A Look at the Promises and Perils of Social Media in Conflict

Throughout the Social Good Summit, various panels and participants discussed social media and the impact it is having on the world today. Often social media is seen in positive light as a method of bringing individuals together to amplify action, educate people on new issues and build new networks at a cheaper transaction price. But for many, Syria represents a darker side of social media where its primary outcome is not bringing people together, but rather helps people bear witness to atrocities in the world’s most brutal conflict today.

Yesterday the Social Good Summit hosted a panel that looked at this darker side and both the good and the bad of social media in Syria. As David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee put it, the best way to understand Syria is all the modern historic atrocities rolled into one – the urban destruction of Dresden, the refugee flows of Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion, the gassing of civilians in Iran and Iraq, and in some places, urban sieges that bring to mind images of Sarajevo during the Bosnia War. However in Syria, unlike when these events occurred, there is social media which gives the outside world 24 hour access to intimate views of the atrocities. From YouTube videos to photographs and witness narratives on Facebook and Twitter, the Syrian conflict is both more open than any war before but also remains incredibly closed to traditional methods of information gathering.

The issue of access is a major one for journalists and humanitarian aid workers. The polarization within Syria means that government visas are extremely difficult to obtain while the chaotic organization of the many rebel groups means that personal security is a major problem outside government areas. Regardless of what side you are reporting from, as independent journalist Anna Therese Day noted journalists are often tagged with a minder or armed protection detail which limits the ability of civilians to speak freely and tell their full story. In the face of such dire security and half-truths on the ground, many journalists are instead choosing to cover the war from the outside, relying heavily on social media content and sources gained through social media networks. Thus in many ways, social media has become a type of information lifeline for journalists, aid workers and government officials as access inside the country is increasingly bleak.

But such a lifeline carries its own problems. While it can help inform people of new developments – the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on August 21 is a good example – there are still issues of bias in the selection of what information goes out as well as security concerns for those transmitting the information. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power raised this issue in her Social Good Summit presentation earlier in the week using the example of the targeting of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik early in the war by the Syrian Army using their satellite signal. Numerous other Syrian citizen journalists have also been targeted through the war, and recent reports illustrate the fear that those outside of the country still have about revealing their identity to journalists out of fear for family members still inside the country.

Aziz Abu Sarah of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution also raised this issue, noting that the inherent danger of using the internet in Syria and the fear Syrians have over their identity being discovered. These elements to information gathering and dissemination serve as major barriers for social media in Syria. But social media also presents unique barriers for people outside of the country in understanding the content as most social media content coming out of Syria is in Arabic and not English or other Western languages. A recent US Institute of Peace briefing highlighted the many problems with relying on social media in understanding Syria due to not only the problems listed above, but also because of social media’s inherent chaotic nature. Despite the huge amounts of information social media gives us on the conflict, without proper analysis (which largely doesn’t exist) to make sense of an extremely complicated and fluid conflict, it is perhaps leading to more confusion rather than better understanding of the facts on the grounds.

Despite these drawbacks, there are ways that social media is being used to positive effect. Two of the projects named in the panel were Syria Tracker and the Women Under Siege project, both of which use crowdsourcing to document violence. These two projects highlight the ability of social media to document crimes as they occur and may ultimately play a role in holding people accountable after the conflict ends. But in the meantime there is only so much social media can cover and only so much impact it can have.

On this last point, Miliband brought up an interesting argument on how social media can influence international politics on Syria. Noting that politics are local and not global, he also commented that information and political pressure has different value based on how it is obtained. “What politicians listen to most are the things that are hard to do rather than the things that are easy to do,” he told the audience. “Someone who is able to go and put themselves on the line to interview someone in real time is a very striking new piece of information…Raising global connections is important but because it is easy for people to do it is easy for politicians to discount.” This may be the biggest drawback of social media as a means of social protest, a fact that is difficult for many to accept given that it is often the only avenue left to ordinary Syrians.

For the most part these are new issues and ones that the world has not yet developed concrete answers or solutions for. This may be the other legacy social media in the Syrian conflict will leave. Day used her closing remarks to highlight the structural deficiencies at the UN and within the media landscape that the conflict has revealed. Not only have we been able to stop the bloodshed in Syria despite overwhelming information on the atrocities occurring, but we are still struggling to understand how we can prevent future Syrias given what we have learned.

Needless to say, this panel was probably the darkest one hosted at the Social Good Summit this year. Nearly 30 months into the conflict with more than 100,000 dead and millions of refugees, it is increasingly difficult to find a positive silver lining for the conflict. But that does not mean there is no hope; for all the horrors that social media reveals to the world about the atrocities happening in Syria, it also serves as a window to those fighting for freedom and the resilience of the Syrian people. Often with social media it is a truism that with the good comes the bad. In the case of Syria it may be more appropriate to acknowledge that even with the all the bad, there is still good to be found.