The Vanishing Videos of Arab History (and what can be done)

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I have noticed over the past year that archival footage on Egyptian history and post-2011 videos on Egypt’s events are (mysteriously?) disappearing from YouTube, even when the issue could not be one of copyright. Similarly, the vanishing act is reportedly happening to content produced in other Arab countries. A video that is deleted is an assault on our collective memory and our post-2011 quest to build an unfettered archival culture (despite how contested archives can be). 

*The mythical river of Lethe, that appears in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, caused forgetfulness when drank from (Painting by Salvador Dali). English poet John Milton described Lethe as the river of oblivion that “whoso drinks forgets both joy and grief.”

We have long taken for granted that a video on YouTube was left untouched unless it violated copyright rules like a song, TV program, or film. It was always assumed that historical footage, even the most mundane type to the authorities like 1950s village life, would be unharmed given it posed no political threat. However, even these videos are fading. We can no longer take for granted that such videos will remain in perpetuity. 

The four possible reasons for this that I can think of include:

  • Egyptian authorities or pro-regime trolls are misleading YouTube into thinking an Arabic video in question is violating copyright. Perhaps the content’s language barrier would stifle YouTube’s ability to verify the claim.
  • Such ambiguity enables videos to be deleted and because of “multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement” which also raises a question as to who owns a Nasser speech given at a stadium in 1962 or a protest video from 1950s Alexandria uploaded by a former Greek resident?
  • Certain YouTube users have been identified by officialdom and are being threatened into deleting their content.
  • YouTube Users are removing any digital traces for safety reasons (Similar outcome to the third point, but I find this one highly implausible as the termination message often shown is the user being suspended or deleted for some violation, not “user no longer exists”). 

Irrespective of any reason, the end-result is the same and fits a pattern: The authoritarian attempt at drowning Arab publics in the mythical river of Lethe (forgetfulness).* 

How can the situation be resolved? For the time being, and I say this with a sense of urgency, if you think a video is worth saving for posterity, then it would be wise to download such videos through this link: http://www.clipconverter.cc

It’s quite a simple three step process. This is the most important step even if you don’t carry out the next steps. In any case, you will probably require these videos in some personal or work capacity in the future. 

The next step is to make it accessible by uploading it to Google Drive, OneDrive, DropBox etc, and setting access permissions for that specific folder or video to public. Then notify the web by sending out the link and using the hashtag on social media: #SaveArabHistory (Or any universally agreed hashtag). 

This is an ad-hoc approach until there is a concerted, organised and collective way to preserve, catalogue, and offer video access for offline and online use. But once they are gone, they are gone! There is no guarantee that the original user (who may have passed away) will upload them again or can be contacted. If there are already existing initiatives doing this, then they are welcome to advise and get involved. 

When I assign my sociology students certain videos to watch but it turns out the respective videos have perished, then it not only means my students have been partially deprived of a comprehensive understanding of their subject matter (which is worrying enough), but the way we deal with technology, in an era that is seeing censorship and blocked websites slowly normalised, needs to change. 

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