The lies started as soon as the first people took to the streets: Extremists had infiltrated the country. Foreigners supplied them with cash and arms. They were the ones responsible for the dissent and the violence. Interviews on state television with captured terrorists admitting this proved as much.But Syrians fought back. Hundreds risked their lives to document the regime’s brutal oppression, painstakingly uploading videos and other evidence to the internet for the world to see. These videos instantly became the basis of coverage by the likes of the BBC, CNN, and Al-Jazeera, helping dispel the regime’s rhetoric.
Yet, the Syrian regime has long understood the true potential of deceit. Researchers at MIT recently confirmed its power, finding that false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth. And it’s not because of bots. Humans are actually more likely to spread false news than robots. We humans have an emotional attraction to that which is novel – things that shock and surprise us, things that inspire fear and disgust. We are therefore far more likely to be attracted to lies, unbound as they are by the shackles of reality, than the truth.
The Syrian protests were broadcast on TV screens after similar uprisings had shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain. Assad’s regime and its allies seized the opportunity to muddy the picture and promulgate a novel narrative, and they had powerful tools at their disposal to do so. Powerful, but very simple tools. Spreading images and memes that contradicted protestors’ accounts, the regime and its supporters were able to sow seeds of doubt and erode the concept of truth. Fake videos were mixed among genuine ones and photos were doctored. Syrian state propaganda then used its reproductive capacity to spread these images widely, allowing some to go viral before discrediting them. One particularly concerted effort was one to tarnish the White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defense). They are not humanitarian heroes as international media asserts, but rather al-Qaeda linked, Western-backed deception artists, Syrian state media claims.
But the regime’s propaganda campaign has not just been about directly discrediting opponents, but also about constructing a parallel truth. The English-language Twitter account of the Syrian state media agency SANA released a video boasting of Aleppo’s thriving nightlife in September 2016, just as the regime launched its bloody campaign to wrest control of the city from the opposition. The caption above the video directly challenged the idea promoted by international media of Aleppo being “the most dangerous in the world.” The idea is not to deny the existence of any violence in the country, but rather to build an alternate picture of normalcy amidst chaos. This nightlife video appears cartoonish, but it serves a powerful aim. The regime has consistently depicted itself as the sole actor capable of providing stability and normalcy, something Syrians have yearned for after the conflict has ripped their lives apart. Showing a video of young Syrians partying so close to the violence filling headlines elsewhere is one way of supporting this myth.
With the regime’s stringent restrictions on professional journalists’ access and the dangers of reporting from some opposition-held areas, the traditional arbiters of truth and fiction have not been able to operate in Syria throughout the conflict. The line between activism and journalism has undoubtedly become blurred as a result, with citizen journalists becoming the main source of information from opposition-held areas. As a result, it has become easier for the regime to dismiss reports of war crimes and human rights abuses as partisan. The ultimate aim is to sow the seeds of doubt so that every allegation can be challenged.
These campaigns of doubt and deceit have directly shaped the trajectory of the conflict. First, the Assad regime has acted to create the conditions in which elements of its rhetoric came true. By opening the border with Iraq early in the conflict and releasing thousands of convicted extremists, the regime deliberately allowed radical ideas to infiltrate the country, and more specifically, the ranks of the opposition. At the same time, the regime’s sectarian fearmongering increased the salience of sectarian identity – a process hard to reverse. As such, the regime acted to make its prophesies come true, ultimately constructing the evidence to support its original lies.
Campaigns of misinformation have also been used to protect the Assad regime on the international stage. In the aftermath of some of the most serious allegations of war crimes, Russian and other regime-backed media spread doubt. The day after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, theories that opposition forces rather than the regime was behind the attack had spread so widely that #SyriaHoax was the number one trending topic on Twitter in the United States. The Russian government formally supported these efforts, submitting a report entitled “The White Helmets: fact or fiction” to the UN Security Council and General Assembly to discredit the humanitarian workers’ accounts of the attack. Although UN investigators concluded they were confident that the Syrian government was behind the attack, Russia used its veto to prevent further investigations into chemical weapons attacks. Russia has therefore capitalized on the success of the campaign of disinformation to undermine the independent investigative work that could have resulted in the perpetrators being held to account.
The growing power of doubt is one of the many tragedies of the last seven years in Syria. Although propaganda is a feature of any conflict, the Syrian conflict has shown just how effective campaigns of disinformation can be. And although the Syrian regime and its supporters have been most adept at spreading misinformation, actors on both sides have engaged in campaigns to distort the truth and twist narratives for their own gain. As a result, sufficient doubt has been sowed that the line between fact and fiction has been eroded. Multiple truths about the Syrian conflict now exist and an objective history of the Syrian uprising seems more elusive than ever.
* / Will Todman is an associate fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program and a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.