The limits of social media: lessons learned from Syria

While social media was invaluable in the early days of Syria’s revolution, hopes that it alone could topple the regime proved ill-founded.

It had only been a few days since the Syrian government lifted the ban on social media websites, in February 2011, when a number of Damascus residents demonstrated against police corruption in the al-Hariqa district of old Damascus. The uproar was not planned in advance, but mobilized spontaneously after an assault on a young citizen by policemen. Footage of this protest went viral on Syria’s newly authorized Facebook community, which soon began mobilization for the popular protest movement. Youths were powerfully inspired by the Arab Spring movements, notably the Egyptian revolution, and hoped for the political change that had begun to emerge in other countries in the region.

It has now been over six years since that February, during which time social media has continued to convey thousands of events, fluctuating between ups and downs, and play an undoubtedly crucial role in the Syrian scene. Specifically, social media has had three major roles in Syria: mobilization and advocacy; the expression and dissemination of ideas; and the exposure and documentation of violations. Despite these functions, however, social media has been repeatedly blamed for the numerous failures of the revolution, particularly during the peaceful protest movement.

“No good has come from this Facebook” is an exclamation we hear all too often. This raises many questions. Has social media failed to play the role we assigned to it? Have we been deceived into assuming too much capability to act through these means of communication? Should we have recognized them as tools helpful for mobilization, rather than weapons capable of toppling regimes?

 

Mobilization and advocacy

The first Facebook pages aiming at mobilizing Syrians against the regime, notably “The Day of Rage” and “The Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad,” were created in early 2011. The former called for a demonstration on February 4th in Damascus, with the aim of protesting the 48-year-long emergency law. This call was met with little response. Later, the latter page called for demonstrations on March 15th, which actually transpired in the Al-Hamidiyah market in old Damascus. Despite the anonymity of these pages, they managed to attract tens of thousands of Syrian Facebook users, who were encouraged by the revolutionary models of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. We Are All Khaled Saeed, for example, named in reference to the young Egyptian man killed in police custody in 2010, which called for and organized demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25th, 2011, was a model for the capacity of social media to support and even lead popular movements on the ground. “While others have succeeded,” the thinking went in Syria, “why haven’t we?”

When the ban on social media in Syria was lifted, the Dubai School of Government observed a 70% increase in usage over the course of the following few months, according to its May 2011 Arab Social Media report. Most young Syrians who were involved in the protest movement created Facebook accounts, not for social, family, or entertainment purposes, but rather for mobilization and advocacy.

Given the persecution of activists by the Syrian regime, which exploited the lifting of the ban to intensify and tighten its surveillance, a majority of these youths did not suffice with a single account, but rather resorted to creating multiple accounts with real and fictitious names. A few months later, these different monikers and personas became an integral part of their lives and revolutionary activism. Effectively, Syrian people, many of whom had never been engaged in any civil or political activity, founded innovative mechanisms for organization, communication and mobilization. Drawing on the experiences and expertise of Arab and Western activists, they acquired and began circulating invaluable information on how to organize civil action, and how to deal with the violence perpetrated by security forces.

Month after month, however, and as a result of numerous factors, most notably the severe violence to which the regime subjugated its opponents—including arrest, torture and murder—and the militarization of the peaceful revolutionary movement, as well as increased risks of organizing demonstrations via Facebook, whereby organizers’ accounts were susceptible to hacking and exposure, the act of mobilization and demonstration increasingly became a merely “virtual” activity.

Since public gatherings and demonstrations were becoming unfeasible, virtual protests spread across Syrian Facebook. With time, these acts of virtual solidarity became a standalone activity, which compensated, morally if nothing else, for the lack of actual demonstration. Activists would launch an advocacy campaign in line with concurrent events, such as military raids against a city or a massacre in a village or town, with all profile pictures changing to a unified image reflecting the event.

The same applied to strikes and boycott campaigns, which began resonating in the early months of the revolution in several governorates such as Damascus, Daraa, Homs, and Hama, as a form of civil disobedience. The calls for the first strike, including the Karama (“Dignity”) Strike in late 2011, were somewhat successful, particularly in the coordination of field and media activity and the participation of many grassroots groups. However, the regime confronted these entirely peaceful campaigns with an iron fist, for fear they may at some stage paralyze its most vital economic arteries. Regime forces then began vandalizing most of the closed stores, forcing their owners to open them for business. These campaigns failed to progress in their planned stages, which were supposed to reach a scale of encompassing the entirety of Syria, especially the capital Damascus. The initial visions remained in the realms of rhetoric and artistic design, to be circulated on social media. Moreover, this failure precluded the possibility of further mobilization for similar campaigns, which ultimately became restricted to the virtual space, turning into Facebook campaigns that called for desisting from shopping or going to markets, and for boycotting merchants and resisting inflation, with little to no avail.

It cannot be said that social media failed to mobilize and advocate. It did, indeed, contribute greatly to the organization of the peaceful protest movement. However, the major transformation into militant action, and the subsequent fragmentation and dispersal of the civil activists and groups, which in turn was reflected on social media, gravely obstructed this function. Amid the severe violence, and the decline of peaceful activities—to the point of being barely noticeable—virtual space was left with hardly any role to perform.

 

Free expression and contribution to change

The role of social media in the Syrian revolution was not limited to mobilization and advocacy. It also contributed to the dissemination of ideas and calls for change at various levels, especially during its first months. Thousands of Syrian youths, who had not been accustomed to having an audible voice, utilized blogs and social websites to express their ideas and attitudes. They held fast to these platforms, and to the safety and freedom they offered, while producing genuinely relevant content. It was a break from both the state censor and the traditional media to which they had long been exposed.

These websites and accounts became the main platforms to defend the views and attitudes of those involved in the popular movement; perhaps they were even the only viable space for such grassroots activity. Moreover, from the beginning, social websites constituted a platform for unprecedentedly distinctive and diverse creativity of a kind Syria had never witnessed before, especially humorous and satirical commentary on some of the most painful events of the revolution.

In political terms, one oughtn't overlook the flexibility of these websites in disseminating ideas, some of which spread like wildfire among those who frequent virtual space. These websites granted young people unlimited room to express themselves and their desires and aspirations for change. Combined with political and military obstructions on the ground, this flexibility pushed some of these young people to leave the battlefields of military and political struggles and retreat to social websites and enjoy the convenience and security of doing that of which they were deprived on the ground.

This function of social media lost its momentum over time. The blame does not fall solely on the regime’s violence; indeed it may be useful to address the revolution’s failure to offer a political alternative to both tyranny and extremism, whereby social media could have served as a means of disseminating these ideas, bridging gaps, and finding convergence between different parties, none of which materialized at the required level.

 

Exposing violations

“Had those who lived through the Hama massacres in the 1980s been given the means of communication that we now have, the world would not have been silent about these killings of tens of thousands of people.” This was a sentence echoed by many of the youths involved in the Syrian revolution during its first few months, all maintaining the belief that their use of social media technologies to help expose violations and convey Syria’s suffering to the outside world in real time would prevent the recurrence of the tragedy of Hama. Of course, we see now in retrospect this was not the case.

The importance of social communication in drawing attention to what is happening on the ground is undeniable. The footage publicized during the first days of the revolution was undoubtedly significant, as it reported to the world the unfolding news inside the country. Additionally, Syrians were encouraged to mobilize in solidarity, and to take to the streets without fear of the consequences. This also incentivized thousands of people outside of Syria to support the Syrian revolution and demand an end to the regime’s violence. However, these photos and videos did not succeed in stopping the carnage or ending the war, any more than the photographs of thousands of starved and tortured corpses leaked by the military defector codenamed “Caesar” did. It remains unclear whether they will contribute to bringing the perpetrators to international justice one day.

Indeed, it could be argued that this huge influx of information, video footage, and news about the regime’s crimes via social media has nevertheless failed to create decisive international support for Syrians’ demand to be rid of the regime. The media has circulated widely, but has it really swayed international public opinion in such a way as to affect Syria-related policymakers? Or have the videos of the self-proclaimed Islamic State executing prisoners been more successful in spreading, influencing and sowing terror, resulting in an international consensus to fight it, despite the fact the Assad regime’s victims far outnumber those of ISIS? This is a question that may need prolonged reflection. Images, news, and information may not be a sufficient means of persuasion and influence, especially if they are not accompanied by consistent discourse addressed to the target audience, and by a deeper understanding of the nature of social media and the role it can play in influencing public opinion.

 

What next?

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, high hopes were placed on social media, and on its ability to mobilize the masses, primarily in emulation of the experiences in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Given the different political climates between Syria and Egypt, which enjoyed a greater degree of political and intellectual freedom under Mubarak’s dictatorship, as well as the far more violent developments on the ground in Syria, these high hopes were fated to diminish. It can be said that social media contributed to the revolution in Syria, especially in the early stages, before its role began declining on various levels for the aforementioned reasons.

This does not mean, however, that social media ought to be shunned. By looking for new ways to utilize it, by creating innovative mechanisms of interaction, and by taking advantage of its technology that is undergoing constant renewal and vitality, we can still thereby strive to continue to contribute to the democratic change to which we aspire.