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U.S. Officials Ask Social Media to Make Record of Russian Atrocities

The war in Ukraine is likely the most-documented conflict in the world’s history, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and social media.

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Two women walk past a apartment complex with a massive hole in its center in Ukraine.
Women carrying food products walk by a destroyed apartment building in Borodyanka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine in an area where officials said there were numerous examples of Russian war crimes.
Photo: Vadim Ghirda (AP)

Four Democratic congressional representatives sent letters Thursday to the heads of the biggest social media companies asking them to create an archive of content coming out of Ukraine that can document Russian war crimes.

As first reported by NBC, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook all received letters asking them to curtail their automated processes of censoring graphic content and instead create systems that archive content which may be later accessed by investigators of Russian atrocities.


“If verified as authentic, this content could provide the U.S. government and international human rights investigators with a trove of evidence that would help to substantiate allegations of war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russian forces against the people of Ukraine,” the letter stated.

In one letter sent to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook’s parent company Meta, writers cited past events that used social media content to prosecute international war criminals. In 2017, the International Criminal Court prosecuted Syrian commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli based on Facebook videos showing him executing 10 blindfolded prisoners, according to The New York Times. Reuters has previously reported about issues of companies like YouTube taking down content that local journalists were using to record protests and attacks on civilians in Syria.


New York reps Carolyn Maloney and Gregory Meeks, as well as Massachusetts’ Stephen Lynch and William Keating all signed their names to the letters. The congresspeople are all chairs of various oversight and foreign affairs committees.

The letter also cites a 2021 report by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, which found that Facebook’s algorithm took action on 99.5% of violent and graphic content between July and September 2020. Document writers said that data is critical “for proving the elements of crimes and preventing further abuse, and in some cases may be the only documentation of such events.”

Representatives of the four tech companies cited did not respond to NBC’s or other news sites’ request for comment.

Ukraine itself has started to investigate Russian war crimes, but the Democrats’ letter cited a report by nonprofit group Human Rights Watch that said many platforms do not have adequate procedures in place to store important content posted to its sites.


In its 2020 HRW report, Facebook told the nonprofit that “legislative restrictions” keep them from holding the content online for longer than a certain period, depending on the type of violence shown. Facebook said it requires a law enforcement preservation request to keep that data on its servers. Twitter also told HRW it only stores certain content for a limited period of time depending on the type of information.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is widely considered the most documented war in human history. Not only that, but regular internet users in and out of Ukraine have been crowdsourcing to track Russian troop movements. Other than the plethora of video posted online, soldiers have been able to take to sites like Twitter to share their experiences, such as one Ukrainian combat engineer who described a route of Russian units on a bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river in Eastern Ukraine.


Other outlets have been working hard to catalog the constant stream of information coming out of the war in Ukraine. The Washington Post has created a database of hundreds of verified videos showcasing the devastation of Ukrainian cities and numerous examples of war crimes against civilian populations.