Assads fight rebel videos via Instagram in information war

He visits patients in the hospital while his wife goes to soup kitchens

Topics: Bloomberg, Bashar al-Assad, Instagram, syrian civil war, syrian rebels, ,

Assads fight rebel videos via Instagram in information warSyria President Bashar al-Assad (Credit: AP)

Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) — Even in the middle of a civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made time to hold hospital patients’ hands while his blue-jeaned wife helps in soup kitchens. At least, that’s how Syria appears on Assad’s account with Instagram, the photo-sharing website.

From the narratives of Thucydides and Homer to U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s World War II radio orations to videos of Syrian civilians gasping for breath on Google Inc.’s YouTube, the media have always been tools of statecraft, stagecraft and war. Now Facebook Inc. and its Instagram application, Twitter Inc. and 24-hour cable news are leveling the playing field among nations, boosting the role of public opinion and accelerating the tempo of war and diplomacy.

Assad, always impeccably attired, appeared in an interview that aired last night on Fox News, and he uses Instagram to appeal to his supporters and counter President Barack Obama’s portrayal of him as a bloodthirsty dictator. Russia’s Foreign Ministry uses Twitter, newspapers and television to oppose U.S. action in Syria. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is using social media, as well as an NBC interview broadcast yesterday, to portray himself as a moderate successor to the erratic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Governments have always used media” in conflicts, said Christopher Steinitz, a Middle East analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, a policy group in Alexandria, Virginia. “Now social media are amplifying those dynamics. It’s a force multiplier,” Steinitz said, using military terminology.

‘NEW LANDSCAPE’

Social media provide “a new landscape for creating and transforming narratives that governments are just learning to use,” Steinitz said, and “they do increase the clock speed at which people have to react. They increase the pressure.”

Nineteenth and 20th-century media still have their roles. Round-the-clock operations such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC in the U.S., Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya are important outlets. The Obama administration mounted a blitz of television appearances to make its case for action against Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a New York Times opinion piece to argue against U.S. intervention, presenting himself to his own public as a bulwark against U.S. aggression.

‘INFORMATION WAR’

“When you see high officials distributing that kind of thing, it’s an information war,” said Alec Ross, the senior adviser for innovation under former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ross said the Assad regime is making sophisticated use of media by deploying propagandists; cyber-warriors such as the Syrian Electronic Army, which has hacked U.S. newspaper websites including that of the New York Times; and public-relations experts who orchestrate Assad’s TV appearances.

You Might Also Like

It’s no surprise that “the Assad government and Russian government have made a concerted effort to get their voices into the American political dialogue,” Steinitz said.

Assad also needs to appeal to groups at home. He represents minority groups in Syria, including Christians and Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam, who fear they have a lot to lose if Assad goes.

“Even dictators need popular support or they end up hanging from lampposts,” Steinitz said. “He needs to show them he’s out there, fighting for them.”

Assad also uses his family on social media to rally his backers, said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

WIFE, SON

Assad’s Westernized wife Asma appears all over the Instagram account with tousled hair and wearing T-shirts. Swift pointed to a Facebook page attributed to Assad’s son Hafez where the 11-year-old called out the U.S. as cowardly.

The Syrian opposition has used the YouTube service of Mountain View, California-based Google to show videos depicting carnage it blames on Assad’s regime. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assembled a collection of the opposition videos to document the U.S. case that Assad used the nerve agent sarin in an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus.

Seven years after San Francisco-based Twitter was founded, terrorist groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and leaders including Assad and Rohani are using its short messages to speak to a world increasingly linked to social media through smartphones, tablets and modems.

Eighty-nine percent of people in the developing world have mobile phones, and 31 percent are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union based in Geneva. In the developed world, there are more mobile phones in use than there are users, and 77 percent of people are online, the groups says.

OLD, NEW MEDIA

With most “old-media” companies using “new-media” platforms such as websites, blogs and feeds on Twitter, which last week announced that it confidentially filed to go public with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the distinctions between the two have become meaningless, said Ross, the former Clinton adviser. “Today, they spin in the same orbit,” he said, and reinforce each other.

So when Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose aired last week on CBS, the Syrian leader’s Twitter feed echoed his comments in terse blasts for those who couldn’t watch. “#Assad: Opposition is different from terrorism,” one said.

Another read: “#Assad: An opposition, opposing a government by beheading, barbecuing heads and eating the hearts of your victim? Is that opposition?”

TWITTER POSTINGS

Hours later, the Obama administration retaliated with the same old media-new media punches. Obama told network TV audiences why the U.S. had to pressure Assad, and a barrage of White House postings on Twitter followed: “Obama: When dictators commit atrocities-they depend upon the world to look the other way.”

Ross, who’s writing a book about the future of globalization, sees an important distinction between new and old media.

“The formation of views is taking place on social media before it appears in print,” he said. The Obama White House is acutely aware of that difference and its importance “and is emphasizing social media in efforts where persuasion is the intent,” he said.

Despite the care with which the White House, the Assad regime, or the Russians design their media strategies, the 24- hour roar of social networks, news websites and cable TV make it “much more difficult to govern” or to control the storyline, Ross said.

BILLION USERS

With more than a billion people using Menlo Park, California-based Facebook and more than 300 million “tweeting,” Ross said, news consumers are no longer passive recipients of information as they discuss events in real time and shape opinion.

“There’s a huge loss of control over narrative and an inability to command a message from on high in the way that was possible as recently as six or seven years ago,” Ross said.

In this environment, where media often emphasize the urgent over the important, the danger for a government preoccupied with message is losing sight of priorities, said Swift.

“A great example is how we have an agreement with the Russians on how to deal with chemical weapons in a civil war when we have no plans to deal with the civil war,” Swift said. “We’re so obsessed with the immediate term that we forget the central issue.”

–Editors: John Walcott, Larry Liebert

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...