The Digital Front Line: Syria's YouTube Users Face Threats for Exposing Footage

YouTube contends with supposed Assad forces who want to block videos.

Damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria. Conflict between rebel fighters and troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad  has reached YouTube, which some use to broadcast scenes from the intense clashes.

Damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria. Conflict between rebel fighters and troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reached YouTube, which some use to broadcast scenes from the intense clashes.

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Last December, a U.S. official requesting anonymity described to U.S. News one of the reasons why the American government supplies Syrian rebel fighters with electronic equipment: So they can shoot videos and upload them to YouTube.

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This affirmation from a federal agency represents how the video sharing website, which just turned 8, has graduated from simply a repository for double rainbows and preparing for the weekend. Now it helps fuel a revolution that will likely forever change Syria's history.

But the company's newfound capacity is not without danger for those on the front lines.

YouTube user Syria4YouandMe manages one of the more active channels for uploading and disseminating shocking footage of the harsh realities of the two-year-old civil war. The user, who asked to only be identified by his username for security reasons, says the channel has been targeted by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria4YouandMe is listed as being based in Syria, though U.S. News could not independently confirm this or the identity of the user.

"I am not a supporter of the [Free Syrian Army] and not of the [Syrian Military]. I only want to show the world what happens in Syria," Syria4YouandMe tells U.S. News by email. "I don't upload false or wrong videos. I only write titles [of] what I see and what the rebels or soldiers say."

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Yet videos on this channel that depict atrocities committed by pro-Assad forces are repeatedly flagged as inappropriate, while the user receives threats from others who object not to the content but to the exposure of this footage.

"I am not really important in this world. I only upload ... the words of the Syrian people," Syria4YouandMe says. "So I don't know why so many guys hate me for what I do."

Earlier this month, YouTube blocked Syria4YouandMe's channel.

"On YouTube, people around the world share videos every day that document humanitarian disasters and war zones, human rights abuses and protests – events and experiences that otherwise may never be seen," a YouTube spokesperson tells U.S. News. "Where we can, we curate and highlight these videos to help our community access this kind of information, and develop tools to help people share their stories widely."

YouTube policy prohibits its spokespeople from commenting with personal attribution.

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Managing this content is a rigorous task. A "review team" works around the clock to check videos that have been flagged by users, and employs a complex algorithm to determine the priority of each one.

"We take this stuff really seriously and we're trying to make the right decisions," the spokesperson says. "Shocking, or explicit footage is not allowed. YouTube is not a shock site."

"We also have this strong commitment to being a platform where people can share news and information that they may not be able to get out there another way," adds the spokesperson.

It remains a science of sorts to know the difference between important but shocking video, and inappropriate salacious footage. Take, for example, this video of what appears to be a pro-Assad gang of soldiers beating a man stripped almost naked (Editor's note: This video contains very graphic content).

It remains on the site with content warnings and age-restrictions because of its clear news value, the spokesperson says. It would be removed, however, if it were just simply a man being beaten on the street, or if the user posted it as entertainment.

But YouTube staffers cannot monitor all videos all the time.

"We don't pre-screen content. We rely on the billion eyeballs around the world to tell us when they see content that's inappropriate," the spokesperson says, adding that merely flagging a video will not take it down. "You can flag something a thousand times, that doesn't mean it comes down."

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YouTube does not comment on specific users. However, Syria4YouandMe is back up and running as of Tuesday, and continues to post videos.