Silicon Valley Can't Be Trusted With Our History
We create almost everything on the internet, but we control almost none of it.
Recently, a 7-year-old photo of mine appeared at the top of my Facebook feed. The orange glow of the streetlamps and the ramshackle barricade of furniture and scrap metal in the background dated it to a very particular time and place: Cairo, in February 2011, when the revolutionaries camped in Tahrir Square were waging a pitched battle against an assault from government-backed thugs.
Seeing it brought back the sound of rocks clanging against sheet metal, the arc of a Molotov cocktail thrown from a balcony, the bandaged head of a barricade defender who told me he was ready to die.
As time passes, I fear that more and more of what happened in those days will live only in memory. The internet has slowly unraveled since 2011: Image-hosting sites went out of business, link shorteners shut down, tweets got deleted, and YouTube accounts were shuttered. One broken link at a time, one of the most heavily documented historical events of the social media era could fade away before our eyes.
It’s the paradox of the internet age: Smartphones and social media have created an archive of publicly available information unlike any in human history — an ocean of eyewitness testimony. But while we create almost everything on the internet, we control almost none of it.
In the summer of 2017, observers of the Syrian Civil War realized that YouTube was removing dozens of channels and tens of thousands of videos documenting the conflict. The deletions occurred after YouTube announced that it had deployed “cutting-edge machine learning technology … to identify and remove violent extremism and terrorism-related content.” But the machines went too far.
“What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war,” Chris Woods, the director of the reporting and advocacy organization Airwars, said at the time. Not only were the deleted videos a resource for journalists and a public chronicle of the violence, they were potential evidence for war crimes trials. YouTube restored most of the channels following the outcry but has continued to delete footage at a slower pace — about 200,000 videos of the conflict have been memory-holed, observers estimated in March.
Our access to information is incredibly broad but shockingly fleeting. A tweet that was meant to be forgotten within minutes resurfaces years later to cost someone their job, while a video providing unambiguous evidence of war crimes disappears without a trace. A handful of enormous tech companies curate the public library we conjure into existence every day, and they can and do delete it at a whim.
Information ephemerality, and our lack of a model for noncorporate control of digital information, has been a blessing for governments looking to rewrite history and a curse for those trying to document the truth in environments where it is being contested every day. After Egypt’s 2011 uprising, an endless stream of propaganda from the regime and its allies has gradually rewritten history, casting the protests as a foreign-backed conspiracy, never to be repeated, or erasing them from textbooks altogether. The state’s total media dominance has made it easy to establish this narrative.
In response, activists there did something that could serve as a lesson for the rest of us. They reclaimed control of their digital memories.
In January, after years of quiet and coordinated work among hundreds of people, the filmmaking collective Mosireen launched an online archive containing as much amateur footage as they could find documenting the Egyptian uprising and the years that followed. Named 858, after the number of hours of indexed, time-stamped footage posted on the day the archive went public, it represents a new model for preserving our information ownership — and our collective memory — in a time when corporations cannot be trusted to do it for us.
“The very act of constructing an archive is a form of power,” Cairo-based writer Amir-Hussein Radjy noted in a January article about 858, nodding to Jacques Derrida’s 1995 book, Archive Fever. In it, Derrida argued that “effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive.” In Egypt, Radjy wrote, the state-run National Archive “receives no state papers from the presidency, or the powerful ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. The army keeps a separate archive altogether.” The public is excluded from its own history.
There is no artifice to 858, no tech-utopian snake oil about solving the problem through the blockchain or making a scalable solution for all of humanity. Its interface brings to mind the functionality of an early 2000s PC video player, and it can break down, like when the sound cuts out as you move from one clip to the next. There are also awkward gaps in the history it archives, such as the dearth of footage documenting one of the largest massacres of civilian protesters in modern world history — the infamous assault on a Muslim Brotherhood–led sit-in shortly after the military coup of 2013, which killed more than 800 civilians. Mosireen, mostly composed of leftists and liberals who despise the Islamists they blame for derailing the revolution, did not film the Brotherhood protests, and seem to have shown little interest in working with the people who did.
But 858 is a real achievement, succeeding in what the internet’s original evangelists had always hoped would be its great prize: the democratization of information. It takes a contested historical moment and places the documentation in the people’s hands without an unreliable corporate intermediary. You are reminded, as you sit through video after video, not only that something revolutionary really did occur in Egypt in 2011 but that the event was truly popular, drilling through nearly every layer of society. It is only one window onto the uprising, framed by activists with a partisan viewpoint, but it’s a start, and more should follow.
Those windows matter, because the internet is messing with human cognition in ways that will take decades to fully understand. Some researchers believe it is altering the way we create memories. In one study, researchers told a group of people to copy a list of facts onto a computer. They told half the group that the facts would be saved when they finished and the other half that the facts would be erased. Those who thought that the facts would be saved were much worse at remembering them afterward. Instead of relying on our friends and neighbors — or on books, for that matter — we have started outsourcing our memories to the internet.
So what happens if those memories are erased — and if the very platforms responsible for their storage are the ones doing the erasing?
That scenario is a threat everywhere, but particularly in countries where the authorities are most aggressively controlling speech and editing history. We say the internet never forgets, but internet freedom isn’t evenly distributed: When tech companies have expanded into parts of the world where information suppression is the norm, they have proven willing to work with local censors.
Those censors will be emboldened by new efforts at platform regulation in the US and Europe, just as authoritarian regimes have already enthusiastically repurposed the rhetoric of “fake news.”
The reach and power of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are so new and strange that we’ve barely begun formulating a response. But we can learn from the activists already doing it; from Mosireen, or the team behind the Syrian Archive — six people, with a budget of $96,000, who are preserving thousands of hours of footage from their country’s civil war. The archive recently published the Chemical Weapons Database, documenting 221 chemical weapons attacks with 861 verified videos, implicating the Assad regime in a pattern of war crimes and putting the lie to armchair investigators helping to propagate conspiracy theories in the West. One of its cofounders recently told the Intercept that he spends nearly all his time making sure videos aren’t deleted from the big tech platforms before he gets a chance to download them.
The difficulty of navigating Silicon Valley’s moderation bureaucracy as a far-flung subject of its empire is a reminder that the ability to collaborate with companies like Facebook or Google is also not evenly distributed. While Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch may be able to get what they want out of YouTube, a Syrian exile in Turkey is relegated to his couch, clicking the help button over and over again.
Those on the front lines of repression have shown the world a model for preserving history in the digital age; people with money and power — predominantly in the West — should support them and follow their lead. At stake is nothing less than our collective memory.
Evan Hill is a researcher and writer focused on the Middle East and US security policy.