Into Thin Air: Social Media Archives Under Threat

Credit: The Huffington Post

Credit: The Huffington Post

What has set the Syrian Civil War apart from other conflicts is the prominent role played by social media platforms. For better or worse, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are at the heart of the media battle being waged by all sides. It seems that every army, division, and battalion, even the local neighborhood watch, has its own Facebook handle, Twitter feed, and cadre of loyal followers around the globe.

Social networks have been an important, even crucial, means of reporting and cataloging violence in Syria as well as those responsible. The wealth of open source information has been key not only to understanding how the war is developing on the ground (often in real time), but to building an archive that will be indispensable for researchers, policy makers, and possibly Hague prosecutors in the future.

Unfortunately, all of this faces a serious threat. Much of the (sometimes violent) content placed on these platforms violates terms of service agreements and is quietly removed, never to be found again. I have personally experienced the frustration of finding an amazing photograph, page, or tweet that exists one day and is gone the next. Brown Moses Blog and The Atlantic have both reported on this “destruction of history.”

A new online tool has been developed by two programmers that aims to halt the slide. Al Ghayma (or “The Cloud” in Arabic) allows users to create real-time backups of social media pages and add them to an online collection that is constantly updated. You can explore the site here. I remain a little wary of using it given that the Syrian Electronic Army is rumored to be targeting the very same pages the site claims to want to protect. But the idea is fascinating.

Cataloging the violence and atrocities of the Syrian Civil War is crucial not only for covering and understanding the conflict, but hopefully, one day, meting out justice to those responsible. At the very least Al Ghayma should get us thinking seriously about this project.

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