Conflict Urbanism Aleppo Seminar
Case Study | Spatializing Syria's "Youtube War"

Understanding the Youtube War

Since international news media was banned in Syria, the social media platform YouTube has become a primary source for transmitting footage of the Syrian Civil War. YouTube has become a war zone of all its own as competing groups use the platform to further their political interests on the battlefield. The importance of YouTube to the conflict is directly related to the prevalence of recording devices among citizens living in war-ravaged areas, as well as the politically murky nature of the Civil War.

This project is an investigation of the YouTube war, investigating the platform as a means to better understand the physical destruction and humanitarian crisis in the city. While the maps we have access to, as well as the data collected by UNOSAT and Human Rights watch, is viewable by us on high resolution satellite imagery, YouTube allows us to look closely at th ewar from another perspective of distance. What follows, of course, are many questions about the spatial relevance and political meaning of the ‘YouTube War.’

The Dynamics of War in Social Media

The videos uploaded to YouTube - and the political actors which these videos represent - are mediated by YouTube’s online platform. The platform’s structure for sharing and consuming videos has set a context through which the narrative of the conflict has evolved.

Beyond a curated front page, Youtube’s familiar interface is fairly standard across digital media platforms; a search term delivers a list of twenty results on a white background. The order of this list is determined by youtube’s search algorithm and can be modified by the viewer using several filter options, including content type, upload date, and a sorting category, prioritizing videos by relevance, upload date, view count, or rating. Each video or group of videos shown in the resulting list includes an image, title, author, the amount of time since the video was uploaded, the number of views, and a two line description of the contents. The limited display of information for any one video in the interface prioritizes the list of videos from a search over the content within a single result.

Within the context of YouTube’s existing platform, users uploading videos have developed a common method for categorizing content so that it is more easily accessible given the YouTube’s search-based interface. Videos uploaded of events on the ground in Syria are titled with a formula of location and date, in addition to a specific description of the event. This common language of describing videos transforms YouTube’s general search algorithm into an archive of war footage with great depth. A YouTube search of ‘حلب الشيخ خضر برميل’ [Aleppo Sheikh Kheder (a neighborhood in eastern Aleppo) barrel], on July 6th, 2016, for example, returns 2,510 results.

The question of place as it corresponds to the locations referenced in videos is an open question in our research. In the videos we have seen over the course of our research, place is often referenced as the neighborhood of the event. However this is not always the case. Some neighborhoods in the center of the city are referred to as the “Citadel” (القلعة). Other events are tied to particular known spaces, such as intersections or open spaces. One building, the tower of Aleppo’s city hall, functions as a major point of conflict between rebel groups and the Syrian regime and is used as a placement to locate videos.

Mapping the YouTube War

While YouTube is an important resource for accessing and distributing footage of the Syrian Civil War, it’s platform does not give access to the spatial dynamic of the conflict. The below map plots youtube search results across a map of Aleppo, taking advantage of the naming conventions which have become the standard of accessing first person content.* Videos are located on the map corresponding to the searches for the place names used in the video titles. Filters corresponding to other common keywords can be turned on and off to further specify the videos shown. *An appearance of videos on these maps does not indicate that they are confirmed or collaborated.

Between distant satellite photography and millions of cell phone clips taken on the ground it becomes increasingly important to weave these disparate scales together to uncover evidence for future use in assessing crimes of war.


Voices, Audiences, Agendas

Youtube requires individuals uploading videos to register as a user, giving parties the ability to create profiles through which their videos of the conflict can be accessed centrally. The videos uploaded by these users represent different political agendas, propaganda and content narratives. The highly political nature of open source content makes the process of investigation only more challenging.

The description of Syria’s ‘YouTube War’ encapsulates much more than just the projection of video onto the social media platform. Content uploaded to YouTube has come to influence international media and political narratives as both an excellent source of information and a point of political tension. One example of this conflict is the debate over President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against citizens. Some of the first documentary evidence of this use of chemical warfare appeared on YouTube, displaying the platform’s powerful ability to disseminate information quickly. However, this evidence was quickly criticized by Assad’s supporters who pointed to a timestamp on the videos which was before the alleged incidents were to have occurred.

The YouTube War': Citizen Videos Revolutionize Human Rights Monitoring in Syria (Materials implicating Syrian govt in chemical attack prepared before incident – Russia Published by RT (Russian Government sponsered news agency)

(SOURCE) The discrepancy in this information, which has since been linked to the 10 hour time difference between Syria and YouTube’s headquarters in California, highlights the evidentiary weakness of YouTube’s platform for open source content. As YouTube is still a relatively new platform, the question of how to incorporate its information within larger political institutions such as the International Criminal Court is still undecided (Legal standards have yet to be developed to “verify the authenticity and integrity of photographs and videos uploaded to the Internet” for use in the International Criminal court. (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Human Rights Center, UC Bekeley, 2012, p.7)).

Investigating the H.N.N.

Investigating YouTube through a close examination of a particular uploading channel provides insight into trends underlying the way that war is presented and documented through video. Halab (Aleppo) New Network, or H.N.N, ( is one of the several rebel news outlets that have kept a very close YouTube presence alongside their traditional news chanel, Facebook page Facebook and Twitter Feed. H.N.N is based in Aleppo, and employs a network of forty reporters and journalists. Several of H.N.N have died while reporting in Aleppo.

For the entire YouTube channel of H.N.N was downloaded, and data processing reduced the entries to only videos that can be attributed to specific neighborhoods in Aleppo. To do so, we deleted videos in areas outside of Aleppo, in addition to general media and news roundup videos that were not geolocated. In working with the dataset, we found a number of trends in the way that the videos are reported and presented online. The map below draws from the dataset of Halab New Network videos. The map specifically shows videos that describe “instances” of shelling or barrel bombing, “effects” of shelling or barrel bombing, “protests”, “sniper attacks” and “cannon attacks”. Locating videos spatially, and investigating their content through tags attached to their name.

As video from the HNN channel is stacked into its respective neighborhood, an infographic emerges; towers of video pile in the east...


A Guide to Verifying Video Location

Given Youtube’s complexity as an open source for content, it is important to develop methods of deriving meaning from the large amounts of content uploaded to the site. Individual videos can be of poor quality or not show enough context for verification. The platform’s open source content is similarly prone to bias and inaccuracies which further challenge questions of verification. Below, we elaborate on several methods to examine YouTube videos to better locate events and verify their authenticity.

Verifying Video Location With the Street Grid

In December of 2013, the Syrian Government launched a sustained campaign of barrel bombs in the Rebel held eastern region of Aleppo. These attacks generated substantial news coverage in mainstream media sources. The attacks were reported to kill over 100 people and were documented in images and videos including many uploaded to YouTube.

The video below shows one attack from this campaign; a bombing which caused a partial building collapse and a fire in an adjacent building. A number of videos describe the event as being on December 17th, in the Ash-Sha’ar neighborhood of Aleppo. Watch the video here.

The timing of the event is corroborated by a number of other videos posted on YouTube, accessible by searching the neighborhood name and date: “ 2013 12 17 الشعار حلب”.

Available datasets from HRW and UNOSAT show damage spread across the neighborhood. Using multiple views of the damage it is possible to investigate possible locations of the damage using the orientations of surrounding streets as a guide.

Based on a mapping of different views from youtube data, the location of this specific attack was at a unique intersection of at least five streets.

With this information, it is possible to focus on 4 possible intersections. Two of which can quickly be eliminated as their orientations do not align with the imagined street orientation.

Upon closer examination, it is possible to deduce that the intersection on the right is more likely to be the location of the attack, as the street approaching from the north more closely aligns with the information from the multiple youtube videos.

Digital Globe."Satellite 2012." May 1, 2012

The collapse of the corner building is visible when comparing 2012 and 2014 satellite imagery.

Left: Digital Globe."Satellite 2012." May 1, 2012
Right: Digital Globe."Satellite 2014." August 10, 2014

Further corroboration is provided by an image from a 2015 Reuters news article, which shows food carts lining the main street in front of the destroyed building. These same structures can be seen in 2015 satellite images.

Left: Aleppo, Airbus."Satellite 2015." September 3, 2015.
Right: Reuters. "Russia says U.S. Planes Bombed Syria's Aleppo on Wednesday." February 11, 2016.

While this event resulted in destruction to two buildings and loss of life. It is not included in either the UNOSAT or HRW databases because the destruction of the two buildings is not clearly defined in Satellite images alone. By using youtube’s video data as an additional primary source for documenting the civil war, it is possible to learn more about the conflict than is possible through traditional methods.

Verifying Video Location With Skyline Objects

One potential application of the Halab News Network YouTube channel map is that it produces aggregations of videos that show destruction in similar urban environments. Particularly, filtering for videos that show “instances” of destruction gives a series of YouTube accounts of actual moments of destruction, which can be used to determine exact locations. Unlike the videos used to identify locations based on street grids, the videos I have analyzed mainly analyze skylines of destruction.

Every neighborhood in Aleppo has it’s own urban fabric, which is defined by the nature of the buildings, the roads and grids, as well as other spatial objects like electricity towers, street lamps, and trash cans on the street. By exploring, in depth, the videos that show destruction in a particular neighborhood, spatial trends can be found to make it easier to identify the location of the bombing.

For this case, I studied a number of videos located in the Hanano neighborhood Eastern Aleppo. What is distinct about this neighborhood is two things. Firstly, a satellite image of the neighborhood shows uniform buildings organized in particular patterns along a clear grid. Secondly, watching a number of videos of the neighborhoods marks the importance of vertical objects in identifying locations. While most buildings are no more than six stories high, electricity towers and minarets of mosques can be easily located.

Below, I will give the approximate location of two bombings, based on the bombs proximity to electricity towers, water towers and mosque minarets that I have identified.

Left: H.N.N."Aleppo News Haaam moment fall barrel bomb on the Hanano neighborhood housing 2/10/2015" February 10, 2015.
Right: H.N.N. "Important :: News:: milking the moment of the fall of the barrel on the Hanano neighborhood housing." February 14, 2014.

To identify the approximate locations of where the barrel bombs drop, I created a map of Hanano neighborhood shown below, with electricity towers, water towers and mosque minarets identified. Google maps was used to identify the mosque minarets and electricity towers and water towers. This is because Google maps has higher resolution images that can help zooming in and locating objects on a micro-level in addition to the timeline that can help finding satellite images that show clear reflections of objects. Below is a series of shots that show what objects and their shadows look like on Google maps.

Below is a map of Hanano neighborhood with all these objects identified:

On the map above, the red circle identifies the threshold where we believe, according to my best knowledge, the barrel bomb in Video 1 was dropped. The blue circle identifies the threshold where we believe, according to our best knowledge, the barrel bomb in Video 2 was dropped. Only the approximate location of barrel bombs is being identified because getting an exact location can be very difficult from this vantage point. However, as more videos are examined, there is a particular kind of expertise that can be developed that will allow more accurate approximations of locations, especially in neighborhoods where buildings are almost identical and the only skyline objects are mosque minarets, electricity towers, and water towers.

Produced by Michael Storm, Nadine Fattaleh, and Violet Whitney, for the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo seminar at Columbia University during Spring 2016. See all student work here.

Center for Spatial Research, Columbia University