Experts have been quick to emphasize the role social media played in the uprisings across the Middle East over the past year, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Threatened regimes in particular have also seen the power of online social networks and attempted to thwart their use. The revolution in Syria is no exception as the Assad Regime has increased government censorship to inhibit anti-Assad activists and militants from forming coalitions and spreading information. However, unlike Tunisia and Egypt where significant portions of the local population used Twitter and Facebook for social activism, Syrian activists have turned to Skype and YouTube (much like Libya) to spread news of events on the ground.
ABC News’ Syria correspondent Lara Setrakian posited this theory at a recent panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace entitled Groundtruth: New Media, Technology and the Syria Crisis. Skype, referred to as “ground zero” by Setrakian, is used by activists across the country to become citizen journalists while maintaining a degree of anonymity, although there is constant fear of the regime hacking into personal computers using malware. All communications infrastructure also is government owned and severe restrictions limit web access to certain sites. To circumvent this government censorship, activists have learned to get thousands of people to upload videos at once, as the government doesn’t have the capacity to censor everyone at the same time.
Just as several supposedly authentic Arab Spring Twitter users have been discovered to be fakes, the use of video reporting in Syria also brings up issues of the authenticity and credibility of news sources. Many videos posted directly to YouTube that give the appearance of being jihadist/Free Syrian Army groups are actually believed to be put out by the Assad regime. Most recently, there is controversy over a YouTube video showing American free-lance journalist Austin Tice in the hands of what looks like Syrian jihadi group. Media analysts believe it is actually propaganda by the Assad regime.
As Assad and his regime come under increasing fire from activists and the world at large, Syrians are finding their collective voice for the first time. Social media can certainly be a force for good in making the atrocities of the Assad regime known, although the accuracy of the videos/posts/tweets must be analyzed to determine whether they are coming from credible sources. Much like Libya, poor internet access (only about 20 percent in Syria) and the militia-based, violent nature of conflict necessitates the use of traditional media, especially television. Though social media has acted as a tool to disseminate news to the international community, it currently is less a tool of the revolution than a looking glass into it.