Wars are often defined in popular consciousness by iconic images. Be it Spanish civil war Republican fighters being shot in the head, the fall of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 or Royal Navy warships exploding in flames off the Falklands, these were almost exclusively the work of experienced war photographers and distributed by wire services, major newspapers and television networks.
Fast forward to 2018 and the images – both still and video – coming out of the war in Syria invariably originally appear on social media and are usually generated by ordinary Syrians equipped with little more than a smartphone. The domination of opposition areas by Jihadists who want to ransom or behead western journalists and the reluctance of the Syrian government to grant facilities to reporters from hostile western countries means that even the most hardened war correspondents end up clicking their heels in Beirut hotels watching the war on the internet. YouTube and other social media platforms are now the pre-eminent way the world receives news from Syria’s battlefields.
In this new environment, how do you make sense of the torrent of video clips and pictures that are dumped each day on YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp from Syria? How is it possible to sort out real images of real events from “Photoshop” fakes?
So-called Open Source Intelligence or OSINT has grown up to make sense of the online reporting from conflicts zones. I used these techniques to do the research for my Operation Aleppo book. OSINT first got into its stride in the 2014 Russian invasions of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and it is now a staple of war reporting from Syria. As the name implies, the techniques used in OSINT draw on many of the methods and technologies that were previously only available to covert intelligence agencies. Commercial satellite images posted on Google Earth or Wikimapia allows terrain seen in war videos to be compared with real places, in the real world. The position of shadows can determine the time of day images were taken. Google Translation allows foreign road signs to be deciphered. Internet forensics can determine where social media posted originate and the metadata of images from smartphones often includes location data. By compiling and cross-referencing across these it is possible to work out if a video clip was filmed and when. If you watch enough Syrian YouTube clips you soon get a feel for the place and can immediately tell if you are seeing a familiar location. Major incidents and battles in Syria are routinely filmed from multiple angles, collaborating the authenticity of imagery.
Once you have worked out if the imagery is authentic, then comes the hard part: interpreting what is actually happening. Syria is awash with smartphones, often recharged thanks to the proliferation of solar panels across the country. Almost every aspect of the war is uploaded by participants and observers from every side in the conflict. After watching thousands of Syria war videos it is clear that context is king. While the majority of imagery posted online is just put up by ordinary people, soldiers and fighters there is a small but significant chunk that is posted and shared for political effect, both for domestic and international audiences. Often this backfires.
So, for example, on-line opposition supporters post huge numbers of pictures of Syrian and Russian air strikes and their bloody aftermath. While government supporters like to show damage and casualties from opposition shelling. Both sides are very keen to post images of dead or captured enemy fighters. Victorious Syrian men love striking a pose that European big game hunters in 19th Century Africa would have been proud of, standing over slain enemy with an AK-47 in hand. The main aim of this imagery is to make opponents look bad and generate sympathy for their cause. Routinely prisoners are filmed being roughed up and humiliated by all sides in the Syrian war. The bodies of dead enemy fighters or government soldiers are also regularly shown being dumped unceremoniously in mass graves or down wells. While this type of imagery is intended to prove to supporters that the enemy has been vanquished, it only serves to show the inhumanity of many parties to the conflict.
What happens after Syrians post-war imagery online is also interesting. There are large communities supporting every side in the conflict – Syrian government, Shia militia, Hizbullah, Kurdish, Jihadis, Islamic State and pro-western groups. They pick up and re-circulate – re-Tweeting to use the jargon – the imagery that suits their agenda. Often rival groups circulated the same imagery but put a vastly different slant on it to big up their competing narratives. Pro-government on-line activists, for example, regularly re-circulated images of air strikes on East Ghouta earlier this year to show their overwhelming firepower and create the impression of inevitable victory even though the western new media used the same images to prove the brutality of the Syrian government forces. Cherry picking is universal. During the 2016 siege of Aleppo, pro-western online activists routinely re-circulated pictures of Russian air strikes on hospitals. At the same time, government supporters harvested Jihadist social media accounts to pick up the martyrdom videos of Jihadist suicide bombers who attacked government lines to try to break the siege of the opposition enclave. Some of these online activists get carried away and reveal their agendas. In the aftermath of the Douma chlorine gas attack this April, one prominent opponent of the Syrian government was despairing that the incident had not prompted western military intervention and called on his Twitter feed for more graphic images of dead and injured victims to be posted online to stimulate more outrage.
Syria’s YouTube war has revolutionised news gathering and rendering traditional media outlets struggling to get a handle on how to report the conflict. Governments and intelligence agencies are often in the same boat, despite their earth observation satellites, eavesdropping networks and drones. Recently the commander of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East told me that his intelligence staff used social media coverage of the war in Syria as one of their main ways to find out what is going on inside the country. He said 80% proved to be highly accurate but the remaining 20% ranged from “the opaque to inaccurate”. Welcome to the future.
Tim Ripley is the author of Operation Aleppo: Russia’s War in Syria, out this month. He has reported on the Russian intervention in Syria for The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Intelligence Review since its start in 2015. He has travelled extensively across the Middle East, reporting on conflicts in the region for more than 25 years.