Archiving Conflict: The Role of Social Media in Documenting Human History

Ahmed Medien

Community Member

Social media networks have long been flooded with violent content from conflict zones, leading to the gradual formation of content moderation and community guidelines on the most popular platforms. This process originally aimed to safeguard users’ safety while respecting digital rights and free speech, but content moderation is still abundant with flaws.

Whenever there’s a resurgence of violent videos and content because of civil unrest or interstate violence, the same conversations resurface about online platforms’ duties to moderate such content—small, large and very large.  The overwhelming approach to content moderation often centers around the need to hide, de-viralize or simply delete such content, but is that the right approach all the time? 

In the early days of the Israel-Palestine war, the EU asked the four largest platforms, X, YouTube, TikTok and Meta to take down what they considered “illegal” content and content veering on disinformation under their jurisdiction. The ask was moot as it was outside the Commission’s Digital Services Act mandate. In a swift response, multiple digital rights organizations, global and from the Middle East issued a response and an open letter in defense of free speech.  

This divergence of positions brings forth several questions. Who exactly should, can or must decide if videos depicting acts of wars are allowed on online platforms? What principles should guide how platforms choose moderate violent content that emerges from scenes of war and conflicts? In this essay, I offer three principles—product, design and policy—to answer these questions and ensure that platforms employ a human rights and digital rights-based approach to content moderation and DSA compliance.

Social media platforms have become de facto grounds for atrocity documentation, particularly in environments where traditional media is suppressed or unable to provide ground truth. Witnesses, first responders, citizen journalists, and activists primarily use these platforms to share first-person accounts, often being the only source of information for the international community. 

In 2018, in response to international criticism of Facebook’s role in inciting genocide in Myanmar, the company removed accounts tied to the Myanmar military. In September 2021, the U.S. District Court held that Facebook must disclose related de-platformed content on ethnic hate incited against the Rohingya community in Myanmar. On similar grounds of atrocity documentation, the Oversight Board held Meta’s decision to keep a video depicting Azerbaijani soldiers torturing identifiable Armenian prisoners of war in the context of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war.  These instances, which in some ways demonstrate a case-by-case decision on online content documenting atrocities, lead to a need for unpacking how platforms should behave during war and conflict. 

There is a need to swiftly enforce violent content to address the amplification of hateful and harmful rhetoric. At the same time, any such decisions must consider the digital rights and policy trade-offs that balance the need to contain violent content with the overriding importance of archiving digital footprints. Preserving digital content – violent or not – is important to preserving human history and even plays a crucial role in peacebuilding, nation building and lays the ground for much needed processes such as future truth-finding missions and transitional justice. 


Preserving Integrity of History

To maintain the integrity of historical records, one approach for platforms would be to implement a system of content credentials, ensuring that each piece of content is accompanied by metadata that certifies its origin, context and veracity. Such mechanisms already exist by default such as when you save an image to your phone, it records metadata. However, social media platforms, by design, remove this data once content is uploaded.

Content authenticity measures, including the C2PA Content Credentials, led by the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, provide digital media with a transparent “icon of transparency,” allowing users to verify the origin, creation details, and editing history of content. Content credentials will display a “digital nutrition label” to inform users about the provenance of archived content.


Ethical Guidelines for Citizen War Reporters

Existing content moderation regimes often fail to detect the ‘intent’ behind users uploading violent content, including when they intend to inform the broader public rather than promote hateful ideologies.

Universal and ethical principles are critical to regulate war reporting on social media which is often made possible by citizen journalists, which will also go a long way in advancing trust on digital platforms and information integrity online. 


Universal Curation Standards for Conflict Content

Curation refers to selective preservation — not just of content but also its contextual alignment within historical and ethical dimensions. Curation encompasses selective preservation and the enrichment of digital content with new metadata, ensuring its alignment within historical and ethical dimensions for a comprehensive understanding of context.

The narrow focus on controlling narratives via moderation, regulations, laws and public pressure has sparked a different kind of backlash – the quest for “alternative facts,” which severely undermines trust in platforms. The answer is the end of uneven and non-uniform moderation practices and establishing universal curation standards, instead.

Archival platforms such as have demonstrated such curation frameworks were possible. Its methodologies describe a meticulous approach to collecting, preserving and curating content, and the significance of such practices for research and legal contexts.

More such methodologies or consolidation of curative and archival practices should be formulated and adopted by digital and social platforms. More of these methodologies or a consolidation of these curative and archival practices in a war context should exist universally and their adoption should be more industry-wide even among digital and social platforms. 


A Step Forward 

Humanity’s collective endeavor must be to find common grounds – a path that honors the sanctity of historical truth, protects the vulnerable and ensures the stories of conflicts are preserved not just for the scrutiny of the present but as a step towards justice in the future. Preserving digital archives is an important mission, and creating new public forums for multi-stakeholder, informed approaches to content moderation is essential to ensure digital platforms maintain a balanced stance on factuality, equity, and reconciliation.

Ahmed Medien

Community Member

Ahmed Medien is a community organizer with over a decade of experience facilitating multi-stakeholder forums on trust and safety, misinformation and transparency.