Op-Ed by Afef Abrougui
A new video on Orient News’ YouTube channel shows a scene that is all too familiar to its regular viewers. Staff at a surgical hospital in Syria’s Idlib province rush to operate on a man who has just been injured in an explosion. The camera pans downward and shows three bodies on the floor. One lies motionless. The other two are covered with blankets. A man bends over and peers under the blanket, perhaps to see if he knows the victim.
Syrian media outlet Orient News is one of several smaller media outlets that has played a critical role in documenting Syria’s civil war and putting video evidence of violence against civilians into the public eye. Active since 2008, the group is owned and operated by a vocal critic of the Assad regime.
Alongside their own distribution channels, YouTube has been an instrumental vehicle for bringing videos like this one to a wider audience. Or at least it was, until August 2017 when, without warning, Orient News’ YouTube channel was suspended.
After some inquiry by the group, alongside other small media outlets including Bellingcat, Middle East Eye and the Syrian Archive — all of whom also saw some of their videos disappear — it came to light that YouTube had taken down hundreds of videos that appeared to include “extremist” content.
But these groups were puzzled. They had been posting their videos, which typically include captions and contextual details, for years. Why were they suddenly seen as unsafe for YouTube’s massive user base?
Because there was a new kind of authority calling the shots.
Just before the mysterious removals, YouTube announced its deployment of artificial intelligence technology to identify and censor “graphic or extremist content,” in order to crack down on ISIS and similar groups that have used social media (including YouTube, Twitter and the now defunct Google Plus) to post gruesome footage of executions and to recruit fighters.
Thousands of videos documenting war crimes and human rights violations were swept up and censored in this AI-powered purge.