War Imagery, Media, and the Internet

Today, I participated in a workshop at UC Berkeley of around 15-20 people that sought to develop a model policy for moving image archives that are preserving and publicly hosting incidental war footage from Iraq and other sites of armed conflicts. Many archives and web sites are being asked to evaluate the removal of violent images and videos that might be considered shocking, and new iterations of old questions about rights, censorship and access are being forged. The conference was motivated by concerns attendant at the Internet Archive, earnestly grappling with these issues.

The meeting included representatives from the UC Berkeley I-School, the UC Berkeley Library, the EFF, Question Copyright, Techsploitation, the Internet Archive, Witness, some expert social commentators, and others (including some large video sharing sites).

Below are my notes from this meeting, which hopefully will record some of the seriousness and intensity of our debates, from which we derived a draft proposal.

As an example, of around 250 videos being posted daily at the Internet Archive, approximately 30-50 could potentially be called into a process of review. These include images of hate speech or obvious propaganda, guns, victims, or long distance violence (snipers, car bombs, etc.) Some of the videos are excruciatingly violent (Trust me: extremely graphic and intimate portrayals of war and harm). In some of these videos people are identifiable through the explicit use of names, passport photos, or through questioning that reveals personally-identifiable information.

International guidelines focus different lines of response: in Europe, more stringent privacy guidelines dictate acceptable courses of action.

Some of the difficult questions that might “gate” decisions about video access:

Can someone get killed using information in this video?
[This question is in a class of its own, strongly motivating removal from the index.]

Am I helping terrorists recruit?
Am I helping terrorists communicate?
Am I helping the public understand?
Am I helping the authorities monitor?

What is the archive’s social responsibility?
What is the curator’s personal responsibility?

Historically, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Civil war photographs were not contemporaneously copied or distributed. The substantial mass copying and distribution of media did not occur until early in the 20th Century.

There are war watchers: people who will take videos or photographs of the war, and sell them for monetary gain to the press or other outlets; sometimes these are of dubious authenticity.

The toll of physical violence on victims is tremendous: profound stress and pain, humiliation, dehumanization, degradation, objectification.

One participant with a recent and prolonged experience of war shared observations derived from a review of videos of the Iraq war on public video sharing sites:

  • War crimes are committed not only against individuals but against nations.
  • Citizens should be aware of what was done in their name.
  • The act of recording, archiving, and sharing is not neutral to the act of victimization; it can perpetuate victimization, but it can also heal.
  • There are cases where there might be valid grounds for retraction or removal.
  • The focus of such selective censorship should be on the rights of the victims.

Who might be permitted to request removal? In order of effect and impact:

  1. Victims or their families.
  2. Viewers who find content objectionable.
  3. Different entities that have other goals for removal (e.g., they perceive the video is not in the public or national security interest).

(Ryan Shaw later commented, “.. relevant to the issue of weighing victim’s rights to closure vs. the greater social good possibly served by disseminating images of suffering, is the story of the photograph Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by W. Eugene Smith.” )

Interestingly, the Internet Archive has not received take down requests from either war victims or by any U.S. government agency.

The provenance of much user-generated video is often uncertain. There is a certain informal market: a video might be recorded directly or from a broadcast, and then traded or distributed, sometimes mashed with organizational logos or labels, and uploaded.

Writing history: archives are often purposely destroyed or censored. In years foward there are often attempts at recovery: e.g., there was a recent NY Times story on the reconstruction of the shredded Stasi archives. One of the foundational responsibilities of archives should be preserving history. (Arguably there is a distinction between archiving and displaying. However, in the network space, disappearance from one site will likely foster appearance in another. A separate option might be timed-release, or a moving wall, but this strategy generates questions of censorship and selection bias.)

The Iraq war is the most photographed and videotaped on record: many soldiers have at least one personal recording device. There should be a concerted archival effort to record Iraq war media for posterity. The Internet Archive has a small but growing collection of videos on the Iraq war, but there are multitudes more scattered across the Internet. A university archive or library — perhaps even the Library of Congress — should specifically target for archival as many solider-authored photographs and videos as possible. It is their record of the war, in their voices.

Teaching the Vietnam War [book] discusses how the education of the war has been crafted for American youth. Many of the documents of record used in instruction are official U.S. Gov’t press releases from the period of conflict. Given the doubtful veracity or impartiality of this product, one has to question the presentation of the conflict to U.S. students.

There have been restrictions on the U.S. press’ display or accurate representation of soldiers to protect their privacy in certain situations (requesting their explicit approval for recording and distribution) that partially reduces the ability of the press to cover the conflict with thoroughness. While perhaps honorable in intent, these regulations have secondary consequences.

An archive should not aid and abet the production of a particular version of history.

The example of the voluntary withdrawal of Nazi science, however, demonstrates that the purposeful removal of content from public circulation can restrict certain types of highly undesirable activities; however it is very important that this extreme action should be triggered only after a very strenuous review.

There are an increasing number of groups who tag and contextualize videos for the targeted consumption of their specific, private communities. As a result, these videos are not fully visible to the wider public, but knowledgeable members of the group can search on key strings or metadata to locate, share, and discuss them.

There is great difficulty in parsing and interpreting videos in uncommon languages, or authored in language communities that are not widespread among archive, library, or the staff of video sharing services. E.g., does a seemingly militant video present a call for holy war, or a passionate exhortation for peace?

Are video sharing sites simply infrastructure platforms for content distribution? (There are legal and policy reasons for such a stance, with varying distinctions on whether the provider is a commercial organization versus a not-for-profit archive or library).

Is it conceivable to create a standardized summary “revocation record” for videos removed from sites? Most video sites retain a stub record of a video once it has been removed, partially to satisfy past consumers of the clip; partially to help frustrate re-submission; partially as a statement of record.

Mary Hodder pointed out the great semantic loss of video media distribution – we can isolate only the “middle understanding.” We do not have the appreciation and contextualization of the submitter, nor do we understand the perception of the consumer. There are culturally very diverse interpretations of sexuality, violence, and other profound human experiences.

Dialectic between thematic material and the culture: thinking about sexually-explicit material, there has been a “pornification” of our society — different understandings of sexuality, fashion, and sociality — but so too has porn changed as well.

Do we become de-sensitized to extreme violence by our exposure to it? Is exposure to images of war educational in context, and socially and individually responsible? Even quite recently, Susan Sontag contributed to the consideration of these profound choices in Regarding the Pain of Others [book]; they perplex our grasp at resolution.

We may be shocked by vivid war videos, but we also have to remember that they are many peoples’ daily life.

Perhaps we can support social-feedback mechanisms, through user-chosen communities. For example, “I do not want to see things that my community has flagged as violent or pornographic.” In some ways, PICS was a predecessor of such a scheme.

Generally, the meeting attendees settled towards a policy of permitting user feedback to help determine objectionable video. Perhaps at a certain numerical threshold of user-generated warnings, a cautionary click-through splash screen might be provided as an advisory. Motivating against outright removal except in extreme cases (such as a strong potential of mortal or severe mental harm to others), it is a core mission of archives and libraries to try to record and keep as much media in circulation, and for preservation, as possible.

The workgroup recognized that there needs to be a serious consideration and dialogue on the issues raised by the troika of 1) war imagery; 2) a controlled, regulated, or censored media; and 3) the Internet.

The workgroup determined that the policy of an archive or library media site should emphasize:

  • Integrity of the historical record;
  • Access to information about important cultural, newsworthy, literary, artistic, political or scientific material;
  • Improved public dialog; and
  • Transparency and accountability in government operations.

Draft policy language (subject to change):

The Internet Archive regularly receives images of war and violence from patrons looking for public distribution that others may find objectionable. While the Archive reserves the right to take materials down for any reason, the Archive will attempt to maintain some level of public access to these objectionable materials. To help warn patrons of potentially objectionable materials, the Archive solicits and displays warnings from other patrons.

It was a hard but illuminating day.