Tala Mukaddam is a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon who spent nearly 18 months chronicling the crisis in Syria through English and Arabic social media.She has highlighted what are, in her mind, the top Syrian Facebook groups and some of the best Twitter handles to follow.
More than a year since the start of the “Arab Spring”, the influence of social media on the development of opposition movements has bloomed in a new direction. From Morocco to Manama, tools like Twitter and Facebook played a large part in mobilizing protestors. But in Syria, the role of social media has developed differently than in some “Arab Spring” countries.
What’s different in the case of Syria? For one, regional uprisings instilled fear of social media in the regime early on, prompting Bashar Assad to make preemptive moves to clamp down. In December 2011, the regime banned the use of iPhones after videos of violent crackdowns by security forces on protesters began to surface. But the ban was limited and poorly enforced. Instead, activists spread widely videos of the protests and violent attacks by security forces. Thus, in this 18 month battle in Syria, YouTube and Facebook have played a more powerful role than other social media platforms like Twitter as a way to share such footage.
The videos were not shared with just other Syrians—they were spread deliberately to the outside world to cultivate empathy and support. As such, social media has been used less to help assemble the Syrian people and more to appeal to the international community. As videos continue to surface, largely aided by a Facebook group called: “Syrian Revolution Videos,” they have made the world witness to the unfolding crisis. This was crucial for the opposition, operating in a country with decades-long restrictions on media and information flow.
While in Egypt, social media was used primarily to gather people in protest in Tahrir, in Syria social media became a crucial platform through which to share stories, connect with the Syrian diaspora, raise funds from international donors, and inform a global audience with the rebel side of the story.
The international element of social media—and the international connection with Syria that it has strengthened—is perhaps what makes the Syrian context most unique. While Facebook pages from domestic activists are already quite numerous, others have been created by groups representing countries worldwide, showing unity with the Syrians. One of the more notable ones, “The Syrian Revolution/Suriye Devrimi” comes from Turkey. Founded earlier this year, it attempts to inform Turks of what is happening in their neighboring country. Meanwhile, other Facebook pages aim to educate, update, and share videos and photos of the crisis as it progresses, keeping people informed in a more direct fashion. This closed a crucial gap between the news reported by the government-owned media and foreign media. Without these groups, it would be more difficult for Syrians to seek other likeminded individuals, discuss the events in Syria openly, and to share stories of atrocities with the outside world.
The owners of the most popular of these pages wield much power. When they share a piece of information to be shared, it spreads like wildfire across the online world, bouncing from browser to browser until enough eyes are witness to the injustice. A video of the Houla massacre in May 2012, for example, was spread from activists to the mainstream global news media. Photos of deceased children spread rapidly and shocked the world.
They were also supposed to give a sense of urgency to end this conflict. But though the conflict has continued to advance without an end in sight, social media continues to serve a crucial purpose: it galvanizes people to become activists. In the Arab world, this is a major change. It has completely transformed how people go about inciting change or forming a strong community.
Arab youth are taking advantage of this new technology and have capitalized on the immense power of sharing and voicing opinions online. Social media has provided the ideal platform for people to develop their own opinions and have an open space to voice them, and be heard by millions. In essence, it has recreated an “Arab street” that had previously been restricted by authoritarian regimes.
The Syrian regime is not ignorant of the power of social media. It tried to infiltrate the social media universe by creating pro-Assad Facebook pages, and government Twitter accounts, such as that of Walid Al Muallim, the Syrian foreign minister. Al Dounya TV, government owned news network, had an active Twitter account, but it has recently disappeared. Luckily, the fighting between Assad and activists on the ground has not been reflected in the online world—the opposition is dominating in the virtual field.
Never has the world been as interconnected as it is today, and what has become apparent in the case of Syria is that the rebels, the youth, and activists have all capitalized on that fact, mobilizing faster than the government could stop them. Most importantly, it has allowed them to share with the world a brutal regime that had been protected from the gaze of the world for the past half-century. Now that the social media spotlight is on Assad, one thing is clear: he doesn’t have anywhere to hide.