Facebooking the Syrian revolution

Syrian Americans turn to social media over mainstream journalism to keep tabs on the conflict

Justin Mitchell By Justin Mitchell

Shadi Batal at his salon in in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (Justin Mitchell)

Shadi Batal, a Syrian immigrant, at his salon in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (Justin Mitchell)

Upon meeting Shadi Batal, it is hard not to be impressed. Only 25 years old, Batal has been running his hair salon on 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for five years. He is happily married and drives a shiny BMW around the streets of his vibrant Arab-American neighborhood. His life is almost storybook in its personification of immigrant success in the U.S.

But as a native of Syria, Batal’s life is much more complicated than it appears.

Batal was born in the northwestern province of Idlib, one of the strongholds of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rag-tag conglomerate of rebel militias engaged in a brutal civil war with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations estimates more than 60,000 people have died in the conflict. Even immersed in his shiny new American life, Batal has not managed to completely polish away the residue of his past back home.

“My life, it’s been so affected here,” he says, hunched over a table in his salon’s basement, clutching his head in his hands. “I can’t even focus on anything.”

Communications blocked

As the conflict rages far away, Batal and his fellow Syrian Americans know that people are being killed every day. At any moment their loved ones back home could be next. Since March 2011, when the uprising began as a series of peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, the Assad regime has done all it can to block foreign journalists from entering the country. Many Syrians in the United States try to keep up by watching television networks from the region such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, BBC Arabic, and CNN International. But people like Batal want more.

His family is still back in Idlib, and Batal speaks to them on the phone often. But Syria is a mukhabarat state, meaning that secret police saturate the population, bugging phones and planting informants. It is impossible for Batal’s family to speak to him freely. “If they use the bathroom, [the police] will know,” he says. When he speaks to his family, Batal must use an elaborate code.

With these roadblocks to traditional communication, Syrians in America and their home country have been forced to look to a new and imperfect medium: social media.

Facebook and YouTube fill the gap

As the conflict in Syria has escalated, hundreds of Facebook pages and YouTube channels have sprung up to fill the gap for the Syrian diaspora. For Batal, Facebook has become a go-to news source. He visits it first thing in the morning, before he watches the major Arabic-language networks. He has come to depend on it for its rapidity and hyperlocal nature.

“You don’t have to wait for the news,” Batal says. “Something happens, they post it after a half hour.”

For Batal, the need for quick and up-to-date information is personal: his brother was a member of the FSA. One day in August, one of Batal’s friends in Brooklyn told him that his brother’s name was listed among the day’s casualties on the Facebook page focusing on news from Idlib. Batal immediately called one of his relatives back in Syria, who told him that the news was incorrect and his brother was only injured.

But just one hour later the relative called back. Batal’s brother was dead.

According to Batal, he had been hiding at a friend’s home, drinking tea, when the Assad forces fired a missile at the house, destroying it.

“I was engaged with this situation before it happened,” Batal explains, “but after he passed away, I became even more addicted.”

And that was just the beginning. On January 16, Batal’s uncle was injured when government forces bombed Idlib. The day before, one of his cousins was killed when bombs struck the University of Aleppo as students sat for their exams.

“I wish I could stop watching,” Batal says. “But I can’t.”

Hyperlocal Syrian news in New Jersey

Batal has tried to find as many sources of information as he can. Around the time of his brother’s death he discovered Souria Wa Bas (“Only Syria”), a mobile interactive app available for iPhone and Android platforms. Souria Wa Bas provides up-to-the-minute updates on the battle in Syria. Using the app, which is maintained by the Syrian resistance, Batal can keep track of deaths by region, as well as access video and audio updates.

Batal is far from alone in his reliance on social media. Many Syrian Americans have embraced social media as a way to contribute something to the battle from afar.

Newroz Samo, a Syrian Kurd who lives in New Jersey, is a translator for the New York City courts. In his spare time he voraciously combs Facebook for the latest news. According to him, it beats Western media by a considerable margin.

Batal on his phone, which he uses to get constant updates on the civil war in Syria. (Justin Mitchell)

Batal on his phone, which he uses to get constant updates on the civil war in Syria. (Justin Mitchell)

“[Western reporting] doesn’t really tell you the truth on the ground,” Samo tells Latitude News. “They generalize the information, just saying there is fighting in Syria, and all the deaths are this many. They don’t go into details of how many kids have been killed, how many women have been raped.”

Like Batal, Samo checks Facebook every day. But he takes it one step further: Samo has taken his personal Facebook page and transformed it into an aggregation site, combining bulletins he curates from other Facebook pages with his own commentary to create an informal news service for his fellow Syrians.

“For us — the people not on the ground — we feel that our job is to get the word out about the atrocities on the ground,” Samo says.

His page has a little under 400 subscribers, and Samo even claims it has become a source of information for people inside Syria.

“They have a hard time communicating on the ground, so we are a better source for them to know what’s going on in other parts [of the country],” Samo explains.

Both Batal and Samo seem confident about the viability of the information they get on Facebook. Samo says he always verifies his information with multiple pages before reposting it. Batal says that 90 percent of the information he learns on Facebook turns out to be true.

Social media intensify emotions — on both sides

Chris Zambelis is a senior analyst at Helios Global, Inc., a risk management consultancy based in Washington, DC. Zambelis has written on the use of social media in the Syrian revolution, and agrees it plays an important role.

But he also sees how social media can intensify the feelings on both sides of an already-bitter conflict.

“It’s very, very hard to distill the truth from propaganda, from fiction, from a lot of information just being amplified and exaggerated,” he tells Latitude News. “Depending on which website you’re viewing, it would seem as if the regime should have fallen six, seven months ago. I hear other things from my contacts in the country — that the regime is a lot stronger, that the rebels have much less control than it’s made out to be.”

A boy, standing next to his father, cries as they wait to receive humanitarian aid in the countryside of Idlib, Syria. (Reuters/Giath Taha)

A boy, standing next to his father, cries as they wait to receive humanitarian aid in the countryside of Idlib, Syria. (Reuters/Giath Taha)

But for Batal, these concerns don’t matter. He reads every post and watches every video he can get his hands on.

“Sometimes I feel so stressed — to the point I can’t breathe,” he says. On that same day, he’d posted a grisly video on his Facebook page that appeared to depict a Syrian soldier repeatedly stabbing a corpse in the neck. Batal said it made him dizzy for the whole day. Yet despite the brutality of the material, Batal thinks seeing videos like that is critical to knowing the full extent of what is happening.

“You can’t help but to watch it,” he says, getting up and pacing around the basement, gesturing with his arms. “Every day you hope it’s going to be a better day. But it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”