Syria’s ‘social media war’ (since 2011)

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Date Starting in 2011 with the Syrian revolution and continuing during the Syrian civil war[1]
Suspected actor All parties to the non-international armed conflict in Syria,[2] i.e., the government of Syria and various opposition groups, as well as the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)[3]
Victims A broad range of ethnoreligious groups, including the Sunnis, Shi’a/Alawites, Yazidis, Christians, Druze, Kurds, and Palestinians[4]
Target systems N/A
Method Social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp were reportedly used to spread misinformation, including hate speech, images of attacks and other inflammatory content.[5] For example, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad were said to have promoted a #SyriaHoax hashtag on Twitter to discredit evidence of chemical attacks on civilian targets.[6] Under the name ‘Syrian Electronic Army’, pro-government hackers also claimed to have infiltrated the social media accounts of several prominent media and human rights organizations.[7] In turn, social media sites featured false videos purportedly showing Syrian soldiers burying a rebel alive and killing prisoners by scorching them.[8] ISIS have also used a sophisticated online presence to distribute violent content such as graphic videos of executions and attacks,[9] and to disseminate incendiary misinformation about ‘infidels’, i.e. followers of religions other than Islam.[10]
Purpose The different actors involved in the conflict have used social media for various purposes, including to stigmatize target groups, instill fear and promote attacks on the civilian population, legitimize violence, recruit supporters and fighters, dispute opposing narratives, and solicit funds.[11]
Result The use of social media in the Syrian civil war contributed to massive violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law against various parts of civilian population by the different parties to the conflict. As stated by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the acts of enslavement, rape and sexual violence committed by ISIS against religious groups such as the Yazidis constituted crimes against humanity and “taken together with ISIS’s public statements over social media, sugges[t] a denial of this religious group’s right to exist”.[12]
Aftermath The Syrian civil war has been dubbed the first ‘social media war’.[13] The information generated and documented on social media may be used in future accountability proceedings.[14]
Analysed in Scenario 19: Hate speech

Collected by: Christiane Rexilius

  1. Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday, Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War (United States Institute of Peace 2014) 7.
  2. See, eg, ICRC, ‘Syria: ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent Maintain Aid Effort amid Increased Fighting’, Operational Update (17 July 2012) (“The ICRC concludes that there is currently a non-international (internal) armed conflict occurring in Syria opposing Government Forces and a number of organised armed opposition groups operating in several parts of the country”).
  3. Zeina Karam, ‘Syria’s Civil War Plays Out On Social MediaAssociated Press (19 October 2013); Chris Zambelis, ‘Information Wars: Assessing the Social Media Battlefield in Syria’ (2012) 5 CTC Sentinel 19, 19.
  4. Minority Rights Group International, Peoples under Threat 2019 (3 June 2019) 10.
  5. Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday, Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War (United States Institute of Peace 2014); Freedom House, Freedom of the Net 2018 – Syria.
  6. Syria war: The online activists pushing conspiracy theoriesBBC Trending (19 April 2018).
  7. Paul Farhi and Hayley Tsukayama, ‘Syrian Electronic Army hacks Washington Post Web siteThe Washington Post (15 August 2013).
  8. Zeina Karam, ‘Syria’s Civil War Plays Out On Social MediaAssociated Press (19 October 2013).
  9. Minority Rights Group International, Peoples under Threat 2019 (3 June 2019) 3.
  10. Adama Dieng and Simona Cruciani, ‘When Media is Used to Incite Violence: The United Nations, Genocide and Atrocity Crimes’, in Robin Andersen and Purnaka L de Silva (eds), Routledge Companion to Media and Humanitarian Action (Routledge 2017) 60, 63.
  11. See Minority Rights Group International, Peoples under Threat 2019 (3 June 2019) 4.
  12. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, ‘Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria’ UN Doc A/HRC/27/CRP.3 (19 November 2014) para 54.
  13. Patrick O’Neil ‘Why the Syrian uprising is the first social media warThe Daily Dot (18 September 2013); Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday, Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War (United States Institute of Peace 2014). See also The New York Times website ‘Watching Syria’s War’.
  14. Reports of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, UN Doc A/73/295 (3 August 2018) para 46, and UN Doc A/72/764* (22 March 2018) para 72.