As Syrian government forces advanced into the last rebel-held territory of eastern Aleppo, a second battle over the narrative of this crucial moment is emerging on social media.
After days of heavy fighting, civilians and rebels are leaving eastern Aleppo. Over the last few days, the world's media has been following the unfolding events in real time through social media. This is problematic for a variety of reasons.
Aleppo has become one of the main symbols of the now five-year long Syrian war, in which around 400,000 people have died and more than ten million have been displaced. Since September, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and different militia groups from Iran and Lebanon, made major gains in their assault to retake eastern Aleppo.
Reports of indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians and hospitals led in late October to the UN calling the situation in Aleppo a "slaughterhouse."
"If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this Council’s legacy, our generation’s shame" said Stephen O´Brien, UN's under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.
Since the beginning of the protest in 2011, thousands of Syrians picked up smartphones to document events. With an intensification of the fighting between rebel groups and government forces, more and more western and non-western journalists have been killed and kidnapped.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called Syria the most dangerous country in the world for journalists to work in. With fewer and fewer journalists left on the ground, videos and tweets on social media have become the only available source of information, however the validity of such content is difficult to verify. Liz Sly, The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief said, in an interview with Radio Free Europe, that in 20 years as a foreign correspondent, this is the first time she has needed to rely so much on amateur sources to report on a conflict.
While Syria is hardly the first conflict in which the media landscape has become a battlefield, the rapid expansion of social media in the last few years has sped up the process, especially in Aleppo where two narratives are emerging.
Both narratives are based on a simple dichotomy; the good versus the bad.
The first narrative portrays the rebels as good guys fighting against the evil empire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin; from this perspective eastern Aleppo will fall. The second one portrays the rebels as bad and mostly radical Islamic fundamentalists, and celebrates Russia and the Syrian regime forces as the liberators of Aleppo. In this view eastern Aleppo will be retaken.
In any case, it is difficult to verify if the accounts or the content are real or tools of propaganda. Often, images and videos are instrumentalized by each side to support their narrative.
The following image for example, appeared on different social media channels; labeling the rounded-up people as civilians in one case, or as terrorists in the other.
In addition to the misuse of images through different captions, some of those pictures are simply fake, such as the following, which is originally from a music video.
Truth and Social Media
So can there be a "true" narrative in a war which has persisted for five years, especially when multiple regional and international actors are involved? Stathis Kalyvas, Professor for Political Science at Yale University and one of the most recognized scholars of violence in civil war, wrote that "Civil wars are not binary conflicts but complex and ambiguous processes that foster an apparently massive, though variable, mix of identities and actions."
So, what can we expect from tweets which aim to represent the complexity of Syrians War in 140 characters and are mostly heavily influenced from a personal perspective?
The difficulty is that there is no clear answer. Dozens of media outlets rely on anonymous Syrian citizen sources for their reports. As long as it is almost impossible to get access to Aleppo to report and verify sources, journalist can only cross reference individual claims or images against other information.
"It's a different kind of journalism than I have experienced," said Liz Sly.