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.