Protests in Syria were reinvigorated this week, after a wrenching video documenting the alleged torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy went viral online. The boy was separated from his parents at a protest against the Assad government, which allegedly mutilated, castrated and killed him, then returned the corpse to his family, who risked their lives to produce the video. The boy’s father is now reportedly missing as well. By Tuesday, however, the video that shot from the web to Al Jazeera to the streets of Syria—where people marched carrying signs emblazoned with the deceased child’s portrait—had been blocked on YouTube, the very site where it first launched.
The temporary blockage of the brutal video, which YouTube has since restored, is another reminder that the same social media platforms which help spread protests can also seriously hinder activists.
The video of the Syrian child, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, is disturbing and ghastly. The camera pans across the boy’s “battered, purple face,” as the New York Times reported, revealing skin “scrawled with cuts, gashes, deep burns and bullet wounds that would probably have injured but not killed. His jaw and kneecaps are shattered, according to an unidentified narrator, and his penis chopped off.” After gaining significant attention in the Middle East, the video was blocked under YouTube’s policy against “shocking and disgusting content.” Thus visitors were greeted with this message instead of the video:
However, after an inquiry by The Nation on Tuesday evening, the video was restored.
“With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call,” said a YouTube spokesperson, who emphasized that the company has a policy against commenting on specific videos. As a general matter, though, the spokesman explained that “when it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.”
YouTube, which is owned by Google, has company guidelines banning shocking or graphic content. “We make exceptions,” the spokesperson added, “for videos that have a clear educational, documentary, scientific or artistic value.” (That phrasing is somewhat similar to the Supreme Court’s obscenity test, as it happens, which exempts works of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value from government bans on obscenity.)
In this case, the mistake would seem to be removing a video that was aimed at documenting and exposing, rather than promoting, violence allegedly used against protesters.
YouTube was not alone in struggling with whether or how to carry the video. NPR reported that it was “too graphic” to post, but then provided links to excerpts of the video, along with the observation that the footage was “not hard to find.” CNN ran two excerpts, but declared the rest of it too grisly to air. By contrast, Al Jazeera, which broadcasts more graphic images than most Western television, repeatedly played the video. Now the channel is credited with turning al-Khateeb into a child martyr across the Arab world. And veteran American journalist Martin Schram, the former Washington bureau chief for Newsday, even likened the images to the iconic Vietnam photo (and video) of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong fighter with a bullet to the head.
Jillian York, who researches digital human rights in the Middle East and was recently appointed Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said YouTube performs pretty well when it comes to making these calls.
“Generally, I’ve found that YouTube does a good job at keeping graphic violence up when there’s context,” she said. “I’ve helped activists at times get their videos back up on YouTube,” York recounted, “by going through the appeals process and adding context.”
Last year, YouTube reinstated the account of an Egyptian blogger who was blocked for posting gratuitious violence, after public criticism, and ultimately restored over 100 of his videos with a request that he add more context. It provided a similar process for a Tunisian activist. Ethan Zuckerkman, a Harvard researcher who co-founded Global Voices, an international hub for citizen media, recounted both incidents last year, lamenting how powerful corporations played such a pivotal role in hosting or trimming campaigns against powerful governments. While governments constrain activists’ ability to report on misconduct, he argued, YouTube also constrains activists through their terms of service:
Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not—it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech. Even if YouTube’s rulers take their function as a free speech platform seriously and work to ensure you’ve got rights to post content, they’re a benevolent despot, not a representative government.
Finally, at the practical level, York proposed that who contacts a social media company can matter more than the substance of the contested content.
“I think it often takes a high-level complaint to get their attention. I don’t totally blame them, as I imagine they’re flooded with appeals,” she told The Nation. “Nevertheless,” she concluded, “there is something to be said for instituting a human rights channel of sorts.” It would be a hard channel to watch, but worthwhile, as courageous citizens across the Middle East continue to risk their lives in order to expose and fight their brutal oppressors.
The video, which is extremely graphic and not appropriate for minors, is below: