Could social media hold evidence of alleged Russian war crimes?

A view of the driver as a car weaves through a street strewn with dead bodies. The corpses burned almost beyond recognition. Bodies of men and women, some with their hands tied, half-buried in the dirt of what appears to be a mass grave.

These mutilation and death scenes, posted on social media and quickly shared thousands of times, could hold crucial clues for investigators investigating alleged war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Mounting evidence of scores of civilian deaths in the city just northwest of Kyiv has sparked global outrage and tougher sanctions against Russia, which began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

In March, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, declared that he was open an investigation on possible war crimes in Ukraine.

“Social media has completely transformed the way human rights investigations are conducted,” said Yvonne McDermott Rees, a professor specializing in international criminal law at Swansea University’s Hillary Rodham Clinton Law School.

With a simple search of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Telegram, investigators can access a “phenomenal” amount of information – often in areas they otherwise couldn’t reach due to fighting, McDermott said. Rees.

A man who says Russian soldiers broke his arm stands outside his home in Bucha on Wednesday. Residents say Russian soldiers executed civilians in the town for several weeks before retreating. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

But it takes more than just one tweet – or even thousands of them – to prove a war crime.

These posts are just a starting point for investigators, who are also in a race against time as moderators on social platforms remove content that violates their policies, potentially deleting that evidence forever.

The historical role of video in war crimes convictions

The use of video as evidence in war crimes prosecutions is not new.

Black and white footage, filmed by Allied troops as they liberated Nazi concentration camps, was used as evidence at the 1945 Nuremberg trials.

Similarly, a video of a mass execution of Bosnian Muslim men in 1995 – part of the Srebrenica massacre, in which thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed – shocked the world when it was revealed during the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. , a decade later.

An elderly Bosnian woman cries at the grave of her relative on July 11, 2015, at the Potocari memorial center near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where 136 bodies found in mass graves have been laid to rest at the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. (AFP/Getty Images)

But legal experts say the near real-time access that social media provides is a game-changer.

“[In previous conflicts], you were often trying to find those rare video clips that might exist, or photographs that people had taken. And you could be going door to door, knocking on doors, literally, trying to capture that information,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“Today, with the prevalence of information being posted on social media…it’s really about finding the signal through the noise.”

A Ukrainian soldier pays his respects next to a mass grave with civilian bodies in the town of Bucha on Monday. Locals say the dead were killed by Russian soldiers. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Social media has already played a role in a handful of war crimes convictions under national laws in Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden, involving individuals who fought in Syria and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch. In some of these cases, the criminals were photographed posing with the bodies of enemy combatants, and the photos were later uploaded to Facebook.

Online content has also been used as evidence in a limited number of cases before the International Criminal Court. But the conflict in Ukraine could be the biggest legal test of social media in a war crimes case, according to McDermott Rees.

Social media challenges as evidence

Experts warn, however, that the sheer volume of social media content will create new challenges for those trying to file a complaint and could even slow down the investigation process.

“It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack made of needles, because there are all these videos that claim to be of a particular incident, and it’s your responsibility and your job to really go through all of that. “, said Koenig.

Many teams of investigators scour social platforms for clues, Koenig said, including Ukrainian prosecutors, foreign government agencies and citizen groups like Bellingcat, with the help of artificial intelligence tools. to browse, collect and analyze data, in hopes that it might one day serve as evidence.

But, she adds, every photo and video must first be cropped in several ways.

Investigators will assess any metadata attached to the images, such as the time, date and location of their creation, she explained. They will analyze the source that uploaded it and try to trace it back to its original creator. And they will also examine the image itself – comparing it with other photos and videos, satellite images and eyewitness accounts, to try to corroborate any evidence it contains, Koenig said.

WATCH | Evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, according to a veteran investigator:

Evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity in Ukraine but not genocide: veteran investigator

“This is clearly a war crime and indeed its breadth and depth suggests that there are also crimes against humanity,” said veteran war crimes investigator Bill Wiley. “There is no evidence of genocide at this point.” 7:16

Image quality matters too. The rush to film and upload a scene of atrocities can lead to shaky footage or videos that lack key details, said Dalila Mujagic, legal adviser at WITNESS, an organization that trains people to document rights abuses. humans.

“This sometimes compromises the substance or the evidentiary potential that these videos [or] content might have.”

Responsibilities of social media platforms

Social media companies are under pressure from governments to quickly remove violent and extremist content. Online giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google have jointly pledged to step up such efforts after a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand livestreamed a deadly attack on a mosque in 2019.

But groups like Human Rights Watch say such takedowns can cause companies to suppress evidence of war crimes, without archiving it, which could hamper future investigations.

Mujagic said these platforms must acknowledge their responsibility as “social proof lockers” and protect this data.

To date, “no company has managed to do this,” Mujagic said, adding that platforms face the difficult task of balancing graphical images and “making sure the truth comes out.” , while ensuring that even if the videos are deleted, they can be preserved and accessed by the right people afterwards.

The bodies of the civilians killed in Bucha are deposited on Wednesday in a cemetery before being transported to the morgue. The city’s physical evidence will be part of the evidence for investigators investigating alleged war crimes committed by Russian soldiers. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Koenig says the companies have started working with human rights and other organizations to find solutions, but it’s unclear exactly how much of this content is currently being preserved.

“The challenge for them will always be the magnitude of what they are up against, and a lack of clarity as to what actually constitutes an international crime and what could be evidence of it.”

“Exploring ways to preserve this”

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, told CBC News in a statement that in the case of Ukraine, it is “exploring ways to preserve this and other types of content when we take it down in the where it constitutes evidence of violations of international law”. humanitarian law”.

Twitter, YouTube and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite all the evidence piling up on social media, McDermott Rees and Mujagic stress that this is a supplement – ​​not a replacement – ​​for more traditional war crimes evidence, such as testimonials.

“We can’t lose sight of the human here,” says McDermott Rees.

“These are individuals who should be given the opportunity to tell their story and bear witness to the atrocities they have seen. We need to keep an eye on that and not lose sight of it when we get excited about the potential of social media to responsibility.”