Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syrian Conflict Played Out on Social Media

The authorities appear to have become as adept as the activists in exploiting the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
By MJ Baiardy
  • Syrian activists making more effective use of social media like Twitter, but the authorities are not far behind.
    Syrian activists making more effective use of social media like Twitter, but the authorities are not far behind.

I first began to notice how widespread human rights abuses were in Syria when I was a student in Damascus. I remember one day seeing a group of security officers beating up a traffic policeman on the street, in public, just because they disagreed with the way he was regulating the traffic. It was demoralising to realise just how the corrupt security forces in our country operate in their day-to-day lives: many of them view themselves as superior and believe they can do anything, violating laws instead of enforcing them.

I felt like I needed to do something about it, and I began volunteering for a number of NGOs working on tracing and reporting human rights abuses by the Syrian state, particularly inside prisons. Organisations like these operate illegally in Syria so their work is risky and their activities are limited. Some non-politicised NGOs can operate more easily - for example, those groups focusing on women or children - but it is too dangerous for more hardcore ones to be publicly active, so they tend to operate through links with international groups.

I then began using my skills to kelp train journalists and citizens to report human rights violations by the Assad regime. The media has played an important role in mobilising popular discontent in Syria: through satellite TV and the internet, people are able to see how the rest of the world functions and to compare the rights and freedoms in other countries to Syria and what they see in the state media propaganda.

They can communicate with the outside world through forums that never existed before, with social media networks like Facebook facilitating these interactions - which is why the government initially opposed it.

However, after the social media-led revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian government expected similar protests to take place there and wanted to be able to monitor them. So it made sense for them to open up Facebook because it makes government surveillance easier.

Now is the real moment for social media activism, a powerful weapon that can be used in both a positive and negative way. This has been especially evident since the beginning of the protests in Daraa when you could see a radical change on Twitter. As soon as activists started reporting on the crackdown, you could also see the security forces propaganda spreading like crazy on Twitter.

The government realises the dangers posed by social media outlets and the jailing of Syrian bloggers in recent years is a good example of how it reacts to activists it views as a threat. The problem is that now many users have access to the outside world, but are not experienced in protecting their identities and so can get into serious trouble. It’s not just about having the right tools, but knowing how to use them effectively, which takes a lot of skill and training.

I’ve witnessed how poor the international coverage of the Syrian uprisings has been, even by outlets like Al-Jazeera, who only really started to cover the protests when they got really big. Even so, the international media can only gain a certain degree of access. So that is the point of training citizens to become journalists, when reporters aren’t allowed on the ground.

If used properly, online networks can connect activists and ordinary people in Syria to outlets like the BBC and CNN, and fill the gap in coverage.

Social media can also provide a forum for home-based activism when it is too dangerous or people are too afraid to be out protesting in the street. This fear is in many ways the biggest problem when it comes to protesting and reporting, both online or on the streets. Especially now, you can really feel the tension amongst Syrians.

The violence of the government crackdown has reinforced this fear which is ingrained in Syrians. We grow up with this fear inside us and, even if you know you are secure, it is very hard to get rid of it – it’s psychological.

However, the government crackdown was ultimately counter-productive because it also increased people’s anger. The protests only really began to grow after the violence in Daraa, with the unifying motivation the killing of other protesters.

People felt all the more that their dignity and integrity had been lost, and, as was clearly the case in Egypt and Libya, it made protesters much more insistent and raised the extent of their demands. But the moment when Assad really lost support was after his patronising speech, when he refused reforms and talked to Syrians as if they were slaves working for him - completely robbing us of any dignity.

You could see the allegiance shift at the funerals of the dead protesters, as people began to chant “We protect you with our blood and our souls”, instead of the traditional slogan “We protect Bashar with our blood and our souls”.

Protesters have started destroying the pictures of Assad that are everywhere - and throwing shoes at them - which is a real humiliation for the president. But despite this, I don’t think we are at a stage anywhere near revolution. Unlike Egypt, the Syrian government is one of the most oppressive in the region: it is incredibly strong and the only people with access to weapons are from the Allawite sect, all loyal to Assad.

The government has been trying to promote the threat of sectarian war to deter people from getting involved in the uprising, blaming protesters for trying to create divisions within Syrian society. However, I believe people are too wary of sectarianism to ever let it erupt here, and protesters have been making a point of emphasising the unity of the Syrian people.

What people really want at this stage is a promise of genuine reform on the part of the government. We want the actual lifting of the state of emergency, not the establishment of committees to talk about removing it. We want to see the removal of the clause in the constitution which maintains the dominance of the Baath party and negates any possibility of plurality in Syrian society.

Ordinary Syrians have been living with this feeling of humiliation for decades: without basic rights and no financial benefit from the corrupt domestic situation.

I would love to live in a Syria where everyone enjoyed the same civil liberties and employment opportunities, but unfortunately I am not very optimistic at this stage. Of course, Assad will try to implement some of the same reforms seen in Egypt to prevent mass outrage, and now he is furiously trying to win the loyalty of the Kurds and religious groups by making concessions to them.

But, in my view, you cannot fix a fundamentally dysfunctional regime. We need to build democracy step by step, even if it means risking more instability and violence in the near future. We are never going to mature politically unless we go through this. What I and other activists are doing is of course very dangerous, but we all have to risk ourselves for Syria. The moment is here now, and who knows when we might get it again.

MJ Baiardy is the pseudonym of a foreign-educated media professional based in Syria.