OPCW-UN Chemical Weapons Team Arrives in Damascus. October 1, 2013. © UN Photo by Hend Abdel Ghany.

Syria Chemical Weapons Attack: Debunking Russia’s False Claim About Video Upload Date

Photo: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons  (OPCW)-UN Chemical Weapons Team Arrives in Damascus.  October 1, 2013. © UN Photo by Hend Abdel Ghany.

Why is it sometimes important to extract the exact local upload time of a YouTube video? Besides being helpful to find the original video among a host of scraped videos, it can also be crucial to determine the exact timeline of a human rights related event. Getting these facts straight can have significant implications, as for example the Syrian chemical weapons attack from August 21, 2013, has shown.

In response to the attack, Russian authorities at one point claimed that it was a staged event:

“There are reports circulating on the Internet, in particular that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action.” – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, August 23, 2013.

What was the reasoning for the Russian Foreign Ministry to make such a claim? Apparently they used the YouTube timestamp on several of the videos for their incorrect conclusions. Some of the videos showed an upload date of August 20, 2013 – thus the day before the actual attack happened. Let’s look at one of these videos to determine the exact local (Syrian) upload time.

For this case study, I am using one of the videos that was used in a playlist compiled for a US Senate Committee (Storyful’s Felim McMahon has tracked down all original uploads). Caution: This video contains very disturbing and graphic content.

YouTube shows the date of the video as August 20, 2013. It is this sort of information that presumably prompted Russian authorities to claim that the attack was fabricated.

Let’s look beyond the surface and find the exact upload time of this video. Using our YouTube Data Viewer, I am able to extract additional details about the video:

The video was published on Wednesday, August 21, 2013, at 3:16 am UTC.  So why does YouTube show August 20? The New York Times The Lede Blog provides a good summary:

“As YouTube has previously confirmed to The Lede, its computers automatically assign a date to each video based on the current time in California when the upload begins, which can differ from the date in the user’s time zone. Given that California is 10 hours behind Syria, that means that any clip uploaded to YouTube before 10 a.m. on Wednesday was stamped with Tuesday’s date.”

Let’s take one more simple stamp to determine the exact local upload time. For this, we can use a timezone converter, such as the one provided by timeanddate.com:

timezone converter

And here’s the result:

UTC ( )          Wednesday, 21 August 2013, 03:15:00      UTC         
Damascus (Syria) Wednesday, 21 August 2013, 06:15:00 EEST UTC+3 hours

This video was uploaded around 6:15am Syrian time on Wednesday, August 21, 2013, which is consistent with other reports of the attack. Claims that videos such as the one examined here were already uploaded before the attack happened are thus unsubstantiated.