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The Syrian Revolution and the Global War of Narratives

Session V-13, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
The Syrian Revolution of 2011 has emerged as perhaps the most prescient laboratory for global campaigns of disinformation. Before the rise of Trumpism and “fake news,” the Syrian Revolution was manipulated by reactionary global forces to embolden counterrevolutionary politics. And in the years following the revolution’s commencement, that disinformation campaign has proven wildly successful; among both contingents of the global left and the global right, the Syrian revolution has been rebranded as the handiwork of foreign forces seeking to delegitimize a sovereign state. Both see Syria as part of a very different geopolitical endgame, with the far left seeing Bashar al-Assad as a force of anti-imperialism, and the far right admiring his militant populism. But both political poles are united in their having succumbed to manipulated narratives over Syria, orchestrated by exceedingly powerful geopolitical forces. This panel will focus on the Syrian Revolution as a site of contesting narratives, through several complementary approaches. It will do so through the prism of journalism, interrogating distorted media narratives over the Syrian Revolution. In particular, it will engage with the work of prominent journalists who have specifically offered and promoted distorted messaging on Syria. Additionally, it will address Syria from the prism of journalistic ethics, interrogating the impact of the global war on terror on journalistic norms. Finally, it will investigate disinformation in Syria through the perspective of social media, where automated Twitter bots promote specific and targeted discourses about foreign (Russian and Iranian) involvement in Syria. Through these multiple overlapping scholarly approaches, this panel will offer a more nuanced perspective over the central role the Syrian revolution has played in a world of “alternative facts.”
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
Religious Studies/Theology
  • All conflicts are shaped to varying extents by the competing interests of neighbouring states or big powers. The war in Syria is no exception, and numerous states have devoted resources to attempting to secure their interests through manipulating the information space. Since 2011, social media has been a key site of meaning making in terms of attempting to shape narratives, mobilise support, and eliminate counter narratives. However, it has become increasingly clear that the liberation technology paradigm in which social media was viewed as a democratising force has been challenged by increasing evidence of its use as a tool of authoritarian control and manipulation. The use of disinformation, and manipulation has reached such a pitch that social media companies are even being accused of facilitating genocide. Despite this, many studies on disinformation focus reflect US foreign policy concerns, focusing on states such as Russia, China or Iran. While understandable given the size and influence of such actors, they are far from alone. Intra-Middle East propaganda and disinformation remains relatively underexplored. Through examining over 100,000 Arabic language tweets from 2017 using novel anomaly detection methods, this paper reveals how thousands of automated bot accounts from Saudi Arabia on Twitter were attempting to dominate Twitter narratives about Syria. The paper reveals how state-aligned media utilised thousands of fake accounts and automation to try and megaphone/or ‘swamp’ conversations occurring about Syria with Saudi-aligned, and to an extent, US right-wing narratives. These discursive efforts centred around trying to promote and emphasise discourses about Iranian and Russian involvement in Syria. This paper argues that astroturfing (creating artificial grassroots campaigns), demonstrates the ability of actors to use automation and social media to disrupt organic online civil society, and promote state messaging in place of legitimate public discourse. It also problematizes disinformation definitions, which are content-centric, and argues that paradigms of ‘deception’ are more suitable. Deception encompasses misleading means of distributing information, as well as content. The paper also reveals the extent to which manipulation was endemic before Twitter publicly took action in 2018. By doing so, it expands on the issue of ‘digital orientalism’, which posits that Silicon Valley exploits the global south with little regard for the consequences or responsibilities of its monetisation.
  • In the aftermath of a pre-dawn operation to take out the then-leader of ISIS, Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, journalists and wire services descended on the small neighborhood in Atmeh, northern Syrian to report on the aftermath of the raid. News agencies rushed to capture footage of the location of the strike after the attack, and convey the living conditions of the ISIS leader prior to his assassination. Associated Press, was the first to interview the landlord who insisted that his tenant claimed to be a cab driver. Meanwhile, other outlets showed the decimated bodies of children who had died during the operation. One journalist, in her efforts to break a new angle on the story, published rental contracts and confidential documents that implicated neighbors and landlords in the area. All the reports confirmed thirteen civilians, and six children among the casualties of the attack. However, I argue that one casualty that remained unreported was the commitment to journalistic ethics, protecting sources and lives and norms and standards that journalists live by. In fact, publishing of sensitive material put innocent neighbors and bystanders at risk of retaliation by ISIS for perceived collaboration with American forces, as well as at risk of being the targets of other attacks for perceived collaboration with the ISIS leader found in their midst. I argue that this event presents an opportunity to investigate how the continuing global war on terror has produced long-term deleterious effects on journalistic norms. This paper considers the ways in which a battle that has made innocent civilians’ lives expendable has in so doing made the violation of their privacy a non-issue. I argue that the impact of accepting civilian casualties as an acceptable outcome in the quest to extinguish leaders of global terrorist networks, journalism has also made a significant decision in deciding which sources deserve protection, which bystanders deserve privacy, and where journalistic norms may be bent if not entirely broken in pursuit of a story.
  • Since its launch in July 2013, Syrianpresidency, the “official” Instagram account of the Syrian presidency, has served as an important aspect of the Assad regime’s digital public diplomacy, reaching internal, diaspora, and external audiences through its imagery and primarily Arabic-language text. This paper surveys and analyzes the visual and textual content of a sampling of Instagram posts from January 2016 through December 2021, covering five years since the Syrian military first began decisively retaking territory from ISIS’ control. It argues that by deploying a combination of what Lisa Wedeen has termed “as-if” politics and what Zainab Saleh has described (for Iraq) as a politics of erasure, the Assad regime works to engage in a different kind of disinformation. In addition to spreading misleading or false information on other platforms, on Instagram and similar social media sites, it works to silence accurate information, trying to replace it with an array of visual and textual interventions that aim to literally change the global narrative about Syria under the Assads.