On June 5th, the never-ending Twitter discussion on #Syria moved in a shocking new direction. According to numerous accounts, violence had finally engulfed Aleppo, suggesting for the first time that Syria’s largest city would face the violence already so prevalent elsewhere in the nation. Details remained vague, but the rising tide of tweets grew increasingly disturbing. The assault from Bashar Assad’s military, it seemed, was targeted directly at unarmed civilians.
Within minutes, James Miller, a reporter at EAworldview.com and co-author of this piece, received a Skype message from “Zilal,” a Europe-based activist who relays information from contacts throughout Syria. Zilal, an expatriate, works with the Coalition of Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change (CFDPC), an opposition network formed to support the peaceful anti-Assad movement in Syria. The CFDPC relays information from Damascus and beyond- collecting, verifying, and translating videos and eyewitness reports for the English-speaking world. In this instance Zilal passed along word from Aleppo, insisting that the reported regime assault was aimed at student protests that had been building in the city’s Salaheddine neighborhood for weeks. Soon, videos were being distributed on social media sites showing bright muzzle flashes in the background with students shrieking in the foreground. Miller, who monitors, verifies and distributes news from Syria for EAworldview.com, needed to react quickly to this deluge of information.
Of course, this almost real-time flow of rumors and terabytes from across the world brings with it considerable journalistic peril. Coverage of the post-election protests in Iran in 2009, a key precursor to the current crisis in Syria, powerfully illustrates the difficulty inherent in working with non-traditional sources at such great distances. While much of the citizen journalism covering the Green Revolution of 2009 was accurate and insightful, significant portions of it were impossible to verify. Some elements, even more problematically, we produced for the very purpose of sowing confusion. For example, in the face of severe government restrictions on traditional journalism, opponents of the Iranian regime, such as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, resorted to faking videos and republishing old videos with new dates in an effort to supply evidence of the regime’s imminent demise. The Iranian government and its supporters were equally dishonest, faking their own videos and paying bloggers to leave positive comments on Facebook pages and Western news stories. This cacophony of misinformation drowned out and thus neutralized the impact of much of the difficult, dangerous work being done by honest Iranian citizen journalists.
Three years later, Syrian citizens, working in concert with a global network of web journalists, have crafted a system that helps ameliorate these concerns. A complex process now goes into producing, collecting, organizing—and verifying—the countless digital puzzle pieces that tell the story of the Syrian Civil War. In the case of the alleged regime attack on the students in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo, Miller’s job was to find these pieces, decipher their hidden markers of authenticity and, ultimately, piece them together quickly enough to be of use in both Syria and the world at large.
At first glance, the fractured information reaching Miller from Aleppo seemed to fit together neatly. No doubt, many people following the story were persuaded that the protestors were being attacked. However, the stakes of this story were particularly high. If shelling was indeed occurring in this upper middle class neighborhood, it would not only represent a desperate shift on the part of the regime; it would also mark a moment in which journalists could provide timely, potentially life-saving information. But if the reports were somehow inaccurate and the footage misleading, the consequence could be a panic capable of igniting a cycle of violence in its own right. Needless to say, falling prey to rumors or opposition propaganda would also seriously undermine the credibility of EAworldview.com—and the project of Syrian citizen journalism in general.
In less pressing circumstances, citizen videos passed along by news sources inside Syria are generally first verified by local organizations that serve as clearinghouses for the masses of media being produced everyday in Syria. Since the start of the conflict, networks of Syrian activists working inside and outside of Syria have worked to produce fast, accurate, and reliable news from the war-torn country.
One such organization is the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCs), a network that represents the interests of resistance to the Assad regime. The LCCs have become a source of information that provides an authoritative voice for the opposition’s official narrative. They have a reputation based on consistency and accuracy. Jaber Zaien, a spokesperson for the LCC, explains that a great deal of care is used to ensure that any information released by the LCCs is carefully vetted.
We make sure we call more than one eyewitness before we publish any kind of news. [With videos], if the video wasn’t sent by one of our members we make sure we watch the video, then send it to one of our members in the area that the video was taken to verify it and make sure it’s 100% right. We try to collect as much information as we can about the martyrs that get killed everyday, We don’t count any name unless we get more information about how he/she got killed - a video to prove the death or [verification from] our members in the city [where the death occurred]. Then we add the death to our website [the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria (VDC)].
The LCCs, which aspire to a place of leadership in a post-Assad Syria, would have much to lose, in terms of international reputation, were the veracity of their information to come into question. While no single source, especially one run by opposition activists, can provide a comprehensive picture of such a complex situation, major media outlets ranging from CNN to The Guardian to Al Jazeera often quote the LCCs, thus establishing these organizations as semi-official alternatives to the notoriously propagandistic Syrian state-run media and the chaotic galaxy of unvetted citizen-based information available online.
While certainly imperfect as a journalistic source, LCC-produced information represents the agreed upon narrative coming from the opposition, in contrast to claims coming from individual activists. Furthermore, members of the LCCs can be contacted directly by foreign journalists, and more information can be requested in order to help verify reports.
However, in urgent situations there may not be time to consult an opposition organization like the LCCs. Such was the case with the possible shelling of the student protests in Aleppo. For those immediately effected, there was simply no time to wait for the LCCs to process dozens of videos. Instead, microbudgeted organizations such as EAwordview.com were forced to rely upon their networks of contacts and the carefully cultivated production system established by Syrian citizen journalists in order to get at the truth.
When doing such verification work by hand, the first step is to check the videos themselves and compare them to known information about what they purport to represent. It is of central importance that citizen videographers, despite the enormous danger they face, go beyond simply recording the event they are intending to communicate. For example, muzzle flashes in the background of what appears to be a student protest tells the viewer little. It may be impossible to confidently declare where the images are coming from and when. Accordingly, for videos to be of maximum value, they must also, without editing, include important local landmarks and, ideally, some indication of the time the video was being shot.
Thanks to geomapping technologies, small cues left by videographers can play key roles in the verification process. These online resources can indicate to someone thousands of miles from Aleppo what the terrain looks like, what the weather was at the purported time of the video and even the direction the shadows should be falling at a given moment. After months of working with these videos, experienced analysts are able to quickly and accurately identify the time and place of a video with remarkable accuracy, if the citizen journalist has provided the necessary visual context. In the case of the videos from the student protest in Aleppo, the key indicators matched up. The weather, shadows and major landmarks appearing in the video provided a high level of certainty that the events being displayed had, in fact, taken place in Salaheddine, just hours earlier.
Additionally, Syrian citizen journalists have been trained to carefully compose the audio of their videos in order to assure maximum verifiability. This level of precision under fire was importantly present in the videos of the Aleppo shelling incident. In one perfectly executed video of the student protests in question, the videographer repeatedly pronounces the time and location of the event in a clear, easily understood fashion. The repetition is crucial, as it blends his words into the natural sound of the scene and allows the clip to be shortened without losing its identifying information. Yes, there always remains the possibility of a vast conspiracy involving Hollywood-style video and audio forgery. However, when these audio cues match up with verifiable visual indicators, an evaluator can begin to take seriously the information a video claims to communicate.
Through this system of verification, the videos featuring the muzzle flashes in the background of a student demonstration appeared both authentic and accurately labeled. However, the story remained incomplete. Yes, the students were reacting in horror to the flashes but, mercifully, there were no reliable reports of student causalities. Shells were verifiably being launched from a space near the Salaheddine district, but there was no evidence of their landing spots.
Researchers at sites such as EAworldview.com, having solved one piece of the puzzle, started searching for the other.
Soon, Facebook pages being run by an LCC and the Syrian Revolution General Commission, another activist group, reported the falling of artillery shells in a Northern suburb of Aleppo. The information, however, was being presented as entirely separate from the violence in the city itself. No video accompanied the reports, but quickly a variety of first hand accounts testified to this apparently unmotivated artillery attack. In comparing the details of the Facebook reports to the approximate times of the flashes seen in the Salaheddine videos, a hypothesis began to emerge: Perhaps these seemingly unrelated reports from Aleppo’s northern suburbs were, in fact, the proper sequels to the video footage featuring the muzzle shots aimed at the protests.
To test this speculation, researchers, including the co-author, James Miller, drew upon Wikimapia, a tool that now plays a crucial role in the verification of citizen journalism throughout the world. The website allows users to add notations to Google’s mapping technology, creating a user-driven picture of obscure Syrian terrain. Looking at the map of Aleppo, a new picture of the shelling began to emerge. Close to Salaheddine, where the videos featuring the muzzle flashes and the student protests were shot, many Wikimapia users had noted the existence of a vast Syrian regime artillery depot near a military academy. When one drew a line from this depot to the spot on which the shells were landing according to the opposition Facebook pages, they passed directly over the area of the student protests. A return look at the videos from the scene, cross-referenced with detailed maps of Salaheddine, further verified that this trajectory matched all available evidence.
Archival research of previous timelines of regime attacks in similar circumstances then helped bolster the theory that the shells were being shot over the heads of protesters, most likely to send them a horrifying, but not yet deadly, message. In other areas where the regime was hesitant to display weakness and provoke further protests, it had previously fired shells past demonstrators in just such a fashion. As minutes passed without reports of injuries in Salaheddine, web reporters such as Miller began to pass along the narrative as they understood it. Such information, of course, can never be known conclusively. However the verified videos, combined with the triangulated eyewitness testimonials on Facebook and a understanding of the regime’s past actions, provided a persuasive—and, it turns out, accurate, picture of the shelling. The students, though clearly being warned, were not being shelled, despite rumors to the contrary.
This story, tragically, does not end happily. Weeks later, the regime did turn its guns on Salaheddine, killing dozens. Partially in response to the student deaths, the Free Syrian Army moved into this area of the city, sparking the battle that is waging there now. Such senselessly destructive conclusions haunt the work of those who, from the safety of their offices sometimes thousands of miles away, complete the countless puzzles whose pieces are produced through the bravery of Syrian citizens. Still, with the aid of new technologies, dedicated reporters across the world are able to put together the pieces of the puzzle from Syrian citizens journalists, helping to ensure that both their fellow countrymen and global decision makers understand the messages that the citizen journalists sacrifice so much to create.