The use of social media in Syria
Posted by Ammar Halabi
In this entry, I will write about the use of social media by Syrians, and mainly the use of Facebook . Why is this interesting? I find it so because Syria and the Middle East are largely importers of digital technology, and still remain relatively under-studied by those who design and make technology. The other obvious reason is that due to the conditions and the events that Syrians are going through, looking at their use of social media for personal and public matters is one way to talk about the different motivations, actions, and circumstances that frame their lives, and a way to think about what that means for designing technology. Finally, in social informatics, and especially in community- related research, we are interested in “localities” where technology is used [Taylor 2004]. After all, as Howard Becker argues, every particular case has general implications [Becker 1998].
To write this post, I spent a couple of days looking at how people I could reach from my Facebook account use the platform. This includes Friends and personal connections, pages I follow or those I could reach because one of my connections referred to them, and activists who are usually individuals with extended social reach with a large audience base. My account is rather personal and I do not aim to be exhaustive or general . I do try to be politically unbiased, although it is a particularly challenging matter to which I don’t think I can fully comply. Although there are atrocities committed by all sides, the sequence of events and the numbers do not put equal responsibility. I present these observations within themes, showing examples when possible , and I further use them to provoke questions about the design of social media. So, there we go.
Themes of Facebook use in Syria
1. News, events, and activism
Facebook is a main aggregator of various sources of news: news of family and friends, of the local town, of national events, and of world politics. This is supported both by the various possibilities for social connection (person-person, person-group, person-page, page-page) as well as its ability to curate various types of other media (photos, videos, and generic URLs). Facebook is therefore an important way for many Syrians to get news about local, national and international events. Although anybody can be a source of news, specific people (media activists), public figures, local groups, and media agencies dedicate special effort to follow the news and report on it (often with political commentary). Volunteers and local media groups often specialize in certain areas (a town or a region), and are almost always politically affiliated. The news can cover anything: the locations of bombings heard early morning, the state of repair of power and water lines, the condition of roads and the possibility of travel, the progress of combat on the front lines, the names of those killed in a recent strike, prices of vegetables, the elections in USA, and media statements made by politicians, activists, or military leaders.
2. Personal connection, friends and family
The direct straight-forward theme is using Facebook to communicate and keep-up with friends and family. Syrians are becoming increasingly displaced. Large numbers of refugees continue to flood into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, while those better-off economically manage to leave to Egypt, the gulf states, or Europe. Browsing the Facebook feed has therefore became a primary way to get news and commentary about the whereabouts of friends and family, either inside or outside of Syria. My connections have mentioned often that browsing the “green dot” that indicates that somebody is online on Facebook chat was a way to know that they are doing OK. With the increased absence of electricity and Internet the whole city of Aleppo can go offline for several days, and even weeks. It is then common to have a wave of “online cheering” and exchange of greetings when the city gets reconnected with friends and family appearing back online.
3. Nostalgia towards left places and sorrow over destruction
Numerous homes, villages and cities have suffered immense destruction, largely due to the use of heavy artillery and air bombing, and due to clashes taking place among inhabited areas. In Aleppo, the line of clashes goes right through the city center and the old city. You can often find posts of photos and Youtube videos with compassionate comments showing destruction in civilian areas, infrastructure, and historic sites, while comparing the condition of those places with photos and videos taken before 2011.
4. Solidarity with the missing
With Syrians detained by the government (estimates of 200,000), and also increasingly by various militant groups, it is common to use Facebook to report of missing Syrians. Friends and activists would spread posts explaining the circumstances of those detained or kidnapped, and Facebook pages would be opened to follow their news and to remind people with their disappearance. Sometimes, the family of those missing asks for no fuss to be made online, fearing that this will bring further hardship.
5. Loss, death, and grief
With 9 million displaced Syrians, many Syrians have experienced loss in one way or another over the past three years: losing home, losing a family member or a friend, or losing work and savings. As military action escalated in late 2011 and onward, it is rare to find a Syrian who does not have a family member or who did not personally know someone who was killed, either because of participating in combat, or as a result of detention and torture, or because of being a civilian under fire. It is almost a custom now that Facebook pages would be opened in memory of those who passed away, for friends to write elegies and words of condolence, and for the public to become aware of the reasons and circumstances of their death. The personal profiles of those who passed away would also become a place of mourning where friends would write words of farewell.
6. Fight, debate, and violence
I would argue that it is next to impossible to remain neutral in light of the events in Syria. Debate (or simply online flaming) therefore takes place on any type of a shared post or a comment. Also, violent content is abundant in the Syrian online social sphere. Photos and videos of the aftermath of bombings, airstrikes and front-line fighting (which are extremely graphic and violent by any measure) are very common in the daily stream of content on my Facebook wall. Along this, it is common to find comments on these pieces of content that are inflaming and calling to exterminate and defeat the “other side” and calling for justice and revenge.
7. Collaboration and thriving local communities
Many Syrians use Facebook to collaborate, communicate and learn. This includes local activist groups connecting over Facebook groups to coordinate for covering the news of localities, relief and charity groups coordinating online fundraising campaigns, and potentially militants who communicate to coordinate some of their operations (this last one I have not observed personally, but activists mentioned that it happens). In my own work, I have worked for a prolonged period (over two years by now) with a community of learners (mostly university students) who use Facebook, blogs, youtube and custom wikis to learn about cutting-edge technology, hold public talks and presentations, and organize collaborative workshops. Social media helps them to find alternative places to collaborate and publish content as well as to spread the word about their events and grow the community by reaching to new members online.
8. Charity and relief
The cyberspace, and on top of it the social layer, has allowed Syrian groups and organizations to sprout and coordinate for the benefit of a certain activist agenda without having to establish official associations going through complex procedures (which are often unclear and subject to corruption and authoritative government control). Today, countless groups and organizations dedicated for the relief of Syrians use Facebook and other social media, sometimes as media outlets to announce their activities and publish reports, or even to coordinate the work between their members and to announce their need for volunteers and donations.
Meta. A word on marginalization and non-use
Internet access in Syria before 2011 has been gradually increasing with more private users, internet cafes, and public institutions getting connected. I have not found an informative report, but it is common sense to expect that those better off economically had better Internet access. This is also true after 2011. Government-controlled areas still have better access to electricity and Internet, and those better off economically have stronger voices online. News about areas outside of government control come mainly from media activists or from online media outlets (Facebook pages, Youtube channels) of oppositional armed groups. This heavily questions the non-proportionate representation of Syrians online, where those who access the Internet can deliver their point of view, while the weakest and the most vulnerable are photographed and studied by activists, media agencies, and relief associations instead of speaking for themselves. A Syrian researcher has an insightful report of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Syria and Turkey where he comments on issues relevant to the marginalization of Syrian refugees from the possibility to take initiative in actively controlling their circumstances [Idlbi 2013]. In addition to that, with the escalation of military action in Syria, the voices of civil and peaceful activists have gradually faded out of the picture, and news of armed attacks became the more dominant content.
On the role of Social Media
After this quick overview of different existing uses of Facebook, I find it quite uninformative to claim that social media has a positive or a negative effect on the Syrian situation without being concrete and in relation to a particular case. Few months ago, I have attended a talk by Kentaro Toyama, who made the compelling argument (and I paraphrase), that by looking at the historical impact of technology, we can see that technology is an “amplifier” of human intentions, motivations and desires [Toyama 2011]. I find this accurate in the use of social media by Syrians, where people use it for family connections, relief efforts, collaboration, activism, news, war, and flaming. It is a question then on how to design social tools to enable certain forms of interaction while discouraging others. This is a task that is neither easy nor politically-neutral (it will always come associated with a political agenda). On this note, I will close with deriving questions from the above themes on the design and making of social media in the context of the lives of Syrians.
Problematizing social media in Syria
- Spread of hate-speech: how can social media be designed to encourage mutual understanding or peaceful debate instead of increasing rift between people?
- Spread of graphic violent content: Facebook and Youtube frequently delete content that is deemed to be violent or offensive. The policies that these platforms follow to moderate content posted by their users remain unclear, but one of them is mass reports made by other users. For example, Syrian pro-government and pro-opposition pages often lead “reporting campaigns” in order to shut the opponents’ pages down. The question that I raise here is around regarding the nature of “violent content” and the effect of its posting and the discussion that goes around it. It is, on the one hand, a fundamental right to know about atrocities. On the other hand, this content is never neutral and is often interpreted and re-purposed for emotional charging and calls for in a war-torn Syria.
- Ownership of data and Facebook’s monopoly: a relevant issue is Facebook’s ultimate control over its content. Several activists and pages have reported the suspension of their accounts at one point or another, and content deletion is common due to mass reports. This has raised some concerns and suggestions to find an alternative, possibly federated, social platform where the ownership of data does not belong to one central authority. Such platforms do exist, but the immense popularity of Facebook where “everybody is there” makes such platforms less appealing.
- Security of data and cyber intelligence: when somebody gets detained or kidnapped (especially an activist or a charity worker), I have seen in many cases that their friends would swiftly write to Facebook administration to close their account. Even more, activists often leave their account passwords with people they trust such that those friends would change all passwords if the activist is detained or kidnapped. This is to prevent the leak of sensitive insider data (connections, personal messages, online social interactions, political affiliations) from being exposed, and thus further endangering the kidnapped and their social circle. Further, it is common among activists to be aware of suspicious account of people they do not know personally for they might be following them for the sake of tracking them down. This raises the questions on how we can protect private data and quickly lock-down accounts to protect against malicious access.
- Role in escalating or dampening violence: it is a big question whether social media in the case of Syria has actually contributed to reducing or escalating the violence. On the one hand, whenever an atrocity is committed, tweets, Youtube videos, and Facebook posts flood the media sphere. This somewhat enables people to become moral supervisors of each others. However, due to the flexibility of engineering your own connections online, I have seen several of my friends mentioning that in Facebook you can end up completely isolated within a similarly-minded group of people. This, in turn, might encourage extreme identities and a closed-world view where it is easier to dehumanize the other.
- Design for collaboration and for rapid small groupings: Facebook is being used by collaborative and volunteer groups to communicate, coordinate action, collect donations and announce events. However, I have seen concerns around the lack of possibility to organize and retrieve content on Facebook, which is linear and “decays” with time. Could there be alternative structuring for a social platform where there is the possibility to structure how information are created and retrieved? Further, could we think of providing small charity and voluntary groups with tools that help them express their needs and find resources? There are even local efforts by Syrians to create alternative social platforms that aim to address these very issues 
In the case of Syria, social media tools and platforms need to take into account radically new contexts and use cases. The current tools have provided a promising space, and their relative neutrality contributes significantly to their wide adoption and adaptation by various groups with diverse views, however, looking at how they are used within the Syrian context provokes various questions of the current status and alternative possibilities to work out. My final word here is to encourage others to provoke and suggest what I have omitted, where social media is surely being used by Syrians in ways far more diverse and complex that what I have listed in this post .
- Facebook is what is mainly addressed here. However, due to connectedness of social media, it is a melting pot. On Facebook you can see references and discussions around videos, blog posts, news articles, photos, and statements made by public figures or activists. It is therefore fair to consider it as the social platform where most other social media are referenced, shared and discussed in the Syrian sphere.
- To clarify my position: I am currently located in Switzerland, working at the University of Fribourg, and with good contact with a local community of Syrian volunteers (mainly in Damascus) as well as with people working in charity and relief. I have spent the time between June 2011 and February 2012 in Aleppo. Since Aleppo is my home town, my connections and attention is naturally biased to it. Also, what I see on Facebook is only what my personal social & professional circles enable me to reach and what I tend to follow due to my political views. This post should therefore be read as a single account.
- In the screenshots taken, I have anonymized personal information, including personal names and profile pictures. In the case of public pages, I have left the snapshots un-blurred. I have translated all content except for the one case where content was written originally in English (I noted that explicitly).
- “MicroCommunity” is a project lead by Syrians for creating a social platform for encouraging the formation and collaboration of small-scale communities, particularly in the Arab world.
- The topics that I omitted include the use of social media for: fun and humor; history and documentation; political activism and popular mobilization; political propaganda; cyber war; and also, for connecting and recruiting foreign fighters, apparently mostly by the Islamic State of Iraq And Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Nusra front [ICSR 2014]. For more information, there is a number of media articles on the use of social media particularly in relation with the Syrian uprising, mentioning recruitment of fighters; fund-raising for humanitarian aid as well as for weapons and supplies; artistry; news and activism; cyber intelligence; debate and flaming; and media campaigns [MediaMeasurement, Mitchell, Reuters 2011, Baker 2014].
- Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (p. 232). University of Chicago Press.
- Idlbi, A. (2013). On a Mission to Learn – My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp. Field report. Link
- Taylor, W. (2004). Community Informatics in Perspective. In S. Marshall, W. Taylor, & X. Yu (Eds.) Using Community Informatics to Transform Regions (pp. 1-17). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.
- Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as amplifier in international development. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference on – iConference ’11 (pp. 75–82). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.