Decoding images of war in Syria

Raqqa, Syria
Raqqa, Syria, 2018. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International, used with permission.

In the hands of human rights defenders working to protect and seek justice for vulnerable people worldwide, the internet is a powerful tool. Amnesty International harnessed this potential by creating the Decoders: a community of over 50,000 online volunteers from more than 150 countries, who donate their time and skills to support human rights research.

Decoders projects break research into microtasks that anyone with an internet connection can complete, making massive jobs more manageable by distributing them among a very large group.

The Decoders played a crucial role in Amnesty International’s recent investigation into civilian deaths in Raqqa, Syria. The global network of digital volunteers was activated to help prove beyond any doubt the extent of the destruction in the city.

Raqqa was once the sixth largest city in Syria and home to over 200,000 people. Over the course of four months in 2017, large parts of it were turned to dust. Air strikes and artillery bombardments rained on the city from June to October in a military operation by a US-led coalition to oust the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS) from Raqqa in the context of civil war in Syria.

From the start, human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Airwars, warned that civilians were dying. By the time the coalition declared victory, nearly 80% of Raqqa was destroyed. Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands were injured.

But in the initial aftermath of the battle, the coalition acknowledged only 23 civilian deaths. Human rights organizations were outraged. “We can’t have a situation… where they wash their hands of it,” said Conor Fortune, Senior Communications Adviser on the Crisis Response team at Amnesty International, “We want justice for these people.”

In an effort to document civilian casualties, Amnesty International investigators surveyed the destruction on the ground, interviewed hundreds of survivors, gathered evidence from social media, and conducted expert military and geospatial analysis.

The Decoders would tackle a very specific problem for the investigation: Amnesty International wanted to know precisely when each building in the city had been destroyed.

Destroying a building, even one with civilians inside, is not a violation of the laws of war. But a timeline of the city’s destruction could be combined with the other evidence Amnesty and partner organizations were gathering to more accurately depict the number of civilian casualties.

For the crowdsourced research, Amnesty created Strike Tracker: an online application where anyone could look at a timeline of satellite images on a mobile phone or laptop, to help pinpoint the dates before and after each individual building’s destruction in Raqqa.

Over 3,000 volunteer Decoders logged on to help. Together, they spent over 4,000 hours combing through 2 million photos, and identified the dates of when over 11,200 buildings were destroyed. With creativity, rigor and technical expertise, Amnesty’s Decoders demonstrates how online activism can go beyond ‘liking’ posts or signing petitions, to offering more people opportunities for safe, meaningful participation in real human rights investigations.

Conducting research of this scale, particularly within Amnesty International’s time frame and resource limitations, would have been next to impossible without the internet, digital volunteers, open source crowdsourcing software Hive, and high-quality satellite imagery.

The result of the 18-month long investigation into Raqqa is an online multimedia platform that combines the Decoders’ work with research and evidence collected by Amnesty, Airwars and other partners. These combined efforts help demonstrate the scale of destruction, and have caused the coalition to revise the number of civilian deaths it acknowledges.

The actions of online volunteers around the world exist alongside countless examples of online activism, blogging, storytelling and photography pioneered by Syrians themselves throughout the conflict. In so many ways, from inside and outside the country, the internet can be a lifeline to communicate unimaginable human loss, devastation and cries not to be forgotten.

How can the internet be used for peace and human rights?

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