In the two and a half years Syria has been engulfed in war, numerous voices have tried to compel the world to take notice and take action. Overwhelmed aid agencies, exasperated UN leaders, human rights organizations, and Syrian activists sounded alarms about war crimes, humanitarian crises, and chemical weapons. But the message that caught the world’s attention came not from any political leader or organization. It came by way of YouTube. It was citizen videos—the dozens that local, self-taught filmers recorded while toxic chemicals still lingered in the rural Damascus air on August 21st—that turned the heads of world leaders.
Never before have citizen videos taken a front and center role in international policy debates. Yet these were images that were not supposed to get out to the world, and it would be a mistake to take them for granted. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the press, despite the technical and physical challenges of reporting in a war zone, and the relative inexperience of the majority of Syrian citizen filmers, they have exposed to the world the war that Assad’s regime attempted to keep behind a shroud. There is something in that achievement that media activists, citizen filmers, and all reporters can learn from.
Since traditional reporters both from inside and outside Syria largely have been driven out by targeted violence, repression, and imprisonment, at this point the only people left to gather news of the war are “citizen journalists,” a loose term for those documenting the war without affiliation with a traditional news organization. Because of this, all video reports coming out of Syria faced the challenge of verification. Many news reports on Syria rely on citizen videos as one of their main sources of information, with the caveat that the report “has not been independently verified.”
And yet, there is a reason that many Syrian citizen media outlets have become reliable sources, and that is that Syrian citizen journalists have come to understand the need for presenting verifiable, trustworthy information if they want the news media, human rights organizations, and perhaps at some point down the line, legal bodies, to use it. In the past two years, despite limitations in technical capabilities or experience, their work has evolved to incorporate techniques of professional journalists and documentarians.
Let’s take the 13 videos of the August 21 attack that Obama screened to Congress and released to the public earlier this month. While we do not know how the CIA authenticated them, we do know that there must be a certain bar of quality and credibility for the government to have strong confidence in their authenticity.
This is not necessarily an easy bar for citizen reporters to reach. YouTube videos often lack contextualizing information in the title or description, leaving the viewer to have to guess about the date and location of the recording. Activists often fail to record critical detail, such as injuries, weapons, or geographic identifiers. And if the video in question is the uploader’s first YouTube video, viewers have good reason to question the uploader’s background and trustworthiness.
In the year and a half that we have curated citizen videos from Syria on the Human Rights Channel, we have observed them evolve so that third parties around the world can trust their authenticity and learn from their visual information. They began to incorporate details like the date and location of the videos, landmarks that allow third parties to corroborate the location, markings on weapons, symptoms of victims at field hospitals, and the numbers of bodies prepared for burial.
(While no one organization or incident can account for the evolution in filming tactics, WITNESS and its allies have been creating resources and tip sheets in Arabic for safer and more effective filming (also available in English). We’ve worked to make these relevant to activists with their input and have shared them with key networks working on Syria.)
Those details listed above allowed the CIA and others to quickly and confidently find, analyze, and trust the videos that emerged from the August 21st chemical weapons attack. In its report about the attack, the White House referenced one hundred videos that documented visual information such as fatalities without visible injuries, constricted pupils, and foaming at the mouth and nose—all signs that helped the government conclude that a nerve agent was used in the attack. They came from filmers who had uploaded from the region for months, and whose videos corroborated one another.
It is not only the Obama Administration that has come to rely on verifiable citizen video from Syria, but also organizations like Human Rights Watch, the Associated Press, and the UN, whose Commission of Inquiry on Syria has relied heavily on citizen video to track potential crimes of humanity and war crimes throughout the conflict.
Syria is only one of the countries we have monitored through citizen video. In regions as diverse as rural Colombia, Sudan, and the U.S., activists are using video to document abuse of authority, persecution, and corruption. While they are filming in very different contexts, they can all tip their hats to their Syrian counterparts. Media activists there have pushed citizen journalism forward as a critical medium for news and human rights reporting.
Featured image: Screenshot from videos screened before the U.S. Congress with identifying information added by the U.S. Intelligence Community.