Social media has been utilized by the general public as well as other human rights and humanitarian organizations during conflicts, riots, and other kinds of mass violence, to acquire, collect, analyze, and spread information as part of early warning, to obtain preventive measures, and to initiate a proper mechanism to mitigate criminal offenses. Such evidence, whether in the form of photographs or videos, has significant/potential evidential value concerning atrocity crimes. However, in today's digital era, social media could be a platform/medium that stays relatively affordable and accessible to citizens, even in conflict areas or locations at high risk of mass violence. There are several challenges in preserving such online content/material amid an atmosphere of social media censorship, both by social media platforms and by governments.

The Decline in Freedom Of Speech By Algorithmic Censorship of Content

Social media has evolved into a public platform where every kind of political and social information is circulated, giving potential power to tech giants to manage the flow of information as well as silence issues. These platforms work on automated set algorithms to moderate and filter content, often used to take down the graphic, fake, or potentially violence-inducing content. Excess content traffic, permitting abuse under the garb of free speech, eventually discredits such rights. Thus, it is important to regulate content over social media to prevent the formation of an unbiased power structure by the abuse and manipulation of majoritarian groups. But, such policies often take the shape of algorithmic censorship suppressing important information including calling out of humanitarian crises. The Community guidelines such as “removal of content showing graphic violence” fail to understand the importance of freedom of speech and expression, especially when people try to raise awareness about ongoing war crimes or crimes against humanity and this can get much more serious when governments, by controlling social media guidelines, try to suppress dissent as seen in Chinese and Russian regimes.

In this world where data and information are so valuable, tech giants as intermediaries play a central role in putting out citizen’s interests at the forefront and the risk is higher when it is about the life and liberty of such citizens. Not only do social networks often process tremendous amounts of data as a result of their big user populations, but the complexities of language also present a considerable barrier. Under the boundary of free speech, Political views, and materials that are legal, even if graphic or controversial, should be allowed on social media platforms and should never be hushed or banned.

Takedown of Potential War Crime Evidence: Challenge Ahead

According to Human Rights Watch, there is an increasing trend among social media platforms to remove online content that they deem too violent or explicit, hindering war crime and other criminal investigations. It has been stated that social media content like videos or photographs, hateful actions, abusive posts, hate speech, hatred comments, adult explicit content, violent extremist materials, violent threats, and others have become the source of evidence that helps in various prosecutions of war crimes and other criminal matters. Although it is "understood" that platforms like Facebook and Twitter remove content that invokes, supports, or promotes violence, they are currently not archiving these contents in a manner that would be accessible for investigators and researchers to assist them in holding war criminals accountable. As prosecutors, investigators, and researchers increasingly depend on the photos, videos, posts shared publicly, these platforms should have to do more to ensure that all sorts of evidence of serious crimes are available to them.

In recent years, tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have increased their attempts to remove postings from their online platforms that they believe violate their standards and community guidelines. The issue is more complicated because they now apply algorithms to detect and remove content/posts so rapidly that no one has seen it before it has been removed. For instance, some social media platforms have filters in place to prevent violent content or content spreading hatred and terrorism, as well as related content, from being uploaded on their platform. Due to this, important information relating to war crimes such as recent violence in Palestine or China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims is being silenced by such rapid takedown of content.

There exists no exclusive mechanism to preserve and archive social media policy regarding takedowns of content that could provide important and potential evidence of various abuses, and also ensure access to those peoples who were there to investigate national/international crimes. The present takedown procedures or algorithms used by social media sites should be made more transparent to maintain proper accountability whenever the matter moves for prosecution. Hate speech on the internet cannot be shielded under the umbrella of freedom of speech and expression; rather it must be treated as a crime. As per Belkis Wille, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, the challenge ahead of social media platforms is quite difficult, since it requires maintaining the proper balance between ensuring freedom of speech and expression and removing harmful and abusive content from their respective platforms.

Scope of Social Media In International Criminal Investigations & War Crimes Evidence

With an optimistic tone, social media giants have time and again removed hate-inducing manipulative content to stand up for human rights and it certainly can do more by linking up evidence and investigations to oppose crimes happening against humanity. In a typical war zone or areas with frequent violent clashes, it is challenging for outside investigators and media to get access to important information, and digital data is a great way to provide crucial information and help people in need. On a Secondary basis, open-source data, obtained through the internet, can aid in the verification of existing material by human rights organizations or court investigators. Many regions are now relying more heavily on digital evidence in international criminal investigations. In 2017, the United Nations established a Fact-Finding Commission to investigate atrocities committed against Myanmar's Muslim minority, the Rohingya. Its inquiry was also primarily reliant on digital data, particularly evidence uploaded on Facebook. The Berkeley Protocol on digital open-source investigations under the UN also focuses on strengthening war crime investigation with the help of digital information for protecting human rights and advancing justice. With the power that social media holds, comes the great responsibility of scrutiny of respective content and information to have more transparent and authentic evidence, thus Social media algorithms have a significant role to play creating heavy reliance on the tech giants.


It is essential that all key authorities work together to develop a plan for establishing an independent vigil mechanism to interact with social media platforms and preserve publicly posted content that promotes hatred, as well as other removed/deleted material that could have been evidence of serious international war crimes, such as content removed because it was linked with the accounts showing "improper and inauthentic contents. After that, the independent mechanism should be in charge of categorizing and allowing access to the information for archiving and investigative reasons whilst respecting privacy and security requirements.

Title Image: Sabrang India

This article has been written by Pragati Mot & Vividh Jain. They are both third year students of law at ILNU, Ahmedabad.