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House Democrats ask tech companies to archive evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

NBC News logo NBC News 5/12/2022 Ben Collins
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Four high-ranking congressional Democrats sent formal requests to the CEOs of YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, on Thursday, asking them to archive content that could be used as evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

“We write to encourage Meta to take steps to preserve and archive content shared on its platforms that could potentially be used as evidence as the U.S. government and international human rights and accountability monitors investigate Russian war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities in Ukraine,” the letter sent to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated.

The letters were signed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the Oversight Committee; Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chair of the Subcommittee on National Security; and Rep. William Keating, D-Mass, chair of the Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber.

They specifically request the social media companies “to flag or mark content as containing potential evidence of war crimes and other atrocities.”

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

The request comes as evidence of potential Russian war crimes continues to accumulate on social media. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s prosecutor general tried a  Russian soldier for war crimes for the first time since the invasion began in February — the prosecution was announced on Facebook.

While the lawmakers’ letters don’t havethe power of subpoena that would allow them seek legal enforcement, social media companies have historically compiled with requests like this one.

Last week, Facebook’s automated systems briefly blocked hashtags related to civilian deaths in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Meta spokesman Andy Stone told Euronews that the company “acted quickly to unblock the hashtags” after realizing the flaw in their automated systems.

The letters to the tech companies note that while the social networks may have “rightfully implemented graphic content policies to protect their users,” an archive of the footage is necessary for potential future war crimes trials.

“We are concerned that the automated systems and processes that social media platforms often use to remove graphic and violent posts could lead to the loss of important content that contains evidence of potential human rights violations and war crimes,” the letters read.

The letters cite a 2021 report from the University of California at Berkeley’s Human Rights Center that found human rights investigators “are increasingly losing the race to identify and preserve information that may have legitimate human rights and historical value before it is removed,” and implore the companies to create “digital lockers” to safely store evidence of potential war crimes.

A report from the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue noted that conspiracy theories questioning the existence of the massacre in Bucha were shared more in the second week in April on Facebook than posts claiming the slaughter actually occurred.

The letters from Congress also requested additional steps from the tech companies, including insisting the social networks “archive and preserve all content related to the war in Ukraine that may provide evidence of war crimes or human rights violations” and to “engage and coordinate with international human rights monitors and civil society organizations examining human rights violations in Ukraine.”

“Images and videos of indiscriminate killing and other unspeakable violence are being shared largely on social media platforms, exposing the disinformation pushed by the Russian government and creating a historical record that could be key to ensuring those responsible are brought to justice,” Maloney said in an emailed statement.

”It is critical that the companies who operate these platforms find a way to maintain a safe environment for their users, while also preserving content that could potentially be used as evidence of war crimes by Russian forces.”

Lynch ​​called the requests an important step in “ensuring that President Putin and his enablers are held accountable for the atrocities Russian forces have committed against the people of Ukraine.”

“Given the tension social media companies face between removing material that violates their graphic content policies and preserving evidence that could be used in future war crimes prosecutions, it is incumbent upon these platforms to start thinking now, not later, about how they can ensure this content is not lost forever once it is removed,” Lynch said in an emailed statement.


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