Fighting for truth against Syria's disinformation regime
A Twitter user identifying as a Syrian Christian from Aleppo boasts on his banner an image of Bashar al-Assad drawn as Napoleon. He claims that the man who sits in the presidential chair as his country has spiralled into a decade-long brutal civil war is the only force in the republic that can defend Syrian values and bring stability back.
After years of destruction and overwhelming evidence of war crimes, is it possible for Assad to still have fans and admirers within Syria? Online, supporters describe him as the only legitimate source of power or, while acknowledging his shortcomings, lamented the times when Syria was stable.
This is a narrative the regime and its allies have gone to great lengths to ingrain in people’s minds: trying to present a ‘consensus’, where the ‘majority’ of Syrians support Assad against the ‘minority’ who want to see him and his establishment gone.
With the state tightening its grip on media freedoms and the support of Russian disinformation masterminds, it is hard to tell if support is genuine. In March, the regime passed a bill that would see citizens accused of spreading ‘anti-Syrian’ content spending at least six months in jail.
In a state that counts almost 100,000 disappeared for their alleged involvement in anti-regime causes, most of the opposition is already silenced.
"Since the beginning of the conflict, the regime has used online attacks and disinformation, denying protests were taking place or making false claims about the revolution"
The tropes and tactics
Since the beginning of the conflict, the regime has used online attacks and disinformation, denying protests were taking place or making false claims about the revolution, according to the executive director of The Syria Campaign Laila Kiki.
“Syrian state media, or state-affiliated outlets, as well as supporters of the regime online, are largely responsible for spreading disinformation among Syrians,” Kiki told The New Arab.
RT- formerly Russia Today-, RT Arabic, other pro-Putin media and a few accounts belonging to western users also play a huge part in the amplification of such content. The accounts and forums that engage in disinformation regarding Syria are largely aimed at influencing the opinion of those residing outside Syria.
Lots of this activity is done in English, with the circulation of hashtags such as #SyriaHoax, conducted by a mix of ‘Wagner stan’ accounts, pro-Putin individuals, conspiracy theorists, ‘anti-imperialists’, and a few ‘Syrian’ accounts.
Groups have been set up on Facebook with thousands of members where users post daily pro-Assad content and smears against the opposition.
However, disinformation is not solely reserved for the stranger parts of the Internet, but also for the mainstream. Such content has been allowed to proliferate on social media platforms for years.
In a report released by The Syria Campaign, researchers found that “this content was shared directly with an audience of 3 million, 1.8 million of whom are unique followers.19,000 original disinformation posts published by these actors were retweeted over 670,000 times”.
Discussing how this compliments domestic disinformation activity, Kiki added that pro-regime accounts are also responsible for amplifying some of the western disinformation accounts and spreading false information among Syrian audiences.
“The Syrian regime’s main disinformation narrative revolves around smearing all its opponents as ‘terrorists’ or foreign agents. Individuals including doctors, journalists, and ordinary civilians have been targeted,” explained Kiki.
Syrian doctor and Action for Sama co-founder Hamza al-Kateab recounts the regime’s vicious and relentless smear campaigns from the first days of the revolution in 2011 to Aleppo’s siege, which he experienced as an ‘on-the-field’ medic, to today, when the regime has reclaimed large swaths of territory.
“They target everyone. They just won’t stop,” he told The New Arab, pointing out that disinformation has been a consistent problem that has altered the way Syrians, other Arabs, and the rest of the world view the conflict.
Initially, the regime and its allies used a tactic of denial. State-controlled media were silent about the uprising taking place. “Once people and foreign media platforms started live-broadcasting the events and posting about the protest on social media, that’s where the regime had to change tactics,” said Hamza.
They started manipulating imagery and making false claims about the context of the protests. Eventually, with protests spreading from governorate to governorate, the regime went into a full-scale attack against the protesters, claiming that they are outsiders and agitators or members of terrorist groups.
"Whilst online disinformation is alienating outside observers, the effects of digital disinformation and propaganda have real-life consequences for those living within or fleeing the country"
“This is how they justified conducting attacks outside the areas the regime controlled. Attacking protesters, doctors, hospitals, and other civilian facilities,” said Hamza. Talking of his time as a doctor, he explains how the regime managed to create doubts about the war crimes happening, obfuscating the situation for outsiders and other Syrians.
The regime denied the existence of hospitals or branded them as dual-use facilities where anti-regime combatants were stationed. It denied civilians died in the hospitals targeted, questioning the credibility of the identities of humanitarian workers and medics.
The Syria Campaign report found evidence that most of the disinformation materials circulating are directed toward the humanitarian volunteer group ‘White Helmets’, especially in relation to the chemical attacks that happened in Ghouta in 2013. White Helmets were operating in contested areas, where the regime and Russian airstrikes were particularly deadly for non-combatants.
They were also documenting military operations and bearing witnesses to what amounted to war crimes, dismantling claims that the regime and Russia only target Islamic State (IS) strongholds. By claiming that the White Helmets were terrorist affiliates, the regime justified its usage of double-tap strikes on first responders recovering civilians from the rubble, explained Kiki.
“They deny our existence and when we prove it they start smear campaigns,” said Hamza, who has been on the receiving end of fake allegations many times, which have compromised his safety.
How it has affected Syrians
Whilst online disinformation is alienating outside observers, the effects of digital disinformation and propaganda have real-life consequences for those living within or fleeing the country, altering the way the conflict is addressed.
In their report, The Syrian Campaign researchers indicated that disinformation will have a big impact on the process of transitional justice, where victims will be put in a position where they have to prove that crimes happened against them, by erasing the history of the conflict and undermining the validity of their experiences.
Hamza stressed that dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity becomes ten times more difficult when you add the disinformation aspect to it: “It’s very absorbing to have to prove the legitimacy of your actions, your identity, that you are a good person. Disinformation takes a toll on common sense.”
Disinformation has compromised humanitarian aid and many agencies have been forced to cease operations or seen funds reduced or cut. Hamza’s life-saving work was jeopardised because of this.
“Disinformation affected the funds the hospitals were getting or could be getting. Governments stopped or withheld funding because they needed to investigate us. So we had prolonged amounts of time where the hospitals had no funding.”
Additionally, by raising doubts about refugee camps and areas, disinformation is used as a justification by Western governments to turn away or send back Syrian asylum seekers.
Delegitimisation of any act of opposition will make any transition or negotiations impossible, meaning that the regime will not be replaced or reformed, which after a decade of extreme brutality seems unthinkable.
“People start thinking it’s ‘too complicated’, when in fact, it’s a simple situation where a dictatorship is targeting hospitals, besieging cities, enforcing aid blockades and doesn’t allow UN observers in,” Hamza said.
"Lies have been allowed to remain on platforms unchallenged for years and disinformation actors continue to spread false information with harmful consequences"
Activists pushing back
The first step in fighting back against well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns is to highlight the damage that is being done.
“This is what The Syria Campaign’s report ‘Deadly Disinformation’ aims to do. By documenting the real-world harm caused by online disinformation we can raise awareness and demand that social media companies and governments do more to tackle disinformation,” Kiki told The New Arab.
However, documentation alone isn’t enough. One of the main challenges in all advocacy work is that Syria is no longer being prioritized in recent years.
“Although the conflict is ongoing and humanitarian needs are greater than ever, the public interest in Syria has declined and is viewed as a less pressing matter,” she added.
That’s why they also launched a petition to appeal to social media companies to address disinformation about Syria on their platforms. Kiki explained that when it comes to the war in Ukraine, social media companies have been quick to take action to remove content or ban accounts sharing disinformation, often the same ones spreading false news on Syria.
But for Syria, “lies have been allowed to remain on platforms unchallenged for years and disinformation actors continue to spread false information with harmful consequences,” she said.
For Hamza, there needs to be drawn a clear line between what constitutes ‘freedom of speech’ and justifying or supporting war crimes. “When people are disputing events like the chemical attacks, this is not freedom of speech, people lost their loved ones, people suffered,” he said.
Hamza warns that, even with Ukraine, years will pass and the world’s attention will divert to other matters, and disinformation will start gaining traction and clouding the truth.
The winners of disinformation will be those seeking to evade justice and accountability.
Eleftheria Kousta is a freelance journalist and researcher holding an MSc in Security Studies from UCL. Having worked and volunteered in the advocacy space, she is interested in covering protest movements, civilians in conflict, and refugees.