SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 3

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. 

The Stockholm Roundtable

The change in the Syrian Archive’s focus due to a change in the environment/infrastructure which they had no control over prompted us to rethink our ‘Channelling image activism’ theme, from purely considering the political economy of the infrastructure that supports image-activism in the MENA region, to a new focus on the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.

So we decided to use the project’s resources to convene a roundtable in Stockholm in February to discuss the issue of take downs, mapping out the costs of the Syrian activists’ over-reliance on technological platforms they haven’t developed nor designed, and over which they have no control.

The aim of the closed meeting was also to think whether there is value in setting up an academic network of partners in the UK/and Europe to support the Syrian Archive in their discussions with YouTube > in that sense, it was a really good opportunity to discuss the potential contribution that academic research could make to ongoing discussions, within non-academic, activist and civil society circles, of the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.

Problems with the digital

Despite the promise of the digital – especially in post-2011 MENA region; there seems to be a consensus among scholars, that the digital is in fact an unstable source, constantly liable to decay and collapse. I’ve written about this in an article that Paul and I published last year in Archives and Records.

 So despite the fact that the promise and persuasiveness of the digital has pushed the limits of memory, and has given remembering a whole new potential, it has also created new risks, ones Andrew Hoskins refers to as ‘the perpetual hauntings of the loss of control’ due to the unknowable workings and vulnerabilities of the network. He notes that ‘what was once an active memory, a human memory that had to work to sustain a continuity of past – of identity, of place, of relationships – is fundamentally weakened with the shift from reliance to dependency on the search devices of our machines.’

This dependency on algorithms and its costs for the constitution and preservation of a memory of the Syria war was in fact at the very heart of our Stockholm discussions.

Changes to YouTube

Overthe summer of 2017, YouTube introduced a machine-learning-based algorithm to flag videos for terms of service (ToS)-related violations. The algorithm’s purpose was to expedite the removal of propaganda videos that extremist groups like ISIS had posted—but it flagged a large volume of activist content for removal, too. Within a few days, some 900 Syria-related channels disappeared off the platform.

Between September and December, some 68 YouTube channels that the Syrian Archive had been tracking were taken offline, comprising over 400,000 videos.

Given the success of jihadist groups in the online environment, this impulse to ramp up online censorship by taking down social media accounts and content is understandable, according to a report recently published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism entitled ‘The travellers, American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq’,

The report in fact surveyed 64 American Jihadists who had travelled to Syrian and Iraq to fight alongside Islamic factions, which is the largest available sample to date. However, the report states that while there is no doubt that ease of access to jihadist propaganda online was a factor in many cases analyzed in the sample, there is little evidence to suggest that this was the primary motivation for their radicalisation or travel. Thus, while censorship efforts will continue, they should be done with an acknowledgement that the approach has several limitations. 

Google and YouTube both know that their platforms host material of immense importance. Yet, it doesn’t seem like the companies have figured a way to balance the tension between automated enforcement and the preservation of human rights-related material and historical memory, something that might require more dramatic changes than just the restoration of a few deleted channels. This is where I think research could play a key role – at the Stockholm roundtable, we were able to identify the potential contribution academic empirical research could make in this context:

  1. Online/offline analogues: what happens between the time an individual is radicalised offline, and the creation of pro-Jihadist online content?
  2. Intra-cultural messaging: content analysis and/or surveying of the different available tech/social media platforms
  3. Applying social movement theory to get a better understanding of large group radicalisation

Here are some questions for the future:

  1. What do you do with 4 million videos documenting an ongoing conflict? Do you archive everything? If not, how do you choose what should stay and what could go?
  2. Questions of purpose & value of both citizen & institutional archiving practices in times of war
  3. Archiving as an academic pursuit; what implications for historical inquiry, for media scholars, for activists, archivists and historians?

Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. 

SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 2

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 1 here and part 3 here. 

The Syrian Archive Case Study

There is something very intrusive about the first few hours of ethnographic research, especially when you’re being invited into someone’s office to observe their day-to-day practices. The Syrian Archive team were unbelievably welcoming and generous when we spent 4 days last November at their office space in Berlin. We spent two days on participant observation, and two days interviewing the team.

Our presence often involved us looking over their shoulders at their computer screens while they were doing their online verification work. If you’ve ever worked with Internet activists and online security geeks and techies before, you’d understand what it takes for them to tolerate your presence, by their computer screen for 7 hours each day, over 4 days. And for that, I and my research partner were extremely grateful.

It is worth mentioning in this context that the issue of trust is key, and the fact that I’ve known Hadi el Khatib, the Syrian Archive’s founder, for years – that we’ve already worked together on several projects in Beirut, has extremely helped during the research trip in Berlin.


In their own words:

‘The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.’

One of the key questions we explored while in Berlin is how the Syrian Archive team approached and defined key concepts such as ‘visual evidence’, ‘digital memory’, ‘graphic content’, ‘factual claims’, ‘propagandist imagery’ etc. So I sort of had a list of key concepts pertaining to academic research on archives in times of conflict which I used as the backbone for the interview questions and discussions we had with them.

We were also particularly interested in the ways in which they thought of the issue of ‘archival value’; why did they think it was important to build and sustain an open-access database of video footage documenting the Syrian conflict? Who is it important for? And has this changed since the beginning of the uprising in 2011 until today?

They aim to achieve three things through this work:

  1. to preserve data as a digital memory,
  2. to establish a verified database of human rights violations, and
  3. to act as an evidence tool for legally implementing justice and accountability as concept and practice in Syria.


So another key question we explored in our interviews is ‘Ethics’ > The Syrian Archive’s team are very articulate about a ‘Do not harm ethical framework’ which they say underlines their archival practices from the moment a video footage is identified, collected, processed and verified, until it is published as part of an online investigative report on human rights violations.

Taking into consideration my interest in an emerging ethical praxis of image activism in times of conflict I’m now exploring the ways in which my emerging understanding of the Syrian Archive’s internal processes could enable me to rethink my own research ethics agenda.

How can our understanding, as academics, of the Syrian Archive’s grass-root, self-defined, ‘Do Not Harm’ concept help us better design our own guidelines for issues of representation and narrativisation, ownership and consent, harm and vulnerability, subjectivity and objectification, agency and responsibility – especially when performed in the Western academy?


Then the issue of ‘Take downs’ came up.

  • 2012 | First accounts of Facebook groups/accounts suspensions due to ‘false reporting’, ‘copyright infringements’ and for ‘violating privacy policy’
  • 2013-2014 | The scale of take downs intensified, mainly targeting media groups and citizen journalists’ channels on YouTube

So rather than spend their staff time on collecting evidence for and documenting abuses of human rights violations, the Syrian Archive had to shift focus from verification to archiving – on their own servers – of thousands and thousands of videos – a race against time.

Continue to part 3.


Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. 

SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 1

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 2 here and part 3 here. 

Resistance-by-Recording: The disappearing archives of the Syrian war 

by Dima Saber

The overall aim of this project is to explore the successes and potentialities as well as limitations and challenges that camera-related practices bring to the objectives of contemporary protest movements across the Arab world.  We’re looking at 4 main countries of focus Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Yemen.

The project advances a media-practice based approach – with ethnographic field studies – in order to explore and theorize how variously situated activists creatively and strategically use digitally networked cameras and images to address local concerns – within the boundaries of existing media ecologies that offer different opportunities and constraints in each particular setting. Each context generates specific needs, and local actors will modify and renew their image-making strategies to address these shifting needs.

Activists not only use cameras to speak truth to power, but to realize or produce themselves as political subjects and negotiate exactly what such a subjectivity may be and can do.  In thus re-centring the agency of human beings over technologies, a critical purpose of the project is also to explore the meanings that practices of creating, distributing, editing, sharing, viewing and archiving images acquire for differently located participants.  This is to say that the project attends to political image production also as subjective, embodied and performative practice.

How do you create an image that is not pre-defined by official imagery? I want to explore Arab-image activism as counter-images – as a response to the complete suffocating and constraining aspect of existing images as depicted through the Western neo-colonial stereotyping gaze, and/or through regime-controlled imagery. At the same time I want to question the assumption that grassroots practices would produce a different, new, original, more authentic images of Arab revolt, war, conflict, etc.

I want to ask:

  1. What drives people to risk everything to create and mobilize rebellious images? What are their motivations, hopes, desires, lived experiences, affects, then and now?
  2. To what extent, and in what particular ways, are the planning, publicizing and performance of political actions dependent on – both shaped by, and shaping – practices of image making? (How camera-based strategies and tactics are mutually shaping of activists’ larger routines and repertoires of defiance)
  3. What are the various considerations do activists/archivists articulate about how images are made, and why; about how they are delivered, displayed and re-purposed? About their intended audience(s)? What kinds of political outcome do they hope for vs. what they hoped to achieve back then when they were documenting the uprisings as they were happening, and how do they see the value of their archives and images today, seven years into the uprising.
  4. What are the main obstacles and limitations they are facing, such as lack of cultural translation and resonance, over-reliance on corporate platforms, the precariousness of the digital
  5. How do activist camera-mediated practices in the Arab world help organize new formations of political connectivity within, across and beyond the region?  How are people connected – or not? How do they work together – or not? I’m interested here in exploring the economy and politics of collaboration.
  6. What are the ethical aspects of creating distributing, displaying and archiving this imagery? Looking for example at Western institutions’ codified ethical guidelines (news industry! BBC, Al Jazeera etc.) vs. how the activists organise themselves: their own sense of ethics?
  7. What are the various forms of connections and circulation between specific geographical places and online spaces? How, precisely, are online and offline activities important to each other?

Continue to part 2 here.

Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. 

SEMINAR SERIES History, Heritage & Archives | Cultural Translation, History and Loss

Dima Saber’s research paper ‘Resistance-by-recording: the visuality and visibility of contentious political action in the Arab region’

by Simon Crisp

In the first of three History, Heritage & Archives BCMCR seminars, Dr Dima Saber and Dr David Gange tackled the topic of cultural translation, history and loss by talking about some of their respective recent and on-going projects.

Dima started the event talking about the ‘Resistance-by-recording: the visuality and visibility of contentious political action in the Arab region’ project, which explores how variously situated activists use camera-related practices in their struggles for rights, along with the issues of distribution and archive and a re-centring of the agency of human beings over technologies. David then presented his project ‘Sea-Sites in Island History: Exploring the Lost Communities of Atlantic Britain and Ireland’ which had seen him kayak the Atlantic coasts of the British Isles exploring and documenting the culture, history and archives of those coastlines and the communities which have resided there.

Both talks were fascinating in their own right and spoke of issues of history, archive, and loss. David’s accounts of the alternative histories of modernity on the coast were particularly striking for me in the way in which they question the cultural perspectives and dominant visions of British and Irish history, along with the unique access and outlook afforded by approaching these locations from the sea. However, I will focus here on how Dima’s talk prompted me to think about, and question, the idea of Cultural Translation.

Having briefly heard about Resistance-by-recording at a Journalism Activism, Community research seminar last year, I was expecting my thoughts about how the project relates to ideas of cultural translation to be based on the way in which it works across borders, how activists in different situations use varying digital media practices, and how they collaborate with each other. But, as Dima talked about issues raised during an ethnographic research trip to Berlin, and a recent Stockholm roundtable, I found my focus shifting to questioning cultural translation and the digital.

Dima said YouTube’s increasing use of algorithms to identify and limit what was considered to be Jihadi supporting propaganda had become a major issue for the project and the digital activists involved. YouTube’s identification and removal of videos, and channels can now be done with no human interaction and has caused digital activists to change their focus from documenting human rights violations to archiving and preserving historically and culturally significant footage which may get removed or deleted.

Suggestions to insert a human-led stage into the process whereby somebody who understands Arabic and knows the context would be able to distinguish between a terrorist propaganda video and evidence of a human rights violation, raise further questions about the translation of culture into the digital. While algorithms can be used to analyse and recognise, they still cannot understand and translate what they are identifying into other contexts and histories. They are not culturally aware but have been given the power to wipe from voices and memories from history. Thinking about this has left me with more questions about how the idea of cultural translation can be used not just when exploring movements across borders or between languages, but also into the digital.

Finally, another point I found particularly interesting was the questioning of the role of research and academics, and Dima’s suggestion of acting as a facilitator – or put another way a translator – between the activists and the tech companies on whose platforms they rely. It was said that this could be done by using the power of an academic network to get people around the same table or writing papers which will be helpful to tech companies, but that also address the issues impacting the activists.

Simon Crisp is a MA student at Birmingham City University.