Document Type


Publication Date

January 2020



First Page



In the summer of 2017, hundreds of thousands of videos of the Syrian conflict suddenly disappeared from YouTube. 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. 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.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. 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. They had introduced a new algorithm to improve the rate at which YouTube could detect and remove terrorist content – but the algorithm had been unable to consistently distinguish propaganda posted by ISIS from war crimes documentation posted by human rights activists.In response to media coverage, many of the videos were subsequently restored. 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 courtappointed 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.