such content due to its graphic nature, despite its potential value in the courtroom. For years, groups in the human rights sector like Mnemonic and WITNESS have called for social media companies to change their approach, so that videos don’t just vanish when an algorithm pulls them down for showing gratuitous violence. The conversation grew as the war in Syria showed just how much evidence was disappearing because of content moderation algorithms. 

But streamlining a process for collecting data, building such a massive repository of data and then scaling up to include other global conflicts won’t be an easy task.

Long before politicians caught on, Alexa Koenig, the executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, was working on how social media can be used as evidence in international courts — and how companies can do a better job of preserving it. In the report Digital Lockers: Archiving Social Media Evidence of Atrocity Crimes, Koenig and her team outlined how social media platforms can transform from “accidental and unstable archives for human rights content” to vaults of evidence accessible to investigators and prosecutors. Going a step further, the team at the Human Rights Center created a framework for using digital open source information in international courts.

I talked with Koenig last week about how exactly social media companies would go about becoming digital archives for evidence of human rights violations. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

There have been many conflicts like the Syrian civil war that would have benefited from a digital archive. This is not a new idea. Why hasn’t it happened yet?

Alexa Koenig: There are a whole lot of reasons. One, private corporations have no legal obligation to collect information. They were not designed to be repositories of war crimes evidence. There’s a mismatch between their mission, mandate, incentives and obligations and what the international justice community would love to see them do. 

There are so many different interests that are potentially implicated by the creation of an international evidence locker. Would you be violating copyright laws by holding onto this information, sharing it with others who may be publishing it? What national security vulnerabilities might you create by storing really sensitive information and handing it over to foreign governments or international tribunals? And then you have the privacy implications, not only for the person who’s the account holder, but also anyone who’s depicted in video or images. 

Your team, along with groups like Mnemonic and WITNESS, have been talking to social media companies for years now. How have those conversations evolved?

AK: Look at what happened with Myanmar. Facebook was being used as a mechanism to foment hate speech in ways that potentially led to genocide. In the aftermath of that crisis, many companies hired people who had real boots on the ground, human rights expertise, so that they could better anticipate and respond to human rights crises or war crimes. That has created an opening for constructive conversations, where the companies have shown a willingness to listen to some of the critiques and creative thinking from the human rights organizations.

The second moment that created new receptivity was the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand where more than 50 people were killed. That was live streamed [on Facebook]. And of course we just have the recent mass shooting in Buffalo. I think there is recognition that these platforms are being used as tools by people who are trying to terrorize populations. The companies don’t want to be the platform that helps contribute to a massacre. So I think they realize they have a problem and they need civil society’s help and support to solve it. 

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have been part of this conversation for a long time. TikTok is beginning. I think Telegram has been very hands off.

So there’s an understanding that building a digital archive is imperative. How do we do this?

AK: Tech and the information environment move fast, while case building is extraordinarily slow. You need a holding place. The question becomes, do the companies themselves hold onto it? Or do they grab it and put it somewhere else so they don’t have to be the repository that’s brokering the requests?

In talking to some of the judges at the ICC, they would like it to come directly from the social media company with all the surrounding contextual information, the metadata intact and a sense of that chain of custody from the uploader to the company to the court. 

Right now we’re exploring whether an intermediary body might be better situated and have a greater expertise at knowing how to handle that information [in accordance with the law].

How can that material be used to bring people to justice? Who will have access to it?

AK: For decades, civil society has been calling for a repository that should be accessible by everyone. But lawyers hate that because there’s potentially very sensitive information that could really get people killed. Three years ago the conversation was, we need one big data set and everyone gets access. 

Now, there’s a realization we need different archives for different things. We need a public-facing archive for history and memory. We need a legal evidence archive where secure, sensitive information can be held. And we need an archive for social scientists trying to understand how platforms work and how people are using them to spread propaganda.

How do you systemize this? 

AK: Finding key human rights organizations in each country that have the necessary expertise, the language skills, the cultural knowledge, who are widely vetted and believed to be an impartial investigator or as impartial as you can be in these contexts. Working with war crimes investigators all over the world, I’m often surprised that they don’t have more of the language and cultural expertise on their teams.

I think another question is going to be an economic one. How is all of this work funded? One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is could there be a creation of a permanent endowment, which all the social media companies and some big governments contribute at the outset?  

So what is feasible at this point?

AK: What is practical is for social media companies to have a date, time and geographic range, so they can gather information they think may be of interest to the international justice community. That may be the most obvious and egregious crimes that their algorithms are picking up anyway. So they’re already looking for graphic content that violates their terms of service. It could be that content within a certain geographic territory and temporal territory goes into this repository and gets held for a longer period of time and handled a little bit differently.

It’s too soon to say whether Ukraine will be the tipping point that pushes social media companies to build a better approach to preserving evidence. But time is of the essence.

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS: 

Ukraine and Baltic countries are more prepared for cyber attacks than the average European country, according to new research from Surfshark, a cybersecurity company in Lithuania. It shouldn’t be surprising that cybersecurity is a priority in these countries, considering the ongoing threat from Russia. Past attacks have been devastating. In 2015 and 2016, the power grid in Ukraine was hit with cyber attacks that the CIA later attributed to Russia’s military spy agency. Cyber has, of course, been an element of the war in Ukraine this time around too. In April, hackers tried to compromise one of the country’s largest energy companies. Ukraine responded quickly to prevent two million people from losing power.  

Uganda is being sued over its digital ID system. The lawsuit claims that requiring a digital national ID card excludes people from key services, in violation of people’s rights. The human rights groups behind the legal challenge want to compel the government to accept other kinds of identification for basic services and transactions, like opening a bank account, buying a SIM card or getting formal employment. This is not unique to Uganda — the problem has come up in other countries in Africa, South Asia, and beyond. Check out our recent stories on the pitfalls of digital ID schemes in Pakistan and Ghana.

Get ready to pay for your groceries with a smile. Well, kind of. At five supermarkets in São Paolo, Brazil you can check out simply by looking at a camera that uses your face to verify your identity. This is part of Brazil’s new Payface system, powered in part by Mastercard. Amazon is trying something similar at a Whole Foods in Austin, Texas. Their tool allows you to pay by waving your hand over a scanner that analyzes veins in your palm. And supermarkets in Russia are embracing payment by facial recognition too. But what’s the real cost? Plenty of experts have weighed in, as has the cast of Saturday Night Live

WHAT WE’RE READING 

  • How did $419 million in grants from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan fuel election conspiracy theories pushed by team Trump? This article by Protocol has all the crazy details. 
  • And while we’re on the topic of Big Tech getting involved in politics, Politico has a good look at how surveillance entrepreneur Peter Thiel is throwing his weight — and a lot of money –  behind Republican Senate candidates.

From biometrics to surveillance — when people in power abuse technology, the rest of us suffer

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