Published on 16 Dec 2012

Winning the YouTube PR war in Syria

It was quite a sight: almost the entire foreign press corps in Damascus gathered together in one place for breakfast. All three of us. This of course left around 20 empty tables, as usual, at the capital’s Four Seasons hotel where business will remain a tad slow for the foreseeable future.

We fell to discussing just how the rebel movement has won the propaganda war in Syria hands down. It’s been almost pathetically easy. In a sense, the 21st century upload/download YouTube generation pitted against highly-centralised government. No competition there, then.

One of our number (whilst dealing with the excellent porridge they dole out daily here) made the following observation about the western media’s use of YouTube rebel war propaganda: “It is like covering a US election by staying in Britain and using only right-wing Republican sources based in Belgium.”

We laughed – it’s an amusing and passable analogy up to a point. Of course, you’d have to add that the ruling Democrats restrict foreign journalists from entering the US in this analogy, and then further restrict those who do get in.

OK – the analogy is already overstretched, but it exposes shortcomings at every turn. Let’s take the rebel propaganda. It’s certainly a lot more sophisticated than, say, the often absurd tweets I get from the Taliban daily, detailing how many “regime puppets” they’ve killed today.

More from Channel 4 News: Syria uprising videos

But it is propaganda and this is dodgy in many respects. Months ago there was the notorious video sequence of an aircraft “shot down” near Aleppo, which turned out to be less than accurate. Then, even in the past few days, a woman and child blaming government “shabiha” militias for a massacre of up to 250 Alawites in the town of Aqrab. Again, it’s rebel YouTube.

Well, any Arab will tell you that both witnesses speak under obvious duress. And there is still no evidence at all of said massacre, the best part of a week on from when rebels say it happened. Equally, some of the extreme horror videos put up on YouTube are highly damaging to the revolutionary cause in the west.

Whoever thought showing video of a child attempting to decapitate a captured Alawite Syrian army officer in a town just north of Homs recently, would advance the cause of the rebels in the west, needs a urgent course in PR tactics.

Or perhaps the video somehow fell into government hands. You could not wish for a better promo VT for those who fear Syria is about to fall radicalised jihadists.

Remember, the idea of making children put “enemies of God” to the sword is absolutely one imported from southern and eastern Afghanistan to this war. But the problem is that would imply subtlety and sophistication on the part of the Damascene government.

This is not their style. This nation of unsecured secret policeman monitoring your moves has a default switch set firmly at “no”. Boy, have I ever tried long and hard to point out to officials that the rebels are running away with their side of the story every day, but when you have to send a fax and full passport details with talk of a CV just in order to film how the government here cares for people displaced by fighting – well then you know how they are losing the struggle to tell their story. I mean- a fax?

And it’s a genuine shame because obviously there two sides to every war. All we seek is to tell both without fear or favour and it is primarily the Syrian government which has made that task impossible. The west got the idea that Damascus was about “fall within days” about two weeks ago. Shutting the airport was a coup for the rebels, no question, but it was not the signal that the end is at hand.

If I could beam you down to Damascus right now, it is the normality of much of the city that will shock you – not the sense of impending implosion. Flooding this country with foreign reporters would do much to dispel the notorious that victory is at hand in a few days, for the rebels.

This is not to take sides or be sympathetic to any party in this vicious civil war with documented atrocities from both sides. It is to plea that both sides be heard and thus the strategic truth of this war can be revealed as it has not thus far been.

Right now – the YouTube kids have it.

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12 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    I don’t accept “…the rebel movement has won the propaganda war in Syria hands down…”

    Most of the people I have met don’t believe either side of the issue, anymore than they believe anything that comes out of mainstream media.

    I think you underestimate how much contempt “ordinary” people have for journalists, especially of the Murdoch and Dacre types. And they have earned it, as the Leveson Inquiry has shown.

    Too many journos believe their own publicity and disregard their responsibilities to bring us the truth. Too many are more concerned with career advancement than the truth. Too many go along to get along.

    There are honourable exceptions such as John Pilger and yourself. But after that I struggle to name any Brit journo I would trust to hold open a door.

  2. aude sapere says:

    Agree with much of what you’ve said about propaganda of the “Fake” Syrian army, but don’t be so sure who’s winning the propaganda war.

    Many don’t so much as support Assad as oppose this Fake Syrian Army….and it’s viral.

    SyrianGirl has significantly more exposure and credibility on the net than sell-outs such as Syria Danny, in spite of him getting backing from major mainstream networks. He’s been exposed as a liar and is no longer prominent. SyrianGirl, on the other hand, increasingly gains an audience and credibility.

    When you say civil war…you do realise there is much testimony that these rebels are composed of many non-Syrians…your own written report from Aqrab reported a woman saying so, which curiously was edited out of your video.

    More are realising the hypocrisy of the West trying every means to destabilise Assad and yet not even question Bahrain’s governance…look at what happened to Amber Lyon, formerly of CNN, when she courageously tried to report the truth.

    One would be naive to think “YouTube kids” are the significant ones making the “rebels'” case. Most western mainstream press can barely conceal the pro-“rebel” bias (why are they even called “rebels” and not “terrorists” or “insurgents” or “militants” such as they are in Afghanistan?).

    The mainstream press is losing audience and credibility, with few journalists left who have the courage to tell the truth. You, Alex, have been an outstanding exception.

    As with Iraq’s WMD claim which led us to war, the same lie is now being peddled to foment opposition to Assad in Syria. More people are wise to this now.

    As General Wesley Clark has stated Syria is but one of the countries targeted for regime change, Iran is next. The transparency of the war-mongering is now blatant for all to see. War is a racket.

    These actions destroy millions of lives and ultimately could provoke a reaction from Russia and China who so far have been relatively quiet.

    More people are becoming aware every day of the true realities. Sanity must be restored.

    Keep doing what you do, Alex. Your voice is important.

    Stay safe.

  3. Mahmoud Baroud says:

    I have family and friends in Damascus governorate and speak with them most days. Outside the pleasant environs of the Four Seasons hotel, areas in the south of Damascus city and across the governorate are being bombarded and flattened, people are being killed and maimed, displaced people not just from Damascus but from across Syria are sleeping in parks and gardens, people are randomly abducted and/or shot at regime checkpoints. Discoveries of bodies killed by Assad’s death squads are an everyday event. Earlier today a mosque in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp was bombed by MiG warplanes – and yes, there is footage available (hint for Mr. Thomson – only the regime uses warplanes).

    I’m very grateful for the You Tube footage and for the Syrian citizen journalists who risk a great deal more than burnt porridge to tell the world what’s happening – at least it enables the world to hear something other than ”This is a civil war between two equal sides” which seems to be the line peddled by the mainstream media – despite the fact that the two sides are about as equal militarily as Israel and the Palestinians, and that one side is a totalitarian regime backed by military and financial support from Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and the other Iranian proxy Hezbollah,while the other is an army equipped with crappy AK47s and weapons raided from regime arsenals – and backed by, er, lots of nice speeches and some non-military equipment which could have come out of an Action Man play kit by the ”international community.” Since the start of the revolution, over 40,000 people have been documented killed, 76,000 are ”missing,” 216,000 have been imprisoned – but apparently this is not considered newsworthy.

    For someone who claims to know what Arabs, specifically Syrians, are saying, Mr Thomson sounds remarkably uninformed – or maybe he only hears from his fellow correspondents and from the waiters and other staff at the Four Seasons. Do enjoy the porridge Mr. Thomson.

    1. Hus says:

      Thank you very much for this, Mr Baroud.

  4. Amjad of Arabia says:

    The rebels have long taken great risks to get foreign journalists inside Syria, to report first hand on what is going on. The professional foreign press have confirmed the “Youtube” narrative that Alex Thomson dismisses out of hand. To the regime, an independent and free press in Syria is scarier than a dozen NATO divisions on its borders. One of the conditions of the original Arab league initiative was to allow the foreign media free and unfettered access to the country. Of course, it was rejected out of hand by the regime.

    After months of trying, the BBC finally managed to get a team into Damascus. The regime kept them as far away from Aqrab as possible. Quite telling, no?

  5. Clive says:

    Why don’t you ever mention that Al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (al-Qaeda in Libya) were both introduced to Syria, by NATO, many months ago? That they are armed and financed by Saudi Arabia ? and that the British SAS regiment have been in Syria and/or Turkey, since (at least) last March training them ?

    If you were really so neutral and truthful, you would mentioned that the “rebel” side is really the NATO/Saudi, Islamist, side. It is a foreign invasion not a “civil war”.

  6. 1987christie says:

    The Syrian government invited the telegraph to report on the destruction of historic sites in Aleppo by the FSA. They came back and wrote an article blaming the Syrian Arab Army. Not all journalists are as objective as you Alex.

  7. omi says:

    Alex please do an article on Libyan Islamic Fighting Group , and their role in Syria.

  8. omi says:

    It seems like Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been training for months in Libya, since the fall of Gaddafi. They are flown to Syria to fight Assad. PLease investigate this terrorist group that the west supports.

  9. Hus says:

    The other two journalists must’ve been Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn.

  10. Margaret says:

    Alex,have you been anywhere at all in Syria without your government minders?i suspect not because Assad does not want you to see the truth of what’s really going on outside of Damascus,when did the brave FSA acquire MIGS?,who is bombing the towns and cities? Questions you don’t ask,answers you won’t get until you leave your minders behind and search for the real stories.

  11. boosra says:

    Now, nearly a year later, with their military situation becoming ever weaker, the rebels have gone into Youtube propaganda overdrive.

    Everytime the Syrian army take a town or win a battle, not tens, but hundred, even thousands, of identical pro rebel videos are shovelled onto Youtube within hours claiming some victory or other – taking out an army tuck or occupying a compund or whatever – and tagged with the name of the town/base/etc in question. Some of these accounts are a few days old, and have thousands of these videos. it is…propaganda spam.

    Anyone searching for more on a report of such a development is greeted with an inpenetrable phalanx of pro-rebel propaganda. It helps that YOUTUBE actively blocks the channels of pro-government stations too.

    Amazing really that public opinion has managed to withstand it – p[erhaps people did learn something from Iraq… though they recalled to late for Libya.

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