Social Media and the Conflict in Syria

August 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

The rise of social media and the growth of the internet across the world have created a vast new resource for journalists to exploit. The problem with this huge amount of information is it often appears that the traditional media has struggled to exploit it to the fullest extent.

This is where I come in. Over the past year I’ve been watching activity on social media and building up a picture of what’s happening on the ground in Syria, which has led to me being the first person to write about the use of cluster bombs in Syria, detailing the arms used the by Syrian opposition, tracking the escalation in the air war, identifying arms smuggled into Syria, and much more.

I started my blog as a personal project. My early posts on Syria were rather unorganised collections of interesting videos I had seen on Facebook and Twitter. It wasn’t until May 2012 that I adopted a more systematic approach to examining videos coming from Syria. Reports of a massacre in the town of Houla were being posted on Twitter and Facebook, accompanied by horrific videos and photographs of rows of bodies, many of them children’s—shocking images at that stage in the conflict. I realised that by gathering a list of channels that were posting from specific areas, I could check every channel on a regular basis for the latest videos and build a picture of events on the ground. What started as a list of no more than 20 channels has now grown into 550 channels from across Syria, some belonging to armed groups, others local media centres, with some belonging to civilians.

After Houla, I began tracking an escalation in the air war through the unexploded ordnance (UXO) filmed by people on Syria and posted online. In mid-2012, I had found the first videos of cluster bombs in Syria, the use of which is extremely controversial. These videos led to a Human Rights Watch report on their use in Syria.

In early 2013, I started noticing four very unusual weapons appearing in Syria. It turned out these arms were the M60 recoilless gun and M79 Osa from the former Yugoslavia; the Soviet RPG-22, used by a number of countries, including Croatia; and the Croatian RBG-6 grenade launcher.

When it comes to identifying weapons, it’s very important to make sure all the details match. There are many rocket launchers that look similar to the M79 Osa, and the RBG-6 is a copy of a nearly identical South African grenade launcher, with the visible difference being the position of a few bolts. Manufacturers of these weapons sometimes put detailed images of their products online, and one useful source of images of aircraft weaponry are people who visit air shows and then post images of the weapons on internet forums. Often it’s just a matter of putting the markings on the weapons through Google and checking the results. I’ve found in some cases that I’ve only got one component of a much larger weapon but the markings on the component have allowed me to discover which weapon it would belong to. Google is really one of the most powerful tools for this, as there are so many pieces of information scattered across the internet. Many organizations that collect data on arms and munitions put it out in expensive publications, so Google is a more cost-effective option.

I had an idea that my mystery weapons were appearing mainly in the Daraa region in the south of Syria and on the border with Jordan. As I found more videos, I added them to a spreadsheet detailing the date, weapon type, group using them, location, and map coordinates, which clearly pointed to these weapons first appearing as part of a major offensive in the town of Busar al-Harir, Daraa, being used by a number of groups belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

I made a number of posts on the subject on my blog, explaining what I had found and tracking the weapons’ spread northwards, with videos being posted showing huge numbers of these weapons captured by the Syrian army and classrooms of Free Syrian Army fighters being taught how to use them, confirming that something was happening that was out of the ordinary. I then went to the New York Times with an article for their At War blog summarising what I had found and hoped they would find it interesting. Several days later I was contacted by C.J. Chivers, who told me that they thought there was a major story behind what I had found, and rather than publishing the article, they would use it as the start of their own investigation.

The New York Times spent the next two weeks approaching various officials, showing them what I had found, and began to uncover what had been happening behind the scenes. The Saudis had purchased thousands of tonnes of these weapons from Croatia, flown them to Jordan, and started smuggling them into Syria to arm the Free Syrian Army, seemingly with the knowledge of the U.S. government.

All of this had been exposed because I had been able to track the arrival of these new weapons on social media. This was something a journalist on the ground in Syria might not have picked up on. At the time these weapons appeared, no journalists were reporting from the Daraa region, and even if they had been, they might not have realised the significance of these weapons. Because I was able to watch videos from across the region, I had a much better sense of what was going on than a journalist on the ground might have otherwise had.

In several interviews, I’ve been asked if I think what I’m doing will replace traditional journalism. I believe that rather than replace it, the sort of work I do can enhance traditional journalism. I’m sure there are many more people like me out there with a keen interest in a subject who just need the right guidance to make the most of their passion.

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