The Race to Archive Social Posts That May Prove Russian War Crimes

Aerial view of civilians walking around destroyed residential neighborhood in Borodianka Ukraine - Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

The Race to Archive Social Posts That May Prove Russian War Crimes
WIRED, April 11, 2022
By Tom Simonite

“Painstaking new techniques for archiving social media posts could provide crucial evidence in future prosecutions.”


In early April, as Ukraine started to regain control of Bucha and other small towns northwest of Kyiv, appalling imagery began to spread on Telegram and other social networks. Photos and videos showed bodies in the streets and anguished survivors describing loved ones, civilians, killed by Russian soldiers. In Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, attorney Denys Rabomizo carefully built an archive of the gruesome evidence. His aim: to preserve social media posts that could help prove Russian war crimes.


“Psychologically it’s very difficult to look at,” says Rabomizo, who coordinates a team of more than 50 volunteers who gather online material and also contact witnesses to alleged atrocities to gather testimony. “So I think about trying to archive all this in a proper way to be used in the future.”


Such evidence could, in the months and years ahead, be submitted to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which said in February it would begin investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. Cases over actions in Ukraine might also be brought at the European Court of Human Rights or in countries like Germany that prosecute certain crimes beyond their borders.


“Capturing social media from Ukraine is an incredible source of evidence,” says Alex Whiting, deputy prosecutor at the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, and a visiting professor at Harvard University. A deluge of TikTok and Telegram posts could vastly increase the amount of evidence of alleged Russian war crimes—but they will only aid prosecutions if judges accept such material in court.


War crime cases are usually built with witness testimony, documents, and conventional forensic evidence, but all are hard to collect after the chaos of war. Open source investigation methods that combine clues across social posts and other sources could fill crucial gaps, says Whiting. But they have rarely featured in such cases to date, and material posted by persons unknown has been seen as unreliable and at risk of manipulation.


Rabomizo and others working on the conflict in Ukraine, including open source investigators at Bellingcat, believe they can change that with new, more rigorous protocols and technology for archiving posts. “Ukraine will probably be the first time open source evidence will be tested extensively in court,” says Nadia Volkova, director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group. She’s been helping Rabomizo and others document potential war crimes through an alliance of Ukrainian human rights organizations called the 5AM Coalition, named for the moment on February 24 that the first explosions rocked Kyiv.

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About the Author:

Tom Simonite is a senior writer for WIRED in San Francisco covering artificial intelligence and its effects on the world. He once trained an artificial neural network to generate seascapes and is available for commissions. Simonite was previously San Francisco bureau chief at MIT Technology Review, and wrote and edited technology coverage at New Scientist magazine in London. He lives in San Francisco, where he enjoys riding his bike and testing the reactions of prototype self-driving cars.

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