When War Crimes Evidence Disappears: Social Media Companies Can Preserve Abuse Evidence – Ukraine

Fred Abraham

Associate Program Director

This month, four high-ranking members of the US Congress took an important step to help achieve justice for war crimes around the world.

On May 12, lawmakers called on the chief executives of YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Meta (formerly Facebook) to retain and archive content on their platforms that may be evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.

At issue is a treasure trove of uploaded photos and videos that show apparent violations of the laws of war by Russian forces – including unlawful killings, attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructurethe use of prohibited cluster munitions – and some abuses committed by Ukrainian forces. This content forms an essential part of human rights documentation and may play a role in war crimes cases in Ukraine, in other countries and before the International Criminal Court.

In a business letterDemocratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, Stephen F. Lynch, Gregory W. Meeks, and Bill Keating called on CEOs “to preserve content and metadata associated with that content, which could potentially provide evidence of war crimes and violations of human rights in Ukraine” and to make this content accessible to international human rights investigators, in accordance with relevant privacy laws.

Companies understandably remove content that could incite violence, harm people, or compromise national security or public order. YouTube, for example, has reportedly deleted 9,000 channels of its platform related to the conflict in Ukraine. But while blocking this content from the public can sometimes be justified, these companies should keep the material as potential evidence. Permanent deletion by moderators or AI-enabled systems can undermine efforts to expose or prosecute serious abuse.

In most countries, domestic law enforcement can compel social media companies to provide user content via warrants, subpoenas and court orders, but international investigators do not have these powers.

To remedy this, human rights groupsincluding Human Rights Watch, called on social media companies to establish independent mechanisms that would preserve potential evidence of serious crimes for use in national and international investigations, as well as for research by non-governmental organizations, journalists and academics. Although companies have been receptive to these calls, they still have not created these types of digital lockers.

As social media content becomes an integral part of war crimes investigations in Ukraine and elsewhere, social media companies can step up their efforts. They should engage with human rights organizations to establish a workable and legal mechanism for archiving and accessing social media content that can help hold perpetrators of atrocities to account.


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