Social media changed war forever. In the past, people relied on first hand reports from fighters and journalists to understand far-flug conflicts. Thanks to services such as Twitter and YouTube, people can now watch—often in real time—as wars unfold.
Jakub Janovský, an IT worker from the Czech Republic, has been watching the Syrian Civil War online since it began in 2011, collecting footage the entire time. On May 15, a little over seven years after the war began, he released 134 GB of that footage online. “As I see it, it’s really important to fight propaganda from all sides with raw data,” Janovský told me via Skype.
The Syrian Civil War is an example of just how much social media has changed war. We know about Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons, in part, because of horrifying footage of the attacks uploaded by its victims. “I feel the data has historical significance, especially considering how… [it] affects politics in Europe and elsewhere,” he said. “I think people should really be aware of all the things that were, and are, happening there.”
Modern war has long been a hobby for Janovský and the Syrian Civil War provided him a unique opportunity. “We got a lot of realtime coverage so I became really focused on that conflict,” he said. “Over time, I realized that a lot of the footage was being deleted, especially in 2015 when…regime trolls actively tried to push YouTube to ban multiple accounts. So I started to archive them.”
A lot of the footage he’s archived comes from YouTube, and he told me that after 2015 he started to see a lot of organized campaigns of mass reporting YouTube videos from rebel groups.
“ a lot of pressure, especially from advertisers, which was one of the initial reasons to start banning videos,” he said. “Because certain [extremist] groups, including some ISIS fanboys tried to monetize the videos and it became a PR problem…they are being pushed by governments to at least pretended that they are fighting extremists. Despite all the deletions you can still…find ISIS footage and anything else if you try hard enough. So, as far as I’m concerned, this is just pretending to do something.”
Janovský started working with Bellingcat—a website that documents conflict and crime using open source methods such as satellite imagery and YouTube videos—in 2016. At first he was just archiving footage for them, but he’s recently published articles about regime tanks and rebel anti-tank missiles based on the footage he’s captured. “Most of it is from YouTube,” he said. “But obviously…we had to work hard to get the footage before it gets the eliminated.”
Between YouTube, various Telegram groups, and Twitter, Janovský has amassed a collection of footage from the war that’s more than 1.3 terabytes in size. After his articles at Bellingcat went live, people began to ask for access to his archive. He pulled a 134 GB selection, organized it, and created a torrent. “I don’t have a super fast upload to host the data directly,” he said. “And torrents allow us to keep data online.”
Janovský feels it’s important to preserve the footage from these conflicts. He wants people’s knowledge to come from facts, not opinion pieces. “On this footage you can see war crimes and general combat footage from all sides,” he said. “You can look at the data and make your own opinion instead of relying on others. I prefer people have access to the facts, not just opinions made by some guys who have some bias. Even I have my biases. I prefer to deal with just data.”
You can check out Janovský’s archive here.
YouTube did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.