Global Fatigue Keeps Syrian Rebellion From Going Viral

Syrian social media on a global scale has remained relatively calm and inactive compared to the rest of the Arab Spring. Photo Credit: Associated Press

The ongoing revolution in Syria erupted just over a year ago in March 2011.  Thousands of Syrians hit the streets to demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down, starting a bloody battle between the security forces and protesters. Violence escalated as the military bombarded rebel towns and villages, especially Homs. At least 8,000 people have died so far, according to the United Nations Security Council.

During the uprisings that began earlier in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the Arab Spring, citizen journalism flowered and it was reasonable to expect a similar flood of Syrian tweets and Facebook messages–and perhaps even the emergence of something so iconic as the #Jan24 Twitter hashtag that helped spur the Egyptian mobilizations.

But it never happened in Syria. Why?

Some of the reasons are readily understandable.  Syrians face a shortage of Internet aceess and an excess of fear.  But one of the reasons was less predictable.  After so much outpouring of social media from so many Arab uprisings, the world appears simply to be social-media fatigued.

SocialFlow, a social media optimization tool, estimates that Egypt was mentioned in 186,000 tweets per hour in January 2011, as the crisis ballooned there.  In February of this year, when the international media was reporting daily on the frequent of Homs, Syria was mentioned in an estimated only 3,000 to 6,000 tweets.

Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation, tried to get at why Syria has not gone viral. Researchers found that people are in fact talking about Syria on social media, but the attention seems to be more focused among activists or Middle East specialists. The global social media audience has not been involved in the same way as it was with Egypt. the researchers concluded.

Accessibility has been key, of course. Syrians did have access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But the access has been very limited, and for a limited period of time. Security officials of the Assad regime learned from what they saw as mistakes in Egypt and  cracked down heavily on protesters’ use of social media. Censors demanded that protesters divulge their Facebook passwords.  They also regularly switched off mobile data networks – preventing rebels from sharing photos and uploading videos of protests and violence.

“Sometimes they cut off the Internet, and sometimes they make the Internet very slow, which means you can’t upload YouTube videos,” said Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, who has tried to document human right violations that have occurred since the uprising started in Syria.  He said that the government was “just generally making everything very difficult” online.

The Syrian government has censored the Internet for a long period of time. So much so that the watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontières named the country “enemy of the Internet.” The regime has previously blocked sites that contain human rights information, or sites that belong to the Kurdish people, and even recently, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But accessibility is only part of a bigger problem for the Syrian rebels. Some of them revealed that they were too scared to share their activity on social media because the Assad government has been keeping a close eye on the rebellion by rigorously going through blogs, Facebook updates and tweets. Social media has turned social media on its head by using it as a tool to track down activists. There have been reports of police officers raiding people’s homes and confiscating personal computers. According to a Reuters report, the Syrian security forces have created a list of people who are on the watch-list because of their activity on Facebook. Some posted anti-government comments on Facebook or re-routed or “favorite” tweets supporting the rebels.

Another reason why people have been paying less attention to Syria than Egypt is what NPR’s Andy Carvin calls as the “coverage fatigue.” Egypt, according to Carvin, had a critical mass of people with Internet access. “When Mubarak unplugged the Internet, it became an international sensation. It became international news,” said Carvin, who works as NPR’s senior strategist in Washington D.C.

Carvin said Syria did not have that advantage mostly because of competition from Libya. He said coverage ramps up when death tolls are up.  “Assad is very smart. He only allowed 10 to 15 people dying per day,” said Carvin. “After a few days, editors of major networks were not interested in covering Syria anymore. There was coverage fatigue in the media.” Egypt was a quick phenomenon. The uprising grew fast, leading to a revolution that was dramatic and lasted just over a month. Syria, on the other hand, has been a year long struggle and it’s far from being over. It lost momentum in the process.

Head of social media at Al Jazeera English, Riyaad Minty agrees that time is an important factor in Syria, but so is geography. “Viral topics….often tend to emerge from the U.S., and what U.S. media decide to cover,” said Minty.” “Syria has not been covered as extensively as Egypt was within most Western media.”

There have been exceptions. There were days, especially in February, when international coverage of Syria spiked. Bloggers and citizen journalists inside Syria posted a rash of videos on YouTube and tweet traffic was high. But the correspondents got tired or too scared of the dangers and left the country.  The limited accessibility and fear factor, meanwhile, took their toll among Syrians.  Compared to the rest of the Arab Spring, Syrian social media has since remained relatively low key, despite the continuing violence.

Suvro Banerji is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@suvrobanerji)