Conflict in Syria: the role and responsibility of communication and social networks.

To mobilise the attention of the international community, social networks are able to play a key role. This is particularly true in the context of the Syrian conflict. Images of Palmyra in ruins, tears of men in Aleppo, orphans in Raqqa…the list goes on. Due to the diffusion and sharing of videos, images and testimonies on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, the horrors of this conflict cannot go unnoticed. Sparking empathy, these images have encouraged millions of internet users to change their profile picture to demonstrate their support for the victims of this conflict.

The possibility to show and see the suffering endured in Syria has had an important effect on how we diffuse and share information, particularly in a context where access of journalists is often complicated. The regulations imposed by Bacah Al-Assad’s regime in addition to the level of risk on the ground have often led to coverage of the Syrian conflict outside Syria.

In terms of international mobilisation, the important role mentioned above has however not been decisive.  If, according to some, the use of social networks largely allowed the presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States, it has however failed to stop the massacres taking place on the Syrian stage. Several reasons have been developed to explain this, notably state censure; a disproportionate illusion of activism and real impact or even the false impression by civil society that they are organised in activist action due to activity on social networks (for example through the creation of facebook pages and events)

The right to show, without any censorship, the reality of the horrors taking place must not impact our duty of vigilance. It is essential to keep in mind that many images and videos have been tampered with and as a consequence, at times it is difficult to distinguish reality from propaganda. The role of media on the perception of conflict has often been exploited in order to influence the international debate in order to put forward one side over the other. Looking at the atrocities shared by those who are directly victims, yes. To naively trust the flow of information that circulates the internet, no.

Videos and images not only have a mobilising effect: they are also a source of evidence that allows and will affirm that a war crime has occured and therefore ensure that justice is served. Indeed, when organisations such as Human Rights Watch can no longer access certain areas, collecting content broadcasted on social media becomes the only way of investigation. Files can be assembled and reviewed by international courts with universal jurisdiction.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that the United nations has established the <International, impartial and independent mechanism>, to facilitate the investigation of the most serious violations of international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic. Investigating war crimes taking place in Syria as well as the most serious violations of international law, the organisation aims to prepare evidence that will allow justice for victims in the future. An important part of its work draws upon shared content by users on social networks.

However, last summer, a new artificial intelligence system was put in place by Youtube and was swiftly followed by Facebook and other social networks. Its aim was to distinguish violent content, potentially used  for extremist propaganda purposes. This action has led to the deletion of a huge number of accounts, both individuals and groups,(including Bellingcat, Airwars…) who provided information related to important conflict zones. Hundreds of pieces of evidence disappeared before anyone had the time to archive them.

After the scandal that followed, many videos that had been deleted were put back online. Less and less content would be subject to the same fate. However, according to the Fast Company media, between September and December 2017, 68 Youtube channels that the Syrian Archive initiative followed were taken offline (more than 400,000 videos). Only a part could be restored. As a consequence, in 2018, lots of online content would have still been deleted.

Social media should not remove this evidence, rather should make a conscious effort to archive it. It is essential. What will happen if courts are unable to try the perpetrators of war crimes due to a simple lack of evidence? What does this say about these sites? Today, the use of Sarin Gas in chemical attacks is increasingly singled out. Without the images of these individuals presenting the effects of the gas, will courts be capable of effectively carrying out investigations and determining the facts?

It is therefore paramount that the different companies responsible for diffusion of content are more cautious with these practises before too much evidence disappears.  

This article was originally written by Valentine Bles – member of the Communications pole of STAND France. Valentine is currently completing a master’s degree in international relations (specialising in Middle East and Diplomacy ) at Sciences Po Paris.

The English version has been translated by Lily Pryer, the Communications Coordinator at STAND France. Lily is currently pursuing her studies in History and French at the Sorbonne and will return to the University of York next year to finish her degree.




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