BEIRUT: While the battle for territory is the most crucial aspect of the Syrian civil war, it may go down in history as the first conflict to be fought simultaneously on an online front. This fight is being played out on Facebook, where both sides accuse administrators of bias against them.Propaganda has long been a vital part of winning hearts and minds in warfare, but the current Web battle between Syrian pro- and anti-regime groups is at its fiercest.
Social media, and perhaps in particular Facebook, has been taken advantage of by both sides of the conflict as a means to spread news of victories and casualties, abuses by the enemy, and ultimately to gain support and media attention.
Managing the pages is a time consuming effort, with dedicated media activists employed by local networks to control content, sometimes subscribed to by tens of thousands of followers. But, often without warning, pages are being shut down by Facebook, headquartered in California.
Anti-regime and pro-government groups both claim to be victims to this, and each accuse Facebook of targeting them unfairly.
The Baba Amro opposition media office in Homs claims to have been closed down several times over the last year, with each page having around 70,000 “likes.” In the pursuit of coverage, colleagues have been killed, a spokesperson said, and they have never been given an explanation of why the pages have been shut down.
“We have lost friends from our office who filmed videos or took pictures just to share on these pages,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t know why Facebook kills our pages: We thought it might have been bloody photos, but we stopped doing that, and still the pages were closed down.”
The Shahba Coordination Committee, an opposition group from Swaida province, said they have been informed that several posts violated the rules of Facebook, “but when we checked them properly we found the items were just news from Syria.”
“It seems that Facebook wants us to ignore the reality and the facts of Syria,” an activist from the group said.
The activist added, “we have never supported terrorism, never supported killers, and we have always called for peace for the people.”
Facebook has many complex reasons for shutting down pages. Graphic videos must be introduced with a warning, and images of human rights abuses deemed to be “shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site.”
Also, users “may not credibly threaten others, or organize acts of real-world violence,” nor may they criticize other people because of their race, ethnicity, national origin or religion, among other characteristics.
But conspiracy theories abound. The Shabha activist believes that Facebook is closing down anti-regime groups in order to boost support for pro-government groups.
“We have a grave concern about the way that the Facebook administration’s putting pressure on the Syrian anti-regime activists in favor of the criminal so-called Syrian regime,” the activist said.
The Baba Amro spokesperson went further, and accused Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg of being in receipt of Syrian government money.
“We think Mark is with the Syrian regime, or at least they are giving him money to close down tens of revolution pages.”
Similarly, groups which support the government say they have been targeted unjustly. Hands OFF Syria has had posts removed in the past which feature images of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah leaders, and the creator of the page said that, “it is far too easy for rogue countries and organizations (Saudi Arabia, Qatar to name some) to buy out key people in the organizations like Facebook to be used to carry out their agenda.”
But a spokesperson from Facebook confirmed to The Daily Star that any posts featuring members or symbols related to organizations designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. or the EU are liable to be closed down, and this would qualify both Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.
Iain Mackenzie, pan-Euro communications manager for Facebook denied that the company was in any way biased to either side of the conflict, and insisted it took a neutral stance. “We apply Facebook’s rules to everyone equally,” he said.
He added that when pages violate numerous community standards rules, it is policy not to provide an explanation. “When pages are removed for multiple violations, we do not give detailed explanations of the reasons. People should acquaint themselves with the Facebook Community Standards and ensure that sustained breaking of those rules does not occur on their pages,” he said.
Facebook is normally notified of violations by users reporting pages to the administration, and indeed, the creator of the pro-government group, “The People of Syria Support President Bashar al-Assad,” said that he had reported an anti-regime group.
“ Facebook is closing pages that receive many reports. I have personally sent in a report to close an anti-government page and Facebook approved it and the page is closed.”
But Mackenzie denied that the number of reports a page received had any bearing on whether or not it was closed.
“The number of reports against a page makes no difference. We judge it against our rules and reports are always vetted,” he said.
A pro-opposition media activist in the U.S. who asked to remain anonymous said he was soon meeting with Facebook officials to discuss policy. But as long as the war on the ground continues, it appears the online war will remain as vicious as it is now.