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Propaganda vs. self-censorship: Syria’s virtual civil war

Syrian men evacuate a victim following an air strike by regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo on August 26, 2013.
Syrian men evacuate a victim following an air strike by regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo on August 26, 2013. Abo Al-Nur Sadk/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – After over two years of unrest, Syria’s civil war has seemingly reached its climax.

On the heels of a reported chemical weapons attack that left 100 civilians dead, both the U.S. and British governments are considering an attack on the embattled nation whose government has vowed to defend itself from any aggression.

Similar to Egypt’s revolution and the Arab Spring before it, social media has played an important role in Syria’s civil war.

Both pro- and anti-government propaganda are rife on websites like YouTube.

On one side are the activists.

Unlike the average Syrian citizen currently censoring themselves, anti-regime activists are willing to risk posting critical messages online using aliases that hide their identity.

“Some of the most aggressive opinions are expressed on social media using clearly fake Arabic names of political parodies,” said Helmi Noman, senior researcher with Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

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One popular example is a Facebook parody page that when translated to English reads, “The Chinese Revolution against the Tyrant of China,” which actually has nothing to do with China, said Noman.

The page, which has over 30,000 likes, often posts humorous photos Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Eliot Higgins, a U.K.-based blogger, works to verify videos uploaded by activists and Syrian civilians in order to provide unbiased and transparent information about what is happening in the region.

The blogger monitors over 550 YouTube channels almost daily and recognizes the power that social media has in spreading both sides of the story. He said the majority of chatter in recent days revolves around the chemical attacks.

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Higgins told Global News there are over 180 videos relating to that one incident, compared to a typical five or six videos per incident.

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“Anti-regime activists too have been using social media and video sharing websites to counter the regime’s news and views,” said Noman.

“Actually, some of the regional TV stations such as Aljazeera use footage posted by local activists on social media because the channels do not have reporters on the ground.”

Another issue is how easily video coming out of Syria is manipulated – often times both sides will use the same video but frame it completely differently to depict different stories.

“Government forces might claim an explosion is the result of foreign terrorists’ activity, rebels might claim it was the righteous work of a Syrian freedom fighter,” wrote Mashable’s Alex Fitzpatrick, in a 2012 article titled, “Social Media Becoming Online Battlefield in Syria.”

At the other end of the conflict: aggressive rival groups that assert their presence on social media to spread a pro-government message and, in the words of Noman, try to “win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people.”

“Government agencies such as the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Information, TV and radio organizations and the state news agency all have social media accounts,” said Noman.

President al-Assad and the Syrian first lady came under fire in late July after joining Instagram. The account often posts unfiltered photos of the president making public appearances and the first lady participating in charity work.

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Many have criticized the account for censoring negative comments and “making light” of the situation in Syria.

“When the Syrian state TV channel and the pro-Syrian government TV “Addouina” were dropped from Arab and European satellites covering the Middle East and North Africa region, the two states started making extensive use of social media,” said Noman.

YouTube also played a large role in this instance, according to Noman.

These states began making extensive use of the video site to post clips from their broadcasts, in the hopes to reach out to broader audiences, said the expert.

Self-censorship and fear

In the middle of these two groups lay average Syrians, who either stay silent online or censor their own comments.

“The legal and technical restrictions, as well as the climate of fear are shaping the discourse online,” Noman.

“Thus, we cannot assume that the discourse going on on social media is truly representative of the Syrian public opinion, especially of those living in Syria.”

Noman said that Syrians are highly likely to stay away expressing their true opinions online. Because traditional media outlets in Syria do not carry any criticism or negative stories about the president or the regime, local journalists also practice self-censorship, according to BBC.

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Syrians also face frequent power outages and telecommunications breakdowns.

Internet access in the area has inconsistent since conflict began; many outages have made international headlines due to the speculation that the government was them, trying to censor the public.

In 2012, it is believed that the Syrian government shut down much of the Internet access in the country after protests over Assad’s regime escalated.

Later, in May 2013, Syria suffered yet another Internet outage that state-run media chalked up to a “fault in optical fibre cables.” But many Western media organizations disputed the claims – tech website TechCrunch wrote an article titled, “Why Syria’s Response On The Internet Outage Is Complete BS.”

Noman notes that Western media often only report national Internet shutdowns and that power and telecommunication outages are quite frequent in areas of armed conflict.

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