Documenting police brutality (2007)

An Egyptian activist’s YouTube account is suspended for posting graphically violent videos of police brutality without context, raising questions about how activists can document abuse without triggering account suspensions.


Wael Abbas is an Egyption journalist/activist who began documenting protests in Egypt in 2006, including multiple examples of Egyptian police brutality, which he would then upload to YouTube.

Egytian policeman choking a citizen

In 2007, after posting a few explicit examples of Egyptian police brutality, he discovered that his entire YouTube account was shut down, taking down 181 videos covering not just police brutality, but also voting irregularities, and street protests. At first YouTube refused to comment on this, and only told Abbas that the account was shut down due to multiple complaints about the content.

Later, after the US press got ahold of the story, YouTube put out a statement saying:

Our general policy against graphic violence led to the removal of videos documenting alleged human rights abuses because the context was not apparent

Having reviewed the case, we have restored the account of Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas. And if he chooses to upload the video again with sufficient context so that users can understand his important message, we will of course leave it on the site

Wael believes that if large media organizations like Reuters and CNN hadn’t covered his case, that it was unlikely his account would have been restored, or that he would have been allowed to re-upload the videos.

Decisions to be made by YouTube:

  • How do you determine the difference between a journalist/activist documenting violence and an account that is “glorifying” violence?
  • Is there a way to determine the context of a video showing police brutality?
  • Should content moderation decisions change based on whether or not a specific situation is getting mainstream press attention?
  • Are there alternatives beyond shutting down an entire account based on complaints about some videos?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Should context play a bigger role in content moderation and if so, how can you take that into account? Or is it the responsibility of the account holder to supply the context?
  • How do you manage moderation of content from a country with different rules than in the US?
  • Will suspensions by US social media companies be used as evidence against the content creators in certain countries?

Resolution: As noted above, YouTube did reinstate his account, but as issues like this continued to arise, the company has adjusted its policies for handling violent but newsworthy content multiple times in the intervening years. At the time of writing this case study, Abbas’ videos showing Egyptian police brutality from many years ago now contain content warnings saying that the content “may be inappropriate for some viewers” and asking users to acknowledge that before being able to view the videos.

YouTube video blocked notice

Abbas has faced many more content moderation challenges since then with his work in Egypt. Yahoo shut down his email account after getting complaints. Both Twitter and Facebook have suspended his accounts at times as well.

In both 2010 and 2018 Abbas was arrested in Egypt for his work, with Egyptian authorities using the social media account suspensions as evidence of his alleged crimes in “spreading fake news.”

Written by The Copia Institute, October 2020

Copia logo