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The Impact Of Social Media On Perceptions Of War-torn Syria

While photos and videos from Syrians can help journalists tell the unfolding story, there is a risk of disseminating misinformation

In December, 15-year-old Muhammed Najem created a Twitter account. He claimed to live in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburban area located on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus which over the past few months has been subjected to an aggressive and deadly campaign by regime-aligned forces.

As the onslaught continues despite a February 24 ceasefire demanded by the United Nations Security Council, several news agencies from across the globe have written about Najem without definitively verifying his identity.

As it has become increasingly difficult for reporters to enter or gain access to sources within the war-torn country, more media outlets have relied on purported eyewitness testimony posted to social media to convey developments in Syria.

“Social media in Syria has been a huge deal because of the lack of journalists going in,” according to Amil Khan, an Associate Fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank who specializes in the press’ role in conflicts. “In the beginning, social media became a means by which voices on the ground could be heard,” he explained to The Media Line, before qualifying that online platforms have increasingly been used by politically motivated organizations to “co-opt information” that serves their agendas.

The individual claiming to be Najem, who uses the handle @muhammadnajem20, wrote to The Media Line directly through Twitter. “I am filming videos to [show] the world how we have lived here for seven years. People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he proclaimed.

Najem—who himself aspires to be a journalist—has posted videos ranging from descriptions of the aftermath of attacks to interviews with other children. The tweets often refer to the “terrorism” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched a military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime in 2015.

Since joining Twitter three months ago, Najem has amassed more than 18,500 followers and tweeted over 160 times.

It is not unusual for journalists to rely on “verified” social media accounts, such as those run by the Syria Civil Defense, more commonly known as The White Helmets. The volunteer group has acquired nearly 120,000 followers since joining Twitter in April 2014.  In contrast to Najem, the White Helmets often post videos of ongoing bombings and rescue operations that generally include daily casualty figures.

Fadel Ghany, Chairman of the Board of the non-profit Syrian Network for Human Rights, agrees that it is often difficult to obtain accurate information from within Syria. His organization, which documents human rights violations in the country and is a primary source on death tolls for the United Nations, secures information through a network of “trusted” activists on the ground.

“Sometimes we use information from social media if we can’t find our sources,” he revealed to The Media Line. “Usually for each incident we are talking to at least two people. Without them, a lot of incidents we are unable to know about it.”

Though Chatham House’s Khan is not familiar with Najem’s posts, he stressed that there are benefits and disadvantages to gathering information via social media. “We’re living in an information age where a lot of outlets don’t train on credibility, they train on outrage or getting things to their audiences,” he elaborated. “You get the battles on the ground and every now and again people lean into it and take what they want to prove their broader point.

“The big difference now is that there is a media perception war that is part of the wider battle, so the battle for influence is interwoven with the actual military conflict.”

(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)