- Posted September 13, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Are chemical weapons a ‘red line’?
The Realities, Risks, and Consequences of Social Media in Syria
Finding out what is going on inside Syria in these heady days following the chemical attacks on East Ghouta is a perennial problem for Western news suppliers. Syria is the deadliest country in the world for the foreign reporter, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with 18 killed there this year alone. Consequently, although most of the big television news outlets maintain a presence in the Syrian capital, the closest most foreign reporters get to the fighting is Beirut in Lebanon. How then, does the West find out what is going on inside Syria? Most importantly, why do we need information at all from Syria, what are the avenues for its communication, and what are the risks associated with getting it wrong?
The need for reliable information about what is going on inside Syria was highlighted by the chemical attacks of 21 August on East Ghouta. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the first indication that an atrocity had occurred was when “all hell broke loose” on social media 90 minutes after the attack. The eyes and ears of the White House inside Syria were not, therefore the CIA, but quite simply the social media. The weight of this statement needs underlining. The most powerful organization in the world, when faced with a deteriorating situation in Syria, relies on social media to understand the situation on the ground. The power of such unsubstantiated social media is evident when one considers that shortly afterwards, the US dispatched five destroyers to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The key to understanding the implications of the communication of such social media files from within Syria to the rest of the world is to realize that the Syrian civil war is being fought on two separate fronts. The Free Syrian Army is not only waging war against the Assad regime using bombs and bullets, it is also fighting it on the battleground of social media, in cyberspace. The old saying that “knowledge is power” is particularly true in the Syrian civil war. Videos uploaded onto You Tube convey powerful messages, which in today's globalizing world, are relayed in real time into the living rooms of “Middle America”. When such videos contain conscience-shocking images, as in the Ghouta attacks they have the capacity to mobilize the world’s most powerful army. There are risks, however, associated with this “CNN effect”. The risks are to do with reacting. A war, now as in the past has two sides. When we react to the social media coming out of Syria, we are obliged to take sides. Otherwise we would do nothing. But what exactly are we reacting to? How would we know that what we see depicts what we are meant to understand? If the US does indeed choose to react to the social media being communicated from Syria, it risks taking the world down a very dangerous path.
Perhaps a better way of viewing media coming out of Syria than through the lens of the conflict, through taking sides, would be to view it as a tool to gain insight into what real Syrians think. What do Syrians think of the West? What do they want from the West, if anything at all? Do they trust social media more than their government, or are they as conscious as us of the inherent risks of making judgments on what they see?
The answers to these questions, gleaned from online sources coming out of Syria, make interesting reading. Syrians, as their nation are increasingly polarized along sectarian lines. What that means is that everyone in Syria is in effect forced by the interests of survival to take sides in the conflict. Consequently, they trust by necessity the social media on their side of cyberspace. Supporters of the regime trust the social media coming out of government sources, giving it little thought about its validity. The same goes for the other side. What unites them all is a belief that social media itself is a weapon that is in their own hands. The logic of this power is drummed into them daily, with everyone determined to become a cyber warrior, to go forth armed with digital camera and make a video which will be posted onto a website in Tehran or Riyadh, according to their allegiance.