With the Syrian government vehemently cracking down on the media a year after what has become a controversial uprising in Syria, one can imagine how difficult it is to get unfiltered, professional news from on the ground. Syria has found itself in a tough position media-wise, similar to the one the Ahmadinejad regime faced in 2009 when “The Green Revolution” ignited instability, claiming Iran had witnessed a fraudulent election. Because of what he claimed was biased and over exaggerated media, Ahmadinejad was forced to banish all foreign media from entering the country- leaving activists participating in the uprising to rely on social media. Fast forward 2 years and Bashar Al Assad’s regime has been doing nearly the same, however allowing selected journalists to view the country under the watchful eyes of a guardian who works for the government.
Many have criticized that these measures are aggressive, unfair and limit the capability of journalists- who are there to report on the uprising. Taking part in government tours obviously restricts journalists from roaming freely, gathering their own information. This leaves the media to resort to what might possibly be one of the most resourceful types of journalism technology has to offer: social media. Again, the fate of stories being passed around are in the hands of citizen journalists.
Although, how professional is it? Can it be credible? Well, it depends on if we want it to be.
Lately, the world of journalism has fallen victim to vile hypocrisy, where some social media news stories are immediately dubbed “trustworthy” and other stories go through a detailed researched process, like it would for legitimate news corporations. Let us compare the situation of Syria and a recent conflict claiming a coup d’etat was taking place in Qatar.
A while ago, I decided to create a fake Twitter. It was simply for my own convincing, that social media cannot always be a safe source of news. I was not intending for it to go far, nor harm anyone in the process. It was personal, to see the measures I need to take in order to confirm news. I wanted to see how far an anonymous alias can go with spreading false information.
I pretended I was a Syrian activist in exile, living abroad whilst my family was living in Homs, Syria. I had approximately 5 followers, my account was up for 3 days and I did not post a real name. In fact, I used the name Haifa Wehbe when contacting twitter about my account. I went by the username “@RebelliousSyria” and used a image I found on Google, with a foot clamped on a picture of Bashar Al Assad’s face. What I did was tweet a few misinformed tweets, one of them where I tweeted “Death toll risen to 37 in Homs! #Syria” and tweeted it to prominent Twitter star and columnist Mona ElTahawy and to my surprise, she retweeted it- to over 100,000 Twitter followers that follow her account.
This account went on for a few more days, until it got suspended by who I presume was pro-regime supporters reporting my account into oblivion. However, what struck me was the lack of professionalism that social media has to offer. Here I was, a newly formed account with absolutely no credibility spewing complete and utter nonsense and it meant no difference to those retweeting or sharing my news. This to me, seemed like a dangerous game. Blatant lies being spread could potentially put innocent lives in danger, if facts are not checked.
But here is where it gets interesting:
When the situation of a possible coup d’etat in Qatar was brought to light on April 16th, it was plummeted into darkness only minutes after…again, on Twitter. Qatar has also been labeled as “not free” when it comes to freedom of journalism, as journalists often hold back from reporting the full story. Also, the Qatar based network and practically Qatari mouthpiece Al Jazeera, owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani a distant relative of the Emir of Qatar, has come under fire for its lack of coverage on Bahrain. However, this doesn’t seem to strike anyone into thinking that possibly a type of censorship may exist in Qatar and it’s not just happening in Syria.
Those facts didn’t change anyone’s mind when it came to denying rumors about the coup d’etat. But why isn’t this the case for Syria? Are we just too used to being misinformed?
Have we become so used to unverified, unconfirmed news on Syria, that we ourselves are too lazy to do research ourselves? When even large news corporations have decided to just sporadically report unconfirmed news, why should unpaid unprofessional citizen journalists be any different? Take Al Jazeera’s Syria Live Blog. With words like “allegedly”, “unconfirmed reports” and “activists say”, why should we do our research?
I was told by a journalist once that they need to use these words, as a caveat. But what are they warning the viewers? That they themselves don’t know what’s going on?
And the information continues to be spread. Whether it is out of ill intention or desperation, is it really helping keep the revolution legitimate?