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Rights Group Urges Social Media to Save Evidence of War Crimes


The reconstructed airplane serves as a backdrop during the presentation of the final report into the July 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, in Gilze Rijen, the Netherlands, October 13, 2015.
Rights Group Urges Social Media to Save Evidence of War Crimes
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A rights group has called on social media companies to save images and video that could be used as evidence to investigate serious crimes.

Companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are removing material thought to be offensive or illegal, Human Rights Watch says in a new report. It noted that such material could be presented as evidence at trials for persons accused of war crimes or other charges.

The group said it understands why social media companies see the need to remove some material, including content that supports or incites violence. But it is urging the companies to collect and save such material for possible use in criminal cases.

In addition to using human monitors, social media services are increasingly turning to machine learning methods to remove content that violates their policies. Human rights researchers fear that the use of machines, without human intervention, could lead to important evidence being lost or destroyed.

Belkis Wille is a Human Rights Watch researcher and helped prepare the new report. She told VOA that videos and images from social media are often used in many of her group’s investigations.

“What we started to notice in the last few years, particularly since 2017, is that we would see a video of let’s say soldiers executing someone, or an (Islamic State) propaganda video. If 15 minutes or an hour later we went back to look at a video again, it was suddenly gone,” Wille said.

The report noted video evidence collected from social media by the international investigative group Bellingcat. These videos showed a Russian “Buk” ground-to-air missile launcher. International investigators say the device was used to fire the weapon that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. The flight crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on the airplane were killed.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team later presented the videos as evidence. Russia has denied involvement in the incident.

Belkis Wille said that during Bellingcat’s investigation, the group went to look for evidence it had found earlier on social media, but the material had been removed.

Governments are putting increasing pressure on online companies to remove offensive, illegal or dangerous material from the internet. Social media companies promised to do more to block extremist content after the live-streaming on Facebook of a terror attack on two Islamic centers in New Zealand in 2019.

Fifty-one people died in the attack.

Social media companies have told Human Rights Watch they are required by law to remove material that could be offensive or incite terror, violence or hatred.

Wille told VOA that the removal systems are now so effective “that they are taking down content the minute it gets posted. So, no user actually gets to see that content before it comes down.”

Syrian Archive is using social media videos to document possible war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons. The rights group has also raised concerns about important evidence being removed from social media before it can be saved and examined.

Wille said that one solution could be the creation of an international registry or archive system for collecting online images and video.

The people responsible for this record-keeping system would decide who should get access to the content, she said. The collected material would be kept for “investigative purposes.”

Human Rights Watch says it is in talks with social media companies about creating such an archive.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Henry Ridgwell reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

contentn. information contained in a piece of writing, a speech, a movie or on the internet

monitor n. a person whose job it is to watch or notice particular things

noticev. to see or become aware of something

live-streaming n. broadcasting content live on the internet

post v. to publish a piece of information on the internet

access n. the right or opportunity to use or see something

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