Investigating Visual Media Conflict and Power

The Archive as Activism: Lessons from Mnemonic and the Syrian Archive

Mnemonic, the non-profit that runs Syrian Archive, Yemeni Archive and Sudanese Archive uses its position as a cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary organisation to provide the tools and methodologies that enable human rights defenders to use digital information in the fight for justice and demand for accountability. This short article emphasises some of Mnemonic’s methodologies and key considerations that its team needs to navigate within the human rights investigative space.

This article provides a snapshot from Jeff Deutch’s session, “Mnemonic: Supporting justice and accountability through effective digital documentation of human rights violations,” at the Investigation is Collaboration conference organised by Exposing the Invisible Project on 2-6 August 2021.

by Tyler McBrien


“Collecting and analysing data is something that states and corporations have been able to do for a long time,” says Jeff Deutch, director of operations and research at Mnemonic, co-founder of the Syrian Archive, and Tactical Tech alumnus. “What’s different now is the potential for using this type of content has opened up to regular people, in order to hold those in power to account.”

In 2014, Hadi Al Khatib and Jeff Deutch co-founded the Syrian Archive in close collaboration with reporters and human rights groups as a rapid response project to preserve digital information of the Syrian conflict: images, videos, and other postings that are invaluable historical artifacts and potential evidence of human rights abuses.

These pieces of digital information largely fall under the umbrella of open-source intelligence, or OSINT for short. As the name suggests, OSINT refers to any publicly available information, including news content, maps, and social media. Anything collected through covert surveillance or spying is excluded.

“Mnemonic grew out of the recognition that Syrian Archive’s workflows could be adapted to other locations where human rights violations must be documented and preserved but the ecosystems to do so are underdeveloped,” says Deutch. Mnemonic is and NGO dedicated to archiving, investigating and memorialising digital information documenting human rights violations and international crimes.


 

Why create an archive?

Here are some reasons why a resource like the Syrian Archive and other archives that Mnemonic is currently supporting to develop are crucial to collecting, preserving and building a body of evidence that can ultimately serve as proof of power abuses and human rights violations:

1. Important content is constantly lost

Anyone documenting human rights abuses knows that their recording and storage devices are constantly at risk of damage or seizure in the often-hostile environments they find themselves in. Conflict zones and border checkpoints are high-risk areas where investigators are liable to lose precious hard drives or cameras.

But even when content makes it out of a conflict zone and onto a website, it’s still not safe. Targeted, repeated cyberattacks or take-down requests can imperil any content published on media platforms and social networks, especially those that use automated removals such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.

2. Content is often unverified

With so much user-uploaded content on social media, it can be difficult to sort through what’s real and what’s fake. And with the rise of deep fakes, the threat posed by disinformation and misinformation will only continue to grow. 

3. Content can be unsearchable

For human rights researchers or any investigators hoping to use user-uploaded digital content for justice and accountability, it can be difficult to sift through massive amounts of content distributed across disparate platforms. Rich information stored in the metadata is also lost when files are uploaded to social media websites. Even reports by journalists or human rights groups are not often publicly available or provided in accessible formats, which creates additional barriers to accessing and processing data.


 

How does the Syrian Archive work?

There are now more hours of user-generated content about the Syrian conflict than there have been hours in the conflict itself. A recent data audit of the Syrian Archive found that it would take 40 years to watch all of the footage currently collected.

Image source Syrian Archive: https://syrianarchive.org/en/about/methods-tools  

Using a variety of mostly free software, the team at the Syrian Archive uses the above process to build its base of evidence. Through analysis and investigations of chemical attacks and other human rights abuses, the Syrian Archive has helped to file criminal complaints, identify perpetrators’ intent, and clarify command structures within conflicts. 

With the Syrian Archive, Yemeni Archive and Sudanese Archive, Mnemonic scrapes and preserves information online, while also adding context and making it searchable, reliable and useful. The organisation also trains human rights defenders to maximise impact of digital information, and builds and supports the development of open-source tools and methods.

Given the graphic nature of the content, Deutch says that Mnemonic and all of the archives try to incorporate several techniques to minimize exposure and trauma for the people working with this content. Simple methods include turning off the sound when it’s not needed to verify a video, or focusing on the non-graphic content (e.g., a street sign, or timestamp). They are also developing methods to blur faces and other graphic elements, and they organize regular therapy sessions for team members who need it.


Lessons learned


 

1. Building an archive can be tedious

As Deutch well knows, behind all of this work there’s a lot of non-glamorous infrastructure development and maintenance. Tools and hard drives break, and social media companies continually change their sites and remove content. This means impact is not easily quantifiable, and if the archive continues to work and make content available to investigators and researchers, that’s a win in itself.

2. Stress collaboration over innovation

There are hundreds of apps and tools to help with human rights documentation, but many aren’t used widely and none of them are perfect. Deutch points out that some of their most impactful work was done using only spreadsheets, a 50-year-old technology. One thing that always works, however, is collaboration.

3. Not all work is high impact

In certain investigations, Deutch and Mnemonic have seen far-reaching impacts, but virtually none in others. Still, he says it’s important to work on or file criminal complaints even if they don’t result in convictions or victories.There’s never a guarantee that prosecutors will take up the complaints, nor is there a guarantee that they’ll use the documentation in the archive.

4. This work is long term

With a lack of adequate international accountability mechanisms globally, Mnemonic and its archives will likely be holding onto content for years, if not decades. This work goes beyond any grant period, so sustainability and collaboration to maintain it should be a focus.


*Jeff Deutch is director of operations and research at Mnemonic and co-founder of Syrian Archive. With more than 10 years of experience in the human rights and nonprofit sector, Jeff previously worked with Tactical Tech where he engaged in research concerning the risk and barriers activist communities face in using technology for transparency and accountability. Jeff has a doctorate from Humboldt University in Berlin, Masters in Public Policy from Hertie School of Governance, and a Bachelor of Arts from Hampshire College. He is also a fellow and member of the steering committee at the Centre for Internet and Human Rights.



This article is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This text reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


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