Social Media Companies Need to Preserve Evidence of Abuse
The video starts innocuously. A soldier in camouflage pants and a black shirt speaks to men who are mostly out of frame, punctuating his words with waves of his right hand. A pistol dangles from his left hand, and another man kneels behind him, hands behind his head. But a minute into the video, the soldier in the black shirt suddenly pivots and shoots. The kneeling figure slumps forward as the soldier strides toward him, shooting the prisoner twice more in the head.
More than three years later, this footage is a central piece of evidence in a novel case pending before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prosecutors in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for the man in the black shirt, Libyan militia commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli, after videos documenting his role in the killing of 33 people surfaced online. The evidence against Werfalli, unlike that presented in any other case in the court’s history, is based primarily on social media documentation. Without the videos, prosecutors would have no case.
Although the Werfalli videos have grabbed headlines, they are hardly unique. Evidence of the world’s most egregious crimes, including genocide, torture, and the destruction of cultural heritage property, circulates in real time on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Understandably, these companies often remove the most graphic content from public view. But human rights advocates and reporters have long argued that destroying such evidence undermines future prosecutions and denies victims the justice they deserve.