On November 1, a particular video caught not only our attention at the Human Rights Channel, but also that of international observers, news outlets, and criminal prosecutors. It’s the type of video whose images have altered the discussion of the Syrian conflict, and may also revolutionize the role of citizen video in times of war.

The scene takes place in an open-walled building off a main road in Idlib province. The videographer is clearly an amateur, as the camera never remains still. The horror is audible before it is visual: there is a desperate cacophony of men’s voices before the camera approaches the source. Young men lay twisted and helpless on the ground, surrounded by others carrying automatic rifles. The armed men step over their prisoners of war, stomping on their faces and limbs. And then, as the camera pans aimlessly across rubble on the ground, the shouting is replaced by automatic gunfire and pleas for mercy. When the videographer finds focus again, bullets are ricocheting off surfaces, and a cloud of dust rises from the pile of bodies.

Warning: this video is GRAPHIC and requires that you sign into YouTube to view it.

Screenshot from video taken in Idlib province, Syria, uploaded Nov. 1, 2012.

Is This Real?

The video spread quickly, thanks to a Syrian human rights organization that associated the footage with a reported killing of 28 government soldiers by rebel battalions in the area.

“It looks very likely that this is a war crime,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told journalists. Amnesty International and others weighed in, reaffirming it as possible evidence that war crimes are being committed not only by the government of Bashar al-Assad but by the rebel forces that are seeking international assistance to put up a fight against Assad’s army.

The video circulated online just before an international meeting in Doha, Qatar last week, whose main goal was to find common ground among the Syrian opposition factions. International donors seemed more cautious about throwing their support behind the rebels as a direct result of what the video appears to depict.

But with such consequential footage emerging out of a shaky YouTube video, all such reactions came with a big caveat: “assuming it is authentic.” Citizen video is increasingly the best and only evidence of serious crimes yet there does not exist a protocol for authenticating it.

That is why we are thankful for our partnership with journalistic powerhouse Storyful. While WITNESS curates and contextualizes citizen videos on the Human Rights Channel, Storyful investigates the authenticity of each video prior to posting.

In this case, its staff relied on new media techniques to determine that it was not a fraud. A video from the livestream service Bambuser seems to show the same event in the same place from a distance. A satellite image of the alleged location depicts the buildings that appear in the video. In all, what occurs in the video in question matches what Storyful found to be shown in 10 other videos from several accounts uploaded shortly thereafter.

While it is nearly impossible to determine with absolute confidence the authenticity of any video uploaded anonymously from a conflict zone, this investigation was enough for the Human Rights Channel and mainstream news outlets to re-post the video or describe the gravity of the crimes it appears to show. Whether such verification would be enough for admissibility in a criminal trial is another question, and is why WITNESS is working with allies in the international justice community to advance the use of digital media as evidence in legal hearings.

Beyond Authentication: The Importance of Curation, Archiving and Training

Authenticity aside, the possible existence of criminal evidence captured on citizen video raises other questions that the international human rights, criminal justice, and technology communities must confront.

  • If a criminal case relies on evidence from uploaded citizen video, how can we make sure that video is archived for such use? The day after the Syrian execution video was posted on YouTube, the uploader took it down. Fortunately, Storyful had prepared for this possibility and downloaded a copy.
  • Even if a video like this one is determined to be “authentic,” how do we get it to the appropriate viewers, such as criminal investigators and international observers? In the same hour this video was uploaded from Syria, YouTube users around the world added more than 4,000 hours of footage to the website, including cooking tutorials, music video mash-ups, and the ever-refreshed stock of cat videos.  How do we ensure that videos like this one do not drown in this vast sea of content?
  • How do we get resources to citizens-(or soldiers)cum-activists in conflict zones that may be unaware of the risks to themselves and those they film? Cell phones, for instance, are easily traceable, and the individual behind the Idlib video could find himself in danger as a result of bringing possible war crimes to light.

The creation of the Human Rights Channel is a preliminary step to address some of these questions. Curation by human rights experts is one part of the equation, but due to the sheer quantity of citizen video uploaded from places as disparate as Syria, Gaza, and Bolivia, it is not enough.

Activists and amplifiers alike would benefit from a more systematic way for content to be flagged as human rights related. We look forward to more conversations with our partners in the tech industry, including YouTube, about how their tools can improve the efficacy and responsible use of human rights video.

This video is one in a growing number of complex examples of how video can expose human rights abuses. It is up to human rights organizations, journalists, activists, concerned citizens and judicial bodies to make sure that the people behind the cameras are not recording in vain.  The future of citizen video, like the cell phones recording Syria’s war, is in our hands.

Madeleine Bair is the Human Rights Channel Editor at WITNESS. This is her first blog post

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