Originally Published in The Atlantic
Social media was one of the first refuges for Syria’s non-violent activists. Now they’re getting kicked off.
Hunched over a coffee at a Midtown Manhattan Starbucks, Ammar Hamidou describes how Syria’s revolution spiraled out of control before his eyes. Hamidou, who fled the country last year and now works in New York as a computer developer, was one of the first to take to the streets in his hometown of Kafranbel, in the northwest, in early 2011. But with regime aircraft pummeling his town and al-Qaeda-linked fighters periodically overrunning Kafranbel to kidnap civil-society activists like himself, the 29-year-old finagled a visa to the U.S. and escaped.
His family and girlfriend remain in Syria, but he says there is no role for him there anymore.
“The revolution started with the peaceful activists, we had no intention to hold a gun and fight anybody. What we wanted was freedom—how did we get here?” he asks. “Activists are vanishing, my revolution is being stolen, and those martyrs, this blood, all for nothing. It’s gonna be worthless, in vain.”
Nowadays, his activism takes place on his computer, as it did before the revolution broke out. Like many towns in Syria, Kafranbel has a Local Coordination Committee (LCC) and media center page on Facebook, both of which are used to spread news of the revolution, document the dead, and distribute safety information to residents. In a country where foreign and independent Syrian journalists are barred, and the regime’s expansive network of citizen-spies makes public discussion of the revolution dangerous to this day, Facebook was one of the first refuges for Syria’s dissidents—and now it has become one of their last.
Which is why the social network’s recent decisions to shut down dozens of opposition pages, including the Kafranbel Media Center that Hamidou administered in exile, have dealt a significant blow to peaceful activists who have grown reliant on Facebook for communication and uncensored—if bloody and graphic—reporting on the war’s atrocities. It’s only the latest chapter in Syria’s well-documented Facebook wars, but it threatens to be the final one for the non-violent voices who sparked the revolution to upend 40 years of oppressive Assad family rule.
The SecDev Foundation, a Canadian NGO that runs several digital-security initiatives in Syria— distributing censorship-circumvention tools like VPNs and proxies, and warning about pro-regime hacking schemes—has compiled a list of dozens of pages belonging to opposition citizen-journalism outfits or non-aligned NGOs that have reportedly been shuttered since last fall for posting what Facebook deemed to be graphic imagery or calls to violence. These pages often resurface under different URLs with a fraction of the followers they had before, and sometimes continue operating as they had previously.
Screenshots taken by SecDev or sent to the group by page administrators capture what appear to be some baffling decisions by Facebook. Take the case of the Daraa al-Mahata LCC. Its page, which documents the violence in Syria’s southernmost city of Daraa, had over 42,000 “likes” when it was removed in October for posting a picture of a man allegedly killed by the Syrian Army. In the picture, Fadi Badr al-Miqdad sits comfortably—very much alive—in a beige armchair. A young child, also alive, is perched on his lap. The Arabic-language caption reads: “He was killed by shabiha gangs in [the town of] Busra al-Sham.”Shabiha, loosely translated as “thugs,” is a pejorative term used by both sides in the conflict to describe their enemies—and the only potentially offensive word in the post.
The page’s administrators, who unsuccessfully appealed to have the page restored, do not understand. Why this picture? And, after nearly three years of posting images of dead bodies (among other things), why now?
Activists point to Facebook’s open-ended community standards and reporting system in explaining these closures. Any user who believes a post or photograph violates the social network’s standards may lodge the complaint with the company’s user-operations team, whose Arabic-language unit, operating out of Dublin, can then choose to remove the content, warn the page’s administrators, or even close the page, sometimes without notice. Activists believe groups supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are gaming the system and reporting on their rivals. Facebook does not disclose information about who reported whom, making it impossible to confirm these theories. But the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army (SEA)—best known for its hacks of major news sites, including an infamous White House bomb hoax that sank the Dow 140 points—has publicly gloated about this tactic.
“We continue our reporting attacks,” read a typical post from December 9 on the SEA’s Facebook page. “Our next target is the Local Coordination Committee of Barzeh [a neighborhood in Damascus], the page that is a partner in shedding Syrian blood and provoking sectarian division.” It then provided two links to photos on the Barzeh page that could get the page taken down. Soon afterwards, the SEA removed its post as if it had never existed.
Though SEA campaigns aren’t always successful—Facebook says the “quality” of reports will always trump the “quantity”—activists believe the pro-Assad hackers have claimed some high-profile scalps in recent months. Among them is the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, an NGO that documents casualties and rights abuses in the civil war. The SNHR has been regularly sharing graphic images—from blood-spattered streets to mutilated bodies—since 2011, but in October, Facebook reportedly pulled the plug on its page. With the UN announcing in January that it will no longer keep track of Syria’s rising death count, citing an inability to verify information inside Syria, the world will depend on NGOs like SNHR for updates. Without an operating Facebook page, its reach will be thwarted.
LCC and media-center pages are ripe for the picking because they have long prided themselves on depicting the war in all its gory detail. Graphic content, like that posted by SNHR, would indeed upset many of Facebook’s more than 1 billion users, all of whom can access public groups. But the owners of these pages insist their content is not meant to offend.
“This is all … part of telling people what is happening in Syria,” said Bassam al-Ahmad, the Istanbul-based spokesman for the Violations Documentation Center. His organization and others that track human-rights violations are preparing files so that war criminals can be brought to justice in a theoretical post-Assad Syria. When a page is shut down, those files are gone. And while al-Ahmed acknowledged the group’s content is often “difficult,” so is Syria’s war.
“I blame Facebook 100 percent for the closures,” said Dlshad Othman, a Syrian digital-security expert and cyberactivist, in a phone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “They opened the door from the beginning, letting all the people use Facebook above all other networks and then they shut down their pages. Facebook was a trap for us.”
Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, acknowledged Facebook’s community-policed reporting apparatus isn’t perfect and that human error can creep into decisions on page violations. He also noted that his team is dealing with an unprecedented conflict.
“With Syria, there are situations where it’s very hard for us to get the rules just right,” Allan said.
“The funny thing,” Othman mused, “is that Facebook used to be proud that it was part of the Arab Spring.”
In a letter to potential investors when Facebook filed its IPO last February, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted his social network’s role in undermining tyrannical governments like Syria’s: “By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored.”
Unless, of course, they are deleted by Facebook itself. While Allan declined to comment on individual cases, the company said nothing has changed in its policy with regard to the Syrian conflict. Allan instead suggested that years of content breach may have finally caught up to pages that have been around since early 2011. In other words, it was only a matter of time.
“There comes a point at which a page has breached the rules so many times that the only choice we have left is to close it,” said Allan in a phone interview from London. “We don’t like to take that sanction, it’s not our first option … but if a page repeatedly breaches then it’s going to hit that threshold.” He added, however, that Facebook’s decisions are “based on the quality of the content, not the quantity of reporting. One report about bad content, it will come down. A thousand reports about good content, it won’t come down.”
This isn’t a satisfying answer for activists like Razan Zaitouneh, one of the founders of the LCC system as well as the Violations Documentation Center. In early December, according to SecDev, the famed human-rights lawyer drafted a letter to Facebook imploring policy officials to consider that human-rights groups like her own have nowhere else to go. An exception should be made for those merely seeking to document conflict, she said.
“Facebook pages are the only outlet that allows Syrians and media activists to convey the events and atrocities in Syria to the world,” she wrote in the letter, which was shared by SecDev. “We strongly appeal to you not to make it easier for the Syrian regime to terminate calls for freedom and dignity.”
Zaitouneh never got a response to her letter. On December 9, five men stormed her organization’s office in the Damascus suburb of Douma and kidnapped her, along with her husband and two colleagues, VDC spokesman al-Ahmad said. Their whereabouts and kidnappers are unknown, but the abduction is widely believed to be the work of an Islamist rebel group, the Army of Islam, which is active in an area that was “liberated” from Assad’s grips months ago. Al-Ahmad said Zaitouneh had received threatening letters from an Islamist group shortly before the kidnapping, but he refused to name the group without proper evidence.
Zaitouneh’s kidnapping—and specifically the fact that it appears to have been perpetrated by ‘anti-Assad’ rebel fighters, underlines the bleak reality facing Syria’s non-violent holdouts, who bravely took to the streets in protest three years and 130,000 lives ago. With Assad showing no signs of wavering and al-Qaeda-linked extremists streaming across Syria’s porous borders, the peaceful protesters say they no longer recognize the uprising they used to lead.
“It’s no secret that the role of activists in Syria is dwindling,” said Laila Safadi, the editor of the online opposition news magazine Tala’na al-Hurriya (“Take Us to Freedom”) from her home in the Golan Heights in Syria. That means Facebook is more important than ever, Safadi said. She feels that Facebook does not provide enough warning to page administrators to clean up their content before shutting down pages. The Internet in Syria is slow and unreliable, and pages that have been operating for years have amassed huge quantities of data that are not easy to comb through in time to respond to concerns.
Plus, administrators allege that Facebook does not always follow through on its pledge to warn them before shutting down their pages. The activists behind the LCC page in Tartous, for instance, say that they didn’t receive warning before their page was deleted overnight. Others, like Hamidou, say they’ve experienced the same issue.
The analysts at SecDev sympathize with Allan and his policy team. “It’s terra incognita,” said Joshua Gillmore, who works on Syria. “You have, for the first time, a conflict entirely documented over social media. Facebook is basically policing a large country and trying to do so without access to what’s really happening. Even for us, we deal with the conflict on an ongoing basis, there are a lot of actors who are popping up, changing, and it can be difficult to make a judgment call on what’s going on.”
Facebook’s community standards are designed to deter cyberbullying and hate speech. But in a civil war where such “bullying” impacts the fight on the ground and the future of a country, the social network is entering uncharted territory.
“You have community standards which are supposed to be applied across the board, but they were created in a situation that is not at all what is unfolding in Syria now, where Facebook has become a primary information resource within the war,” added Deirdre Collings, SecDev’s executive director. “There are all sorts of different dynamic abuses that Facebook couldn’t possibly have anticipated when they were developing the standards.”
Yet Allan acknowledged that one recent development has prompted greater vigilance on Facebook’s part: the emergence and strengthening of al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions. Though the activist pages in question—along with many Syrian rebels—want nothing to do with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the very presence of extremist fighters alongside moderate rebel factions in the struggle to unseat Assad has been a public-relations disaster for the opposition.
“It does mean it is more likely that there may be more support for designated terror organizations, al-Qaeda being the classic example,” on Facebook, said Allan. “Symbols, images that are clearly encouraging support for that organization will be a breach. We’re always on the lookout for those kinds of things when they’re reported to us.”
“Objective reporting” on the Syrian conflict on an LCC page, Allan explained, is acceptable. “At the other end of the spectrum, an exultation to violence associated with a known terrorist organization would not be. In Syria’s case, there’s a lot of stuff in between.”
But that gray area isn’t spelled out in Facebook’s community standards. All this may seem like minutiae to the uninitiated, but to Syrians it is very much a revolutionary matter.
“As the Syrian people say, the sound is just of guns and killing, there is no space for peaceful voices in Syria now,” said al-Ahmad. Already drowned out by bullets and bombs, non-violent dissidents like al-Ahmad and Hamidou—even from their refuges in Istanbul and Manhattan—are in danger of extinction.