Social Media Platforms in International Criminal Investigations

By Hamilton, Rebecca J. | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Spring 2020 | Go to article overview

Social Media Platforms in International Criminal Investigations


Hamilton, Rebecca J., Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


Table of Contents  Table of Contents Investigating Atrocities Digital Documentation New Actors in the Investigatory Landscape 

In the summer of 2017, hundreds of thousands of videos of the Syrian conflict suddenly disappeared from YouTube. (2) The videos had been published on channels like the Aleppo Media Center, the Shaam News Agency, and the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, which are run by Syrian civil society groups that have been documenting war crimes and other human rights violations since the conflict began in 2011. (3) In a war zone that has been extraordinarily difficult for outside investigators to access, the videos provided crucial evidence that many hoped would eventually lead to international criminal prosecutions. (4)

One can readily imagine that any of the perpetrators whose crimes were caught on these videos would have had an interest in their disappearance. But in this case at least, no one in Syria was responsible. The disappearance of the videos was the work of YouTube's software engineers. (5) Employees of the Silicon Valley-based social media platform had no intention of deleting potential war crimes evidence; they were trying, in fact, to fight terrorism online. (6) They had introduced a new algorithm to improve the rate at which YouTube could detect and remove terrorist content (7)--but the algorithm had been unable to consistently distinguish propaganda posted by ISIS from war crimes documentation posted by human rights activists. (8)

In response to media coverage, many of the videos were subsequently restored. (9) But the incident was illustrative of a more fundamental, and less appreciated, development: the influx of new actors into the landscape of international criminal investigations.

YouTube employees, like many of the other new actors in this space, do not enter this landscape with the same set of professional norms or operate according to the same priorities as the court-appointed investigators who have traditionally dominated this work. Indeed, for YouTube and other social media companies that have become important repositories of war crimes evidence, international criminal investigations are not something they ever intended, or anticipated, being involved in. (10)

Investigating Atrocities

The first major criminal investigations of atrocity crimes in the post-Nuremberg period began with the UN-created ad hoc tribunals of the nineties. The tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda took as a given that gathering evidence would require in-person contact between their staff and the victims and witnesses of the crimes they sought to prosecute. (11) The same was true with the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002 (12)--although access difficulties meant the ICC soon began to rely on a network of human rights groups and UN-affiliated agencies to help them gather evidence in places the Court's staff could not reach. (13)

As others have documented, the introduction of these so-called "intermediaries" into the investigative process caused significant challenges, culminating in the ICC's first case almost being derailed on the opening day of trial. (14) Such problems were a harbinger of the challenges that now loom as technology promises to transform the investigatory landscape beyond recognition.

In 2007, Apple's launch of the iPhone--and the cheaper alternatives that subsequently flooded the market--set the course for a major disruption in the way that international criminal investigations operate. (15) Soon, millions of people across the world--including in areas where atrocities were underway--had a video camera in their pockets virtually 24/7. (16) This created the possibility of user-generated evidence --digital documentation done in or near real-time by those at the scene of the crime--being produced on a mass scale. (17) And with the advent of social media, people began posting this documentation online. …

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Social Media Platforms in International Criminal Investigations
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