How a Syrian-Canadian professor of international relations and Mid East politics navigated the Assad regime's schizophrenic attitude toward social media.
On August 11, while delivering his first address to the newly ‘elected’ Syrian parliament, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was forced to pause and remain seated for a few moments before being able to resume his speech.
The official explanation later offered by the Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA – the most widely read source of state news in the country – was that he experienced a brief drop in blood pressure.
However, in an article temporarily posted by Al Modon, members of the People’s Assembly were reportedly forced to remain in the building until their cell phones were thoroughly inspected by the notorious secret police, or mukhabarat, to ensure that no one could independently leak footage of the incident.
While this cannot be independently confirmed, the regime has a legacy for taking swift action in subduing - often through arrests - its own parliamentarians for falling out of line. Whether or not their phones were searched, the story touches upon another feature underlining the regime’s paranoia: its social media complex.
But the regime’s obsession with censoring social media is part of a wider effort to monopolise the narrative surrounding the conflict.
On the one hand, the regime has made concerted efforts to exploit social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in spreading its counterrevolutionary propaganda.
The Syrian Electronic Army, for example, has largely functioned to disseminate disinformation in order to muddy the waters on Syria and paint the regime as a victim of a conspiracy of global proportions.
On the other hand, intelligence agencies have demonstrated a veritable phobia, highlighted by their crackdown on independent social media pages that display even a modicum of dissent – including when such criticism comes from loyalists operating pro-Assad pages. Its combination of phobia and obsession, of control and fear, illuminate the regime’s own schizophrenic attitude towards social media.
In the spring of 2011, I was a lecturer at the Arab International University, incidentally located 65 km north of the city of Dar’aa, the birthplace of the uprising.
On a seemingly mundane April morning, an early announcement delivered through the university’s PA system ordered all faculty members, university administrators, and students to begin boarding private university buses destined for Damascus.
No explanations were provided. Instead, we were herded like sheep onto buses to be transported to the capital to partake – against our will – in pro-Assad demonstrations.
Together with three of my colleagues, I managed to convince our reluctant bus driver, who feared retaliation from the security apparatus and its army of spies, to open the door and let us out prior to reaching the capital.
As dissidents blacklisted by the government, we saved ourselves the degrading experience of taking part in a pro-Assad rally that contradicted our longing for a free and democratic Syria.
Such stunts were part of regime-staged “marches of support,” the frequency and absurdity of which increased over time as Assad fought to neutralise images of state repression with optics depicting mass – albeit manufactured, often coerced – shows of support.
Two years later, in July 2013, while attempting to board an aeroplane from Latakia to Beirut en route to Toronto, I was told that I was prohibited from leaving Syria until I had reported to the local Political Security branch of the intelligence for questioning.
After hours of waiting with a mixture of eagerness and terror, my phone was confiscated and sent for inspection. During a two-hour long interrogation, I was asked a series of questions about my political activity, dating back to my history as a student activist who opposed the regime from the moment Hafez, Bashar’s father, installed himself in a coup and purged all dissent in what he later termed the “Corrective Movement.”
My Facebook account was a particular point of obsession for the officer. As a dissident, a professor of international relations, a progressive, and as someone hailing from the Alawite ‘sect’ to which Assad belongs, it was important to monitor voices like mine, which debunked the narrative peddled relentlessly by the regime, that those opposing the Assad mafia are radical Sunnis bent on sectarian strife. They found nothing incriminating, prompting my release.
I was one of the lucky ones.
Three months later, dozens of courageous students organised an anti-regime demonstration at the University of Qalamoon, a private institution in a small town just 90 km north of Damascus, where I had become a professor.
Peaceful protests were quickly met with brute force by elements of the notorious Air Force Security, assisted by pro-regime informants from within the students ranks. Many demonstrators ran away towards campus buildings as they were chased in broad daylight by security agents yielding weapons.
Standing in the hallway outside my office, I pleaded with security forces to release students of mine in their custody. Meanwhile, a professor with whom I shared my office was being harassed by the security forces, who ran towards her after catching a glimpse of a cell phone in her possession.
“Give me your mobile,” one of them shouted. “I am a professor,” she pleaded. “Who cares,” he screamed, as he grabbed her by the wrist and forcibly confiscated her phone. The fact that she was a respected professor was inconsequential. She possessed in her hand a tool capable of capturing reality, thus transforming her into a suspect.
Worried about my colleague, I followed her to the dean’s office, which, to my shock, had been converted into a makeshift detention centre, where close to 20 students were rounded up together with several professors, including the dean himself.
After arriving, the mukhabarat ordered me to enter, place my phone on the dean’s desk, and stand with the rest of the detainees. The desk was completely covered in cell phones waiting to be inspected.
Over the following weeks, several students would trickle into my office with bruised and swollen faces. There, they described to me how security forces would raid student buses, drag out those suspected of organising, and viciously beat them.
Their IDs were cross-referenced to lists compiled by the mukhabarat, which would brutalise them while their classmates were made to remain on the bus and listen. Their curtains were kept closed so as to prevent them from using their phones to film the evidence.
Since 2011, the Syrian regime has shared a schizophrenic relationship with social media. Recognising the role it played in documenting criminality, fostering solidarity, and breaking its monopoly over information dissemination, it sought to either co-opt or liquidate it.
On the one hand, it has utilised Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to reinforce its propaganda, sharing images of Syrian soldiers and regime-affiliated militias heroically ‘rescuing’ Christians from 'Islamist hordes'.
On the other hand, it has forcefully made even the most ardent supporters disappear - these are people, who, in moments void of complete self-censorship, voiced their frustrations. For a regime unwilling to settle for anything less than total obedience, social media will always present a complex problem that runs deep into its psyche.
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