How social media is used to investigate international crimes
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since February 24, 2022 demonstrates once again the importance of new technologies in the investigation of international crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide and crimes of aggression). In addition to satellite images, whose use has been renewed thanks to the increase in accuracy, now drone images and, above all, photos and videos posted on social networks are added.
Individuals, whether civilian or military, no longer hesitate to film or photograph what they witness and then report the incident on social media. All of this data—called open source data—is therefore available to investigators. So, for example, after verification and approval “46 photos and videos of the vacation on social media, including 143 photos and videos privately shared with investigators” Amnesty International released its investigative report on the March 16, 2022, fire attack on a civilian building housing children in Mariupol.
How does this incredible amount of data available on digital platforms improve the evidence of international crimes and therefore the prosecution of their perpetrators?
An incredible amount of information
First of all, let us note that the massive availability of this information in free access is not a new phenomenon, because the mechanisms established within the United Nations (International, independent, impartial Commission of Inquiry and Mechanism) to investigate these crimes, be it in Syria, in the Myanmar Independent Mechanism and or in Iraq (UNITAD) have already appealed to it, along with jurisdictions at the national or international level.
In the past, the international investigator used to search for evidence on the territory of the country where the crimes took place or, if this was not possible, to collect the statements of refugees from that country. It can now, in addition to this traditional evidence, receive information transmitted directly by civil society or collect it without going to social networks.
This new survey model, on the one hand, allows more participation of individuals in surveys, and on the other hand, compensates for the lack of access to the territory of a state when it closes its borders. Sending an investigative team to the scene when Syria or security conditions do not allow it. However, it raises many questions.
A video posted on social media on Saturday and confirmed by The Post shows at least nine people, including a child, lying on the street of a residential area in Bucha, north of Kiev, after Russian forces withdrew from the area. They look dead. https://t.co/OHNHj5Un5W
– The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) April 2, 2022
The investigator faces new challenges: to be able to analyze so much information without being overwhelmed by information; distinguish true information from false information; obtaining such evidence in the context of legal proceedings, etc.
When faced with this new evidence, investigative strategies vary greatly depending on the mandate the investigators receive. Two independent investigative mechanisms established within the United Nations (IIIM: International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria and IIMM: Independent Mechanism for Myanmar) have been mandated. “collect, gather, preserve and analyze evidence of violations of international humanitarian law, violations of human rights law and abuses of this law” and on the other hand “to compile files in order to facilitate and expedite the conduct of fair, independent criminal trials in accordance with international legal standards before national, regional or international courts or tribunals”.
To this end, they conduct a structured survey in which they try to bring all this evidence together and analyze it. Such investigations are a real challenge for every investigator in the age of new technologies. The challenge lies in their ability to shift from data gathering to evidence gathering by identifying relevant evidence within the data collected. In 2020, the head of MIII, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, already explained that the storage capacity of its mechanism is equivalent. “At 1.7 petabytes, that’s equivalent to a tower ’10 times taller than the Eiffel Tower'”. To handle such a large amount of data, these researchers use faces, seals, titles, etc.
In turn, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and the national criminal courts prosecuting the alleged perpetrators of these crimes under their universal jurisdiction overcome this trap by focusing on the evidence necessary to make an international crime the object of an international crime. their investigation. This second strategy leads them to target their search on social networks to retain only information relevant to their research.
The risk of fake news
Regardless of the type of investigation being conducted, however, investigators must adapt their methodology to verify the authenticity and reliability of evidence and identify multiple fake news stories. These are not necessarily discounted for investigation, as they may be related to, for example, state-run propaganda. But they should still be identified in order not to bias the investigation.
War in Ukraine: Read the fake news and images since the Russian invasion began https://t.co/TwtcTucybR
— Decoders (@decoders) October 11, 2022
Inspired by the Berkeley Protocol on the Use of Digital Open Sources in Investigations, adopted in 2020 with the help of the University of Berkeley, investigators from the International Criminal Court and the United Nations are applying a rigorous methodology to achieve this. In addition, they ensure that data from social networks is then stored according to a chain of evidence based on technology using a hash function process. Only commissions of inquiry established under the United Nations act as an exception due to lack of resources in terms of time and budget. Therefore, their methodology is necessarily less rigorous. That is why the evidence they collected will not be repeated again, it will still be the subject of serious research. However, this may change with the creation of a technological unit within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responsible for collecting, analyzing and preserving this evidence.
Although this new evidence, which is the result of new technologies, seems robust enough to be presented in the context of trials thanks to the adoption of rigorous methodologies in this context, they still carry certain fears. Indeed, the intervention of individuals through these new forms makes it necessary to question their status, especially their security, since the protection afforded to the witness is reserved for the judicial process. However, their protection is necessary due to the visibility of their participation in social networks above surveys.
What role does it play for digital platforms?
Finally, the role of the private sector is now inevitable, which itself raises questions about either the form of partnerships to create the technologies needed for the investigation, or the operation of platforms with a lot of evidence that can escape the control of investigators.
Although some of them appear to be cooperating within the framework of legal procedures, they refuse to provide the necessary information to the commissions of inquiry established under the United Nations, considering that they have no obligations related to their ad hoc jurisdictions related to these mechanisms. However, they play an important role by first establishing the facts that constitute international crimes and then recommending that they be prosecuted. Therefore, this lack of cooperation complicates their warning role. Likewise, when these platforms agree to cooperate, they may not submit self-moderated or author-removed data within the framework of national or regional obligations they must comply with.
If this new evidence still raises certain questions, its probative value in demonstrating the guilt of the perpetrators of international crimes is undeniable. It was on the basis of several duly authenticated videos that the ICC Prosecutor made his first guilty plea in the Al Madhi case, in which a former member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Salafi jihadist group active during the war in Mali, was involved in the robbery. Historical and religious monuments in Timbuktu (Mali) in 2012. And if they are not always enough, this evidence can combine all the elements to convince a judge of a person’s guilt in any case.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.