Social Media Platforms’ Management of Criminal Evidence

The Human Rights Watch has recently released ‘Video Unavailable’: Social Media Platforms Remove Evidence of War Crimes, a report detailing how social media outlets go about removing violent or unacceptable content from their platforms and the impact it has on criminal investigations. Photographs and videos deemed to be in violation of a social media’s platforms or standards are often removed, which can help curb additional violence and aid in maintaining national security. However, there appears to be no over-arching standards regulating what happens to removed content after it has been taken down. While Facebook states that it maintains “content for 90 days” pending ” receipt of a valid request,” the company has been known to hold on to removed for longer and, much like Twitter, seems to retain ” different types of information for different lengths of time.” This can cause problems for criminal justice systems as investigations may not even begin until years after the alleged crimes.

What specific content is removed also seems to differ across platforms, though most are concerned about “terrorist and violent extremist content (TVEC).” Removed content also varies across platforms because of how content is flagged and taken down. Some companies rely more heavily on user reports, while others place much of the responsibility on content reviewers. However, most social media platforms, like YouTube and Facebook, are moving towards an increased reliance on automated flagging systems, that at times are being used without additional human oversight.

Another issue with removed social media content is the variance law enforcement faces when requesting access to these materials. For instance, while many law enforcement agencies on the national level can manage to access content via “the use of warrants, subpoenas, and court orders,” international investigators “cannot rely on subpoenas and search warrants to access privately held information.” That being said, there have been several instances of national and international criminal cases being heavily aided by social media content, leading to actual convictions.


For more information on related topics, visit the HSDL Featured Topics on  Global Terrorism, Cyber Crime and National Security, Cyber Policy, and Domestic (U.S.) Terrorism.  Additional resources related to Social Media Censorship, Law Enforcement, and International Law are also available. Please note: HSDL login is required to view some of these resources. 

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