2011 protests in Syria: how influential was Facebook in popularising this protest?syriana2011

Sitting in my bedroom, 200 miles from Aleppo, social media makes it easier than ever to spectate the atrocities of the civil war. But has social media changed the reality of organising a protest on the ground?

I am fortunate. There are about 80 miles of Mediterranean Sea between myself at home in the capital of Cyprus and Syria. Cyprus is peaceful; the last war was in 1974 (a long and troubled story, which need not concern us here). Syria, as you probably know, has been in the grip of a civil war since 2011. However, both offer a good example of how protest has been changed and not changed by social media in the form of their 2011 protests.

There are a small number of major competitors for protest organisation platforms. Facebook, of course, has cornered the market. Twitter also plays a role. We must not overestimate them, though, especially here in Cambridge. Do not forget that many people get their news from television and the written press.

How do protests start and spread? Some people make the start, others tend to follow. People usually hear about the protests by television and the written media, or mobile phones. In Syria, imagine a small group, a vanguard of protesters beginning to assemble in a square. That night, it is featured in the eight o’clock news, and then: ignition. Now, if there are no free eight o’clock news, then it might be channelled through Facebook, word of mouth, etc.

"Do not forget that many people get their news from television and the written press"

It was reported in NBC that on 3rd February 2011, a Facebook group called for a “Day of Rage”. This protest failed to materialise, they surmise, due to security force presence. These first protests can in no way be said to have had a massive following. In February, “Together for a Day of Rage in Syria” was joined by about 2,500 people in a country of 22 million. That is only twice the amount of people who have liked a page supporting Cornish independence. Indeed, it is perhaps more significant that this was reported by NBC and then it could presumably be shared on Facebook. So there was a spark but the oil was poured by news networks in conjunction with social networks.

On 15th March 2011, protesters gathered in Damascus demanding democracy and the release of political prisoners. Indeed, the BBC reported it on the day. They were demanding the release of 15 schoolchildren that were arrested for writing a slogan on the wall, which has been reported as “The people want the fall of the regime” by the BBC and “It’s your turn, doctor” by The New York Times. The spark then was the arrest of the schoolchildren. Although it is unverified, they do say a Facebook group had caused those protests.

Four days later, the protests spread to various other Syrian cities, such as Daraa, where four protesters were killed. It is noteworthy that concrete events fuelled the protests, such as the death of demonstrators and other brutality by the security forces. Social media acted as a catalyst in some cases, but not so much as a cause. Analysing the data, Ekaterina Stepanova writes: “Across and beyond the region, no direct regional correlation can be traced between, on the one hand, levels of Internet penetration and other IT indicators (such as the spread of social media networks) and, on the other, proclivity for and intensity of social protest.”

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, two weeks after the start of the protests blamed satellite news channels. We must see the growth of Facebook and Twitter as a wider effect of transnational media into the domestic political scene (including Russia Today, the BBC, CNN, etc.). Indeed, part of Britain’s soft power in the past was that it could use the BBC World Service to influence events and disseminate information in hostile countries, a facility that no other country in the world possessed in those days.

The regime continues to uses social media to arrest the ringleaders and to target those who are protesting. Social media is open: if you make a public event everyone can see it. If you make a large group, such as the 120,000-strong group the BBC reported on 22 April 2011, you can’t really vet everyone who joins. All the data gets routed to the USA. If Mark Zuckerberg ever gives up control of Facebook, or if he decides to take an active role in world politics, he could easily start protests or prevent them merely by changing what appears on our Facebook wall. He would know who the people active in the groups are, and what they say in their private chats. And the American security services will know this, too. So if they had decided to back Assad, imagine how quickly the protests could have been stopped.

"If Mark Zuckerberg ever gives up control of Facebook, or if he decides to take an active role in world politics, he could easily start protests or prevent them merely by changing what appears on our Facebook wall"

Regimes can try to fight back and block access to the internet, or, as Joseph Holliday has noted: “the regime [in Syria] has shown the ability to target and jam opposition’s use of social networking sites.” But Ekaterina Stepanova notes that in contrast to Iran in 2009-2010, there wasn’t much “counter-revolutionary” activity by the state apparatus in Syria.

Meanwhile four months later in Cyprus a different type of storm was brewing. An explosion was caused by ammunition that had been heading, incidentally, to Syria in 2009. Hillary Clinton, among other people, pressured the Cypriot government to confiscate it and store it and it was placed in a naval base. The explosion damaged the small island’s main electricity plant and resulted in damages equal to 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. The storage of the explosives in containers in the open with temperatures reaching 40º Celsius was seen to be due to government incompetence. There were calls for the resignation of the President, Dimitris Christofias, and his ministers.

The most salient point for our tale, though, is the protests which occurred outside the Presidential Palace over a period of several days. How were these protests organised? How did the people gather? It is an unusual thing for the Cypriot people to protest. Mass protests almost never happen. In the first day 50 people stormed the Presidential Palace grounds and were repelled by tear gas (paywall). After that the protests were more peaceful.

I spoke to some of the people who were at the protests about how they ended up there. Marios Kontopyrgos said he was just passing by and stopped for a bit on his way to going downtown for the night, and that he had seen it on television earlier. Constantinos Christou, on the other hand, recalls that it was a Facebook event that started the demonstration. But he also recalls that his family was receiving texts from numbers they did not know telling them to come to the protest. So it is likely that someone or some people had taken lists of mobile phone numbers held by private companies and used them to stir up protest. It is illegal to do this, but it happened, nonetheless.  

Has social media changed protest? I would suggest not really. The basic drives encouraging protest are there or not, irrespective of social media. Has it made organising a protest easier? Slightly, but if there is sufficient desire for protest, people will congregate regardless, be it by word of mouth, carrier pigeon, or fibre optic cable