Now streaming live: the YouTube war
In the video, he tosses her up with each plea. Her limp body flops back in his arms. Perhaps his movement is subconscious. If there were no cameras pointed at him, he may have been in a corner, sobbing. If there were no dead child in his hands, he’d have them pressed together, begging.
She’s just a child, he says. Chemical. Chemical. He cries. She’s no older than nine. His wet, desperate eyes face her eyes that are shut. Her arms are flailing to the side. Her legs bend in ways that only lifeless legs can.
Another toss and it looks as if she’s opened her mouth, but that’s impossible. Her nose is stained white. Perhaps she too was frothing from her nose and mouth, like so many others in the YouTube videos from Syria.
He lays her on the floor, next to another girl. She is dead too. They’re sisters, he cries. The other girl is only slightly older. The camera zooms in on the younger sister’s face. The room, the other lifeless bodies, no longer exists. It’s just the old man and the dead girl. Without the message in white lettering at the start of the video telling us where this is, it could be a scene from a movie. It could be shot in a studio and this could be a twisted scene from which everyone would rise.
But the writing says Eastern Ghouta, August 21, 2013. A suburb of Reef Damascus in Syria. The day chemical weapons were used and killed over a thousand people.
The source: YouTube.
The furore around the use of chemical weapons in Syria came and went. The images—of bodies writhing on the floor; of rooms filled with dead children, victims of poison gas; of men and women frothing at the mouth—failed to incite the sort of outrage Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam had done. Had we become desensitised to images of brutality? Were we no longer capable of being shocked? Where was the outrage? Did images no longer shape public opinion?
The “red line” U. S. president Barack Obama had spoken of had been crossed. For just a moment it seemed as though Obama would intervene, but the Russians brokered a deal with the Syrians and war was averted. Syria’s chemical arsenal would be dismantled and the organisation trusted with doing so, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, Syria continues to unravel. As the government of Bashar al-Assad takes back territory lost to the rebels, battalions of rebels fight each other, shattering any illusion of cohesiveness among the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In the north of the country, territory remains firmly within the grip of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also ISIL), an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the disintegration of Syria into many parts seems more and more likely.
December 9 marked the 1,000th day of the Syrian conflict and a series of statistics came along to mark the gloomy anniversary. On the 1,000th day, there were 9.3 million people in need, out of which 4.65 million are children. Some 2.2 million have become refugees, 2.5 million live in areas cut off by conflict, and 1.9 million children are out of school. Over 1,00,000 have been killed and 5,75,000 people are estimated injured.
Unlike the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, Syria has been largely cut off to war correspondents, resulting in war witnesses being stationed far from the fighting. The task of converting the statistics into narrative has been made almost hopeless with government gags and militant kidnappings, resulting in Syria being dubbed the first YouTube War.
Most of the reports in newspapers around the world have a dateline out of Syria. The Syrian-Turkish border province of Hatay is a journalist hotspot and many news organisations have bulked up their bureaus in neighbouring Lebanon. Too few have crossed into Syrian territory to make sense of a war that seems increasingly senseless, endless.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is the most dangerous dateline in the world. At least 28 journalists have been killed. Many have been imprisoned.
The sound of gunfire could be heard even though we were far from Baba Amr. The rebels had secured arms and government tanks plied the streets, as did beat up sedans with young men toting automatic rifles. The conflict in Syria, the peaceful uprising, had started a new chapter.
The hospital in Homs was evidence enough. In one room, a young boy lay unconscious; his puny body a target of gunfire. In another room, a young man had only just been operated on: a victim of gunshots. Behind every door was a tragedy.
A woman grabbed my hand; she was all bosom and heaved heavily. Her eyes were puffy; maybe she hadn’t slept. No, she said. She’d been crying. She’d lost a son in the revolution and now her brother had been shot. Every family had tales of sorrow in Homs, she said. Soon the tragedy would take over the country.
“Don’t be fooled,” she had whispered. The revolution had been hijacked. Men with beards—she motioned to her face and drew a long fist down—men with big, big beards had taken up residence in the local mosque. They wore short kandooras, like the Salafis did.
“They don’t even talk like us,” she said. This isn’t what it was. This is a new demon, she had said.
That was in 2011.
Javier Espinosa has been taken hostage by this demon. A Spanish journalist with El Mundo, he had committed himself to covering the siege of Baba Amr. He was among the last few journalists to leave the city. Here is his account given to the BBC on March 2, 2013:
“It was really, really tough; 200, 300 shells per day. It was very difficult to hide. All the houses have been damaged. It was the whole day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. You had to run and hide. Then you heard the explosion. Boom. It was a matter of luck. No logic. The only bunker was an underground restaurant, with 300 people, mostly women and children. They had been there for 20 days without going out. One said it was like being buried alive.”
With the kidnapping of Javier and Ricardo, the already dwindling number of foreign correspondents in Syria is decreasing and reliance on citizen journalism and YouTube is increasing.
Earlier this month, Javier’s wife, Monica García Prieto, broke her silence in a scene reminiscent of the wife of Daniel Pearl (a journalist with The Wall Street Journal who was beheaded by al-Qaeda in Pakistan). Like Pearl’s wife Mariane, she too spoke out to the world and the kidnappers of Javier Espinosa.
Monica sits in front of two blown-up images: one of her husband and the other of freelance photographer Ricardo García Vilanova. She stares at the camera, her hair and arms covered.
“We are not your enemies,” she says. She recounts how her husband and she had crossed into Syria to report the suffering of the people. She tells us how she’d reminded him that their children needed him alive. Javier had said the “children of Syria need the world’s attention”.
“We have made your freedom our cause. Honour the revolution they protected and set them free,” she pleads.
With the kidnapping of Javier and Ricardo by members of ISIS in Syria’s northern Raqqa province, the already dwindling number of foreign correspondents in Syria is decreasing and reliance on citizen journalism and YouTube is increasing.
To honour the revolution is to reminisce about where it started: in squares and mosques after Friday prayers. It started with songs of sedition and chants against the 40-year rule of the Assad clan.
Ibrahim Qashoush penned one such song and paid for it with his life. His vocal chords were ripped out. It went like this:
Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar
It’s time to leave, Bashar!
You lost all your legitimacy.
Depart, depart, Bashar!
In this YouTube video, apparently shot on July 3, 2011, hundreds gather in the square and chant. This is after Bashar al-Assad’s speech, where he likened the spread of revolutionary ideas to “germs”, just like Qaddafi had likened the rebels to rats.
The cameraman is just another one of the hundreds with a camera phone in his hand. You can hear the voice of the man behind the microphone. At times, you can even hear our citizen journalist as he chants. The crowd goes wild as the man with the mic calls Bashar “an ass”. The lighting isn’t ideal from the lens of the camera: the street lights look like alien aircraft dotted around the square. The cameraman is on a platform; perhaps he’s sitting on someone’s shoulders. Or he could be perched on a traffic light.
In the world of YouTube journalism, everything is just guesswork. He could be anyone. He could be anywhere.
Many in the crowd have their mobiles in their hands too. Perhaps others will upload similar videos and contribute to the 60 hours of footage uploaded onto YouTube every minute. Many will go unnoticed but this song has been immortalised in the annals of digital history. Syria wants freedom, they all chant, waving the Free Syria flag. One thousand days of conflict changes the narrative. Today, many covet guns.
Early on in the conflict, the government stopped granting visas to journalists. Many foreign correspondents stationed in Damascus had their visas suspended. News coming out of Syria was filtered; the story tended to have a pro-government bias and many journalists snuck across the borders risking their lives to report.
The few interviews that President Assad allowed were given to big names. The channels and hosts were politically motivated and calculated. News from Damascus became heavily reliant on images captured on phones that tended to have a pro-opposition tilt. Despite attempts at censorship, despite Iranian style gags, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter images and messages got out.
The US has invested heavily in transferring media know-how and telecommunications equipment to citizen journalists, activists and rebels from the early days of the conflict. Millions of dollars have been invested in this programme. Links have been set up with Syrian exiles to act as go-betweens.
Seasons change and the cold wind on the Bosphorus carried to the white marbled foyer of the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. We were taking a stroll, admiring the lights on the Bosphorus bridge. He was restless. His phone never stopped ringing, his Facebook activity was manic, and activist after activist reached out to him via Skype with horrific images of torture.
The Arab Spring had turned dirty.
He was a Syrian businessman living in exile in Saudi Arabia. He’d been managing a construction company until the revolution disrupted the calm of corporate life and thrust him into the unknown of manufacturing and later managing the revolution.
It had started calmly. He had been approached by wealthy Saudi businessmen who desired a change in the Shi’a (Alawi) dominated regime in Damascus. The Saudi envisaged a Sunni state and was keen to forge contacts with Syrians in the towns that had risen against the rule of Assad. The exiled Syrian was just a mule that would form contacts by relocating to the Syrian-Turkish border province of Hatay. His primary responsibility would be to pass satellite phones and modems to rebels so that they could override the gags imposed by Bashar. So that they could get their message out.
A river of blood runs across the ground from one body to another. A man with a rifle is bent over a body. Next to him is another dead man. YouTube is the world’s most public execution square.
During my visit to Hatay, I saw an uncanny scene. The Turkish government had set up refugee camps that were not being called refugee camps. Many of those camps were empty; it seemed as though they were waiting for an influx of refugees. The Turks were hosting the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council (SNC). The now discredited Syrian opposition was formally announced in one of these camps. In Hatay, very early on, the real nature of the uprising was evident: though the Syrian uprising may have originated as a call for freedom, it had been manipulated by foreign powers seeking to alter the balance of power in the heart of the Middle East.
Here the Syrian exile forged contacts with defectors, men who won’t respond to his calls today. “They get their messages directly from Riyadh and Doha,” he told me recently.
Do you feel betrayed? I ask.
“Yes. Imagine, this all started with a bunch of satellite phones and modems,” he says.
Images had to get out, say many opposition activists I have been in contact with. Images like this one from Hama on July 15, 2012. It starts off with the sound of gunfire. Doof, doof. Then you hear the agony of the people.
Allah-o-Akbar, someone yells. He’s not in the frame. There’s so much happening on the sidelines—the shrill cries of people we can’t see, the movement of cars and the dust raised, the hurried jostles of people walking by—but all we have is this blinkered vision. All we have is what this activist wants us to see.
It’s a video of men with automatic rifles running behind someone. We don’t know who they are; we don’t know who they are running to. The streets are dusty, the walls unpainted. This is markedly different from the urban square where groups of people chanted for Bashar to leave. There’s no sense of camaraderie, just confusion and agony.
A river of blood runs across the ground from one body to another. A man with a rifle is bent over a body. Next to him is another dead man. His head is tilted to the side, his face covered in blood, his body slumped to the right. In the video, the man with the rifle, his palm open wide, looks at the dead man. The man’s white sneakers, seen against all the blood, look even whiter. Another dead man has buckled on the floor, his head in a pool of water.
Those alive wail. YouTube is the world’s most public execution square.
The camera follows a bulky man with a gun in his hand. It leads to more men dead on the floor.
What could have happened here? The men would have stood in a row. They may have been executed. They’ve fallen next to each other; that’s the only thing certain. There’s no context in this war. There’s seldom any ownership of the crimes. There are just videos after videos, more gruesome than this one, showing the barbarity of humankind over 1,000 days of war in Syria.
Despite pumping in weapons, the rebels wanted more. Their demands kept mounting: AK-47s, RPG, anti-tank missiles. The opposition had at first touted the words of Gandhi—they had spoken of a peaceful uprising—but the rebels always sought more, a member of the SNC told me in Amman earlier this year. “We can’t expect them to fight the war with mobiles when Assad has given his boys guns,” he had said.
Early on in the conflict, sectarian tensions had been stoked. Early on in the conflict, foreign powers had started meddling.
He had invited me to see the mess. The border at Hatay was the jump-off point to cover the Syrian revolution. The SNC member called it a network hub where fixers waited to set up deals, where smugglers crossed over with just about anything they could carry, and where taxis waited to ferry you to your story.
It was also the border that led to Aleppo. It was also the border where legendary journalist Anthony Shadid and I first made contact. He was on assignment covering the FSA for The New York Times; it was this border where he lost his life.
At Binnish in Idlib province near the Turkish border, a citizen journalist approaches Anthony Shadid, the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, and proceeds to interview him. “What do you think of the Syrian revolution?” asks the citizen journalist.
“I see how the activists are working. For example, the activists are working on services, media, security … I see the collaboration between the activists and the local committees, the activists and the FSA. This is going to become like a new system (regime) in Saraqib, Binnish, Sermeen. This seems very possible to me.”
Unlike reporters who risked their lives getting the story, Higgins sat in the comfort of his home, watching videos on YouTube to paint another picture of the conflict in Syria.
Anthony is cheerful in the video. Hopeful. That is the last despatch from him, and then the war changed colour. Now there are two Syrias: one belongs to Assad and the other to the Islamists. Many within the SNC had envisaged this border as Syria’s Benghazi where NATO jets would impose a no-fly zone. That pipe dream never materialised and the territory that the rebels had initially claimed has fallen into the hands of Islamists and the ISIS.
Since then, more and more guns have entered Syria. It is no longer a secret that Syria is in the deep throes of a proxy war that experts say could last up to 10 years. In one corner, Assad’s allies—Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah—face-off against the rebels backed by the United States, France, the UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Meanwhile, the country is flooded with weapons and watching this menacing inflow is Eliot Higgins.
Eliot Higgins seems like the anti-spy. From the floral curtains in his house in Leicester to his morning routine of caring for his two-year-old daughter Ela, nothing spells CIA, MI5, Mossad. But that hasn’t held the cynics back.
“I try to ignore those accusations, they’re just absurd,” he says.
But the rise and rise of Eliot Higgins is one of those remarkable stories that has taken him from his couch in Leicester to the Google Ideas Forum in New York where he hosted a lecture on “Conflict in a Connected World” and, at the time of writing, Eliot Higgins chatted with storied journalist Christiane Amanpour about his research.
Eliot Higgins—better known as Brown Moses, his online avatar—was until the summer of 2011 just another finance and administration employee. He worked on housing for asylum seekers until he was laid off. This was followed by a brief stint in a lingerie company until he walked out. Unemployed and at home tending to his little daughter, he worked on his blog, started on holiday with his Turkish wife in Istanbul.
Higgins had always been interested in current affairs and with a media technology degree, he set about to fill in the discrepancies in information. Mainstream media had missed so much information flowing out of Libya and so he devoted his energies to getting information out of Syria. Unlike reporters who risked their lives getting the story, Higgins sat in the comfort of his home, watching videos on YouTube, trawling hours and hours of open-source information to paint another picture of the conflict in Syria. When he started, the war in Syria was just getting ugly. The fights were getting dirtier, the loose alliance known as the Free Syrian Army was unravelling. Gory images were everywhere but Higgins never got too depressed.
The result was a front page exclusive: “In Shift, Saudis are said to arm rebels in Syria”. The story made fact what many were openly speculating: that the Saudis were bulking up the rebels’ arsenal with the aim of unseating Bashar and weakening Iran’s clout in the region.
But that was just the start. Higgins’s tenacity increased with each success. He attempted to shed the stay-at-home tag; it had started to grate but the press had clung on to it. He was in the process of starting a new website, advising security companies on utilising open-source media. Book publishers chased after him too. Higgins was the man who knew the movement of weapons in Syria and soon activists from Syria started reaching out.
On August 21, he received hectic messages from activists on the ground in Eastern Ghouta. They wanted Higgins to speak to a doctor who had treated people exposed to chemical gases. Naturally he did. Higgins asked the group to keep an eye on the weapons and started investigating further. The images he was being sent were of the M14 artillery rocket that carries a sarin warhead.
“Did your research yield the same results as the US intelligence reports?” I asked him.
“The US intelligence reports that were made public, as well as those from other countries, didn't actually seem to mention those munitions, they were pretty low on information in general. A lot of people noted at the time there was way more compelling evidence on my blog than provided by the US government on who was responsible,” he says.
Yet, the US claimed it had enough information to attack Syria.
In December, months after the chemical weapons team dismantled Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, published a story in the London Review of Books titled “Whose Sarin?”. Hersh alleges that Obama did not tell the whole story when he tried to make the case that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapon attack near Damascus on August 21.
Hersh writes: “In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded—without assessing responsibility—had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order—a planning document that precedes a ground invasion—citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
“In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.”
Syria watchers let out a collective gasp, social media went ballistic, and the response to the piece was electric. Foreign Policy asked Higgins if he wanted to comment on Hersh’s piece. He did. In his response, Higgins writes:
“Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, published an article over the weekend that calls into question who really launched the chemical weapons attack that brought the United States to the brink of war in Syria. In particular, Hersh focuses on the munitions used in the August 21 sarin strike, widely blamed on Bashar al-Assad's regime. He raises doubts about whether the Syrian government would have used the munitions, which he claims were likely improvised and manufactured at a local machine shop; he asks whether they had the range to reach their targets from a distant military base; and he wonders aloud whether it could have been al Qaeda-affiliated rebels who carried out the attack.
“But Hersh is apparently unaware that there's a growing body of evidence that answers these questions. Much of that evidence comes from the Syrian military itself—and it very strongly suggests that it was Assad's cronies, not the rebels, who carried out the August 21 attack.
“Since the attack, myself and others have been studying the vast amount of open-source information posted online on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which has provided many more pieces of evidence about what happened in the Damascus suburbs that day. This information not only answers many of the questions Hersh's article raises, but has also provided a much greater understanding of other events in the Syrian conflict.”
Then Twitter turned into a high school playground. Pundits penned columns placing Hersh in the red corner and Higgins in the blue corner, setting up a fight between reporter and blogger. It was a conflict between the traditional form of journalism—an intelligence story done the time-honoured way, pieced from whispers in shadowy corridors—and open source journalism driven by social media. Between the old and the new.
Hersh never read the crazy Twitter antics that followed. His children don’t let him near Facebook or Twitter, he jokes. He told me how times had changed. New players had brought their new forms of journalism as old notions of journalism faded away. But Hersh is positive about social journalism despite the chaos it creates through “tendentious, dishonest, amateur, silly and malicious stuff being
Why are we at this juncture, I ask.
“There is the issue of dwindling advertising, etc., interest in newspapers, of grabbing headlines off the internet and this leads to less competent and less successful investigative reporting. The industry has had nearly two decades of warning about the surging power of the Internet with its impact on revenue and interest, and done little to stop it.”
What about reporting that’s biased, corrupt reporting?
“It’s an age-old problem, the reliance on stringers or interested observers inside the various political factions as is the tendency of rebel groups and the governments involved in a civil war to try to use journalists for political purposes, far too often with great success. Nothing new there,” he replies in our email exchange.
Both Hersh and Higgins had interacted with Richard Lloyd, a warhead technology expert, and Ted Postol, a professor and national security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In my conversations, this is what he said about his and Postol’s joint research on the whodunit that was sparked by Hersh’s London Review of Books story.
First we must assume that if the YouTube videos we are all relying on are “real,” then they definitely do show that the rebels have the will to create weapons that contain chemicals. Lloyd had mapped out the territory around the chemical impact site which consisted of both government as well as rebel territories. Despite the mapping and allocating ranges to the weapons the problem remains: “it is NOT conclusive to what territory they could have come from”.
Did Obama actually hold back information? Could we have been misled, did we, the public, learn nothing from Iraq? Using Google Earth one could ascertain, he says, that there is a Syrian army tank base around 2.5 kilometres away. This could have been a launch site but despite analysing the bearings or directions, it is still not conclusive whose territory these rockets came from.
Could Higgins know more than an expert studying warhead technology for over 20 years?
“I know Eliot Higgins and have discussed much with him about Syria. I have much respect for him for his humanitarian work. However, I am NOT in agreement with his article and it’s just wrong. His entire article is based solely on the Syrian government having these launchers. This is a bad assumption because you do NOT have to have these launchers to launch these rockets. Eliot suggests that only the Syrian army could make these rockets. FALSE! These rockets are DIY and are World War I technology and there is NOTHING high tech.”
Lloyd concluded through research that the rebels have better skills in making weapons than the Syrian army. These chemical rocket warheads are poorly designed and can be made by the rebels.
But he doesn’t know who fired the rockets.
Apaper titled “The Tech Intellectuals” published in Democracy Journal by Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, talks about a novel shift in the life of the public intellectual.
Once, author and critic Russell Jacoby had lamented demise of the public intellectual as they found it difficult not to get co-opted into the system with permanent well-paid jobs. The result was intellectuals turning away from the public and burying themselves in the obscurities of academic research and prose.
However, over the last decade new possibilities have arisen. Internet-fuelled media has allowed for blogs, which has made it easier for aspiring intellectuals to publish their opinions thereby providing “the meat for a new set of arguments about how communications technology is reshaping society”. This has created the space for an emergent breed of professional argument crafters, the technology intellectuals.
Many of these new public intellectuals, argues Farrell, are more or less self-made. Some are scholars. These new intellectuals are genuinely more public than their predecessors, he maintains whereas the previous public intellectuals were writing for an elite and well-educated readership that could be measured in tens of thousands. However, the new technology intellectual, they who attend TED talks are viewed 7.5 million times every month by a global audience of people who are mostly well-educated.
He writes, “To do well in this economy, you do not have to get tenure or become a contributing editor to The New Republic … You just need, somehow, to get lots of people to pay attention to you.”
Further, technology intellectuals work in an attention economy. They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message. They can make a living from it.
On December 10 this year, the US State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations tweeted the following: “Have a look at this front line analysis from the crisis in #Syria”.
Moments later, Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi tweeted back: “@StateCSO Thank you for sharing!”
I’d read the name Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi before. The Economist had cited him as an “expert on Islamic militant groups”; The Hindu had billed him as “an analyst”; and then The Washington Post labelled him an “expert on Syrian jihadist groups” too. I’d read his entry on the Qamishli front that the State Department had promoted on Twitter. He was one of the brave few, I’d thought, traversing through ISIS (Qaeda) territory to bring “front line” analysis.
We decided to talk about his time there but when I approached the topic, he just laughed me off. He’d never been to Syria, nor did he anticipate going. Jihadis had invited him but their friendship was largely limited to Facebook and Skype.
Anyway neither his parents, nor his fiancée would want him to get hurt, he had said.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“21,” he said with a snicker and then offered to switch his Skype video on.
Sure enough, he was a young man, in a light blue dorm room in Oxford wearing giant Eminem-style headphones and leaning on his desk.
“How come you’re an expert?” I ask. His work was credible but did he understand the implications of shouldering such a big title?
He laughed. “You reporters aren’t very good at Facebooking, are you?”
He’d been a Facebook user since he was 16. To him, like to MIT Media Lab researcher Ethan Zuckerman, “the reason people from Isado have not yet talked to people from India—except when on hold with a call centre in Bangalore—is that inadequate technology somehow has stood in the way”.
He had overcome the technological hurdles and bridged the distances between himself and the jihadis in Syria through “Facebook stalking”. Tamimi too used open-source, like Higgins had done. He too had spent hours staring at YouTube videos. He knew the ins and outs of jihadis like he would know the personal lives of friends.
“This is what I do for fun,” he told me and just like that, this student of Greek and Latin became an expert on the most notorious terrorist group operating in Syria.
Despite the chill, the sun shone on the mirrors of the United Nations Plaza in New York. Bashar Ja’afari, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN was miffed after I’d mentioned research done by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights on the number of dead in Syria. Ja’afari played reporter: “Who is this man from a small provincial town in England to have opinion on the war? Why are you—why is the BBC, The New York Times, CNN—relying on this man?” he’d asked.
Months later, the Syrian Observatory for Humans Rights’ name came up again as journalist Eoghan mac Suibhne, explained how he’d come to report one of the bigger stories of the Syrian war. Eoghan’s job is to filter the news from the online noise. He’s a journalist of the digital age, a “forensic reporter” employed by Storyful. Storyful is a news media company that provides its services to some of the biggest names in journalism like The New York Times and Time. Their task is to follow online conversations and identify top stories. Their sources are open: lists and lists of people on Twitter and YouTube. Unlike traditional journalism where sources are guarded with jealousy, Storyful ensures all reporters have access to all information, 24 hours a day.
A Storyful reporter will write stories on the Philippines to Syria to Ukraine without leaving the comfort of his or her chair. The company has institutionalised what Higgins does. “We got in on the ground floor of this game,” says Eoghan.
As far as big stories go, Eoghan was behind one of the most gruesome stories from the conflict in Syria. It also shed light upon the excesses of the Free Syrian Army as a group of men executed fighters from the Syrian army. Unlike reporters who trawl the streets, Eoghan traverses the World Wide Web, following chatter online. His lists have prominent names such as Brown Moses and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the execution story was first flagged by the Observatory. Unlike Brown Moses and the Observatory, Storyful is careful to not call its work definitive.
“We say appeared as opposed to is,” he said over a Skype conversation, for nothing is certain in the digital age.
As the online momentum gathered pace, the execution video reached the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. They promptly released a statement: though “difficult to verify”, it could constitute “a war crime”.
Eoghan was tasked with identifying where the incident took place for Storyful’s clients. He first sought out the original version because the one floating around YouTube was a “scrape” or a copy. He sought the assistance of his Twitter contacts. Storyful believes that there is always someone “closer to the story”. Through help from Syrian activist @the_47th, Eoghan identified the logo in the image as belonging to the Mountain Shield Brigade. After Facebooking and translating the name into Arabic for YouTube, the original of the video was found. Later, Google Earth images confirmed the existence of the set of buildings. More footage showed the execution from different vantage points.
“Ultimately, we were unable to confirm with certainty whether the armed group that carried out the killings was affiliated to the Free Syrian Army, insofar as any such formal ‘affiliations’ exist. We found little evidence, however, that Jabhat al-Nusra was involved in the assault, or in the executions. Most importantly, we were able to build a clear picture of what happened at Hamicho checkpoint and to geolocate, with certainty, one of the most shocking incidents of the Syrian civil war.”
They could answer the where and when, but the who-what-how was left unanswered.
Do you ever get distressed watching these awful videos, I ask.
“Storyful always keeps a counsellor on call for those who need to talk things through,” he says.
“But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child,” writes Francesca Borri in the Columbia Journalism Review, on her time as a freelancer in Syria.
Anyway, most probably, she won’t be going back to Syria, she told me over Skype. The war had changed and death threats continued to mount. The last time she entered Syria, her fixer made her wear a niqab. Then he made her put a ring on her finger because she was walking with a man. Syria had changed and so maybe she’d go to Pakistan. Maybe Libya.
She writes about the war: “This is a dirty war, a war of the last century; it’s trench warfare between rebels and loyalists who are so close that they scream at each other while they shoot each other. The first time on the frontline, you can’t believe it, with these bayonets you have seen only in history books. Today’s wars are drone wars, but here they fight meter by meter, street by street, and it’s fucking scary.”
She’s seen so many bodies wash up in the river in Aleppo, many more than Brown Moses has but she can’t make sense of them. She’s no expert, she’s just a reporter. They’re most probably some there today, she says, but from a distance it means nothing. Who are those people? Who threw them there? Without context, bodies are just bodies. Nothing more, nothing less. “How can I know why someone died? How can you use things from unknown people? It’s impossible to verify,” she says.
Now she’s in Amsterdam, buying a bike to travel the city as she writes a book. Maybe she’s different from other reporters out there. Maybe it’s because she’s an author, but buried somewhere in her is a journalist and she think she’s done a shoddy job. Sure, she risked her life but inaction by the international community is because of the picture she couldn’t paint.
“I’ve been risking my life for two years and nobody here in Amsterdam knows what the war in Syria is about. My readers don’t even know who the rebel is and who Bashar is.
“With new communication technologies there is this temptation to believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive logic: The content is now standardised, and your newspaper, your magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.”
This is what new media can show us: September 29, 2012. “The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or graphic. Viewer discretion is advised.”
How could it be worse than the other one? Do images of bloody bodies not require viewer discretion?
The video is titled “Syrian Troops Torture Prisoners to Death Warning Extremely Graphic”. It takes place in a cream-coloured room. The room could be anywhere. Men are seated facing the wall, like bad schoolchildren. Their faces are covered in blood. A boot hits a face as a man with his hands on the radiator gets knocked first. The white radiator has been painted red with his blood. He falls forward against the wall. Another man with his hands on his head gets kicked; the one next to him falls to the ground easily.
None of the men put up a defence. It would be possible to infer that none of these men have guns. The room’s in a bit of context now: at 14 seconds, there’s a view out of the window and there’s a tower. It’s on the third or fourth floor of a city. There are buildings outside and a tower that rises high above. It’s sometime in the afternoon and it’s sunny outside.
Is this Syria? This could be anywhere, Aleppo, Alexandria, a favela in Brazil. The only thing to tie it to Arabia is the language but the victims never speak. They just moan. Moaning is universal.
You whores, calls out the soldier in army fatigues. You need a good beating don’t you, you son of a bitch. You animals.
Someone eggs on the man from behind. “Stomp on him,” he says.
The video shows the army man with a helmet. Daylight cuts into the room. The beige of the wall is covered in blood; bodies are writhing on the floor. An officer pulls another back to get in on the beating frenzy. A man in plainclothes joins in. The men now lie on top of each other, exhausted. After a certain time, pain doesn’t feel quite as awful. The body goes numb.
Now he’s hitting them with a belt.
What happened before? What happened after? Who are these people? Who filmed this video? None of this means anything without context. It’s just gore for the world to watch.
Film it, film it, film it, someone yells. A man in army fatigues is seen smiling.
It’s probably just another safe house.
But this is what it can’t tell, this I hear from Francesca: This last time in Aleppo, there was no food at all. When you are embedded with rebels, you always have food which is a paradox because you’re on the front lines. With civilians you are safer but you have no food at all. There is nothing to eat. For days we had some bread and some tea.
After the recent kidnappings the remaining few journalists are pulling out of Aleppo leaving the war to be reported through YouTube.
In an unprecedented move, 13 news organisations have written a letter to the Syrian opposition to end violence against journalists. One rebel faction has promised to honour reporters’ safety while the hundreds of other factions claw at each other’s throats.