Rumors in Syria… The signs of war
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Nour Dalati | Dia Odeh | Mohamed Homs
During the Syrian revolution, the media outlets intervened to convey the reality of what was happening on the ground and contributed to the transfer of the Syrian issue from the local to the world public opinion. However, they played also negative roles that prolonged the war and fuelled conflicts at the social, military, economic and political levels when they turned into platforms that spread false news.
The parties to the conflict have spread rumors and opened room for false news to take much of the Syrians’ attention and occupy them with their negative disputes.
The Syrian regime was clever in adapting rumors to serve its authority, and gave the green light to journalists, most of whom were not known to the public before the revolution. They were in charge of the spread of rumors and counter-rumors and conducted many debates on social networking sites.
Opposition factions also used the false data method to convey some military messages in factional conflicts and to mislead the public in controversial situations.
In addition, social media provided citizens having different political orientations with platforms, which they used to interpret news and broadcast rumors that served their interests and vision.
This file monitors the most prominent rumors that have affected the Syrian public during the past years, and highlights the role of media in the life cycle of rumor, from spreading until proven or dead.
Pay rise… Fire ignited by three parties
During the month of September, Syrians were preoccupied with conflicting news about the pay rise in Syria, which “government sources” had spread, and official statements added fuel to the fire.
The local newspaper Al-Watan, close to the Syrian regime, published on August 30 a report saying that the Prime Minister in the government of the regime, Imad Khamis, promised “recent pay rise,” but few days later, the newspaper quoted the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the member of the Advisory Council of the cabinet, Abed Fadilah, who clarified that “making a pay rise without improving the standard of living and increasing the level of services will not be feasible.”
Fadilah statements’ put an end to the hopes of a recent pay rise, but left the door open for interpretations, when he said that “the decision to raise salaries is taken, and this increase is related to the flexibility of the economy and its ability to increase production. Overall, the draft decision to raise salaries is with the government, but the question about its ratio and method of implementation remains unanswered.”
The debate over pay rise continued for about a month, until the talk stopped. But, it was not the first time Syrian media had fuelled the issue of pay rise, the most influential issue in the living conditions of the Syrians.
During 2016 and 2017, there were rumors of an expected pay rise for state employees, but nothing changed.
The last pay rise for state employees was in September 2015, when Bashar al-Assad issued decrees 41 and 42, adding an amount of 2,500 Syrian pounds to state salaries and wages.
Although it was not live up to expectations, the rise came about a year after widespread rumors about a 50% rise and after employees lost hope. They got the equivalent of an additional five dollars per month.
According to Syrian economic analyst Younes al-Karim, rumors about salaries come from different sources. “The first is the public pressure. People want to have pay rise, and their claims support the statements of analysts and economists who seek to lead the media landscape.”
Younes added that “the other source is the regime’s supporters and decision makers who make statements in response to the popular demand. They follow the policy of manipulation, as an official appears to determine an expected increase rate, while some say that there will be no rise and others tell the public complex statements. The economist can know the truth of these statements because the increases are based on numbers.”
The third party, from Younes’ point of view, consists of parties that try to create a conflict between the regime and its supporters, focusing on the fact that there is no victory on the ground, and that those who supported the regime did not receive a reward.
In conclusion, Younes believes that the operation is entirely run by the intelligence services, but he thinks that the ultimate goal is unclear because of the overlapping events.
Demobilization of reserve soldiers … “Syria is fine”
A member of the People’s Council of Syria, Nabil Saleh, launched a rumor on Facebook at the end of last October about the suspension of calls for reserve service in Syria, and the news significantly spread through social media.
Saleh said that the Minister of Defense announced in a session of the People’s Council of Syria that Bashar al-Assad demanded to study the possibility of demobilization of all reserve soldiers and not to keep one.
Shadi Hilwa, the pro-regime journalist, was quick to broadcast a live video on his Facebook page where he explained the decision that Saleh talked about and linked it to Presidential Decree No. 18 of November 9 which grants a general amnesty “for the full sentence of the perpetrators of internal and external escape crimes,” provided that they surrender within a specified period.
Some local news channels, such as “Swaida 24” and “Syrian News,” quoted “sources” that spread news confirming what Hilwa and Saleh said.
The report was not based on any confirmed information or declared official sources, yet it attracted wide attention because it affects a large segment of the young Syrians who have deserted the reserve service and concerns the fate of a large number of refugees who wish to return to Syria.
The controversy lasted a few days before the director of recruitment in Syria, Major General Sami Mhalla, put an end to it when he said in an interview with the Syrian Satellite Channel that “those who missed out on the reserve military service won’t be punished under the amnesty decree, but they may be called again for reserve service in case of need.”
Rumors about recruitment and demobilization have been revived over the past years, and activists and local news reporters on Facebook played a role in broadcasting them.
However, the regime and its government rarely intervened to stop rumors with official statements. Information was circulating on the social media, which citizens republished and shared in their social circles.
Rumors circulating now say that the 103th, 104th and reserve regiments could have been released since 2011. “The decision is ready and waiting for the final signature of the HR department,” said Shadi Hilwa on his Facebook page.
New currency notes, rehabilitating market and collecting foreign currencies
Syrians are waiting for the release of 50 Syrian pounds coin in the upcoming period, after the head of the Syrian Securities Commission, Abed Fadilah, has announced this during an interview with government newspaper, Tishreen, on Monday, October, 22.
Fadilah expects that issuing the 50 Syrian pounds coin will generate a positive impact throughout the Syrian community, for the people are aware of the need to exchange it. However, he said that this expectation was the result of a year of monitoring the reactions of the community through leaking information about the possibility of issuing this coin as rumors.
In the summer of 2017, pictures of the new 50 and 100 Syrian pounds currency have been circulated on social media websites.
However, the former Central Bank Governor Duraid Dergham denied printing new 50 and 100 Syrian pounds coins, and told the local newspaper Al-Watan that the pictures published on social media websites were designed using Photoshop and modified by computers.
The series of rumors that preceded the issuance also affected the category 2,000 Syrian pounds, which was introduced to the Syrian market last year, after months of controversy and leaks about the possibility of issuing it.
Nowadays, Syrian social media websites users are circulating pictures of a 5,000 Syrian pounds note. The economic analyst Younes Karim believes this move to be an attempt by the regime to deliver messages to the local market that there is no shortage in the local currency, so there is no need to use foreign currencies.
Karim stated that “the regime seeks to show to the institutions that there is purchasing power and thus to encourage study centers to issue reports indicating that the economic situation is good.”
According to Karim, the regime is also trying to “collect the dollars the citizens have by issuing the currency and preventing dollar exchange. It aims to bring it back to the central bank to improve monetary reserves in order to meet the requirements of the 2019 budget, which is worth 3 trillion and 882 billion dollars.”
Rumors and false statements in opposition-held areas
At a time when battles were taking place throughout the Syrian territories, the falsified data and rumors appeared from time to time on social media websites and spread rapidly among activists, turning into reports and news circulated even within media outlets.
Another phenomenon similar to the first one has proliferated. Anonymous people were creating Telegram, Twitter and Facebook accounts to mislead and manipulate local public opinion in order to serve the interests of counterfeiters.
Enab Baladi has monitored several prominent incidents the Syrian arena has witnessed during the previous years, most prominently the attack on the buses transporting people displaced from the areas of Kfariya and al-Fu’ah in the center of Idlib. Those incidents occurred after the “Five Towns” agreement, which requires the people living in the two areas to be transferred to regime-held areas.
A statement has been published on social media platforms signed by Jaysh al-Islam on April 15, 2017, in which the faction declared itself responsible for the attack waged against the buses carrying out the people who were displaced from the region.
The statement said: “Thanks to a qualitative operation and a solid plan, the Special Task Unit of the Jaysh al-Islam was able to target buses transporting Shiite fighters from Kafriya and al-Fu’ah, who will be employed as new killing tools sent to our people after they managed to escape punishment for their previous crimes thanks to the ‘Four Towns’ agreement.”
However, the spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam, Hamza Bayraqdar, came out hours later to declare that the statement is false and forged.
Another incident occurred in mid-2015 when a group of hackers breached the faction’s website and published a false statement about the removal of the leader of the faction back then, Zahran Alloush, and replacing him with his deputy, Abu Marouf.
Rumors war was not only declared between the opposition factions and al-Assad forces, but it was also an essential element that triggered battles among opposition factions. The conflict between the two factions, Jaysh al-Islam and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, led to an internal fighting between these factions, which took the life of more than 500 people between 2016 and 2017.
Many statements have been issued at that time, through which al-Rahman Legion factions have declared their split from the faction. However, the Legion declared in a statement that these are forged announcements and were not issued by the leadership of the legion, accusing Jaysh al-Islam faction of committing this in order to “tear apart” the fighters’ ranks.
In northern Syria, during the outbreak of the battles between the two factions the Syrian Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, activists have circulated a statement in February asking the Interior Ministry in the “Salvation Government” and the police to support Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham against Syrian Liberation Front.
According to the statement, Dr. Mohammed al-Sheikh, head of the Salvation Government asked the Minister of Interior, Brigadier General Ahmed Nuri, to issue a statement and diffuse it to every police station in order to support Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham against the factions, which he described as “traitor.”
However, the Government denied the statement and declared it to be forged, pointing out that the aim behind this is to harm its reputation.
What is a rumor?
In the 1940s, Hitler founded a ministry for political propaganda and appointed Joseph Goebbels its head. Goebbels was well-known for saying “if you repeat a lie enough, it becomes the truth.” The mission of this ministry was to spread rumors that include exaggerating the size of the German military force.
During the Second World War, this ministry worked to spread lies, and promoted the idea that Germans had missiles capable of turning people into steam.
At that time, generating and circulating rumors were not a new thing, but the organized way in which they were conducted prompted American researchers to start doing more research and studies about rumors.
American psychologists Gordon Willard Allport and Leo Postman led the first attempt to theorize rumors, and placed the leading definitions in their interpretation.
Both of them agreed that the rumor is “a presumption associated with existing events and intended to become a public endorsement so that it will be promoted from one person to another through speech, without any concrete information to prove its validity.”
Although a rumor is often related to a topic of public interest and can be an intriguing subject for deliberation and debate among individuals in a given society, releasing untrue information is a process which tends to be unclear or abstract; i.e. most people hear about rumors while being spread.
In his book Rumors: The Oldest Media in the World, the French researcher Jean-Nöel Kapferer says that rumors circulate through a possible group of influential persons. The process of rumor spreading is initiated by an “instigator” who senses a subject and transmits it to a “translator” who assists in the process of analysis and interpretation. In a later stage, the rumor reaches “the gate guards,” leaders that direct collective opinion within a given group or community, shifting, consequently, to the phase of popularity. During such phase, there are “missionaries” who often identify with the rumor and “abusers” who take advantage of the effects of circulating false information.
Kapferer considered in his book, which was translated and published by Dar al-Saqi in 2007, that rumors are news taken from unofficial or non-credible sources, noting that spreading this sort of doubtful accounts usually involves a political agenda.
The researcher does not assume that a rumor is necessarily incorrect or hectic, but confirms instead that this type of verbal intoxication is one of the most effective tools used in political wars due to its camouflaged nature. “Others talk instead of you and transform voluntarily or involuntarily into new carriers. Yet, the source of information remains hidden and mysterious so that no one can detect it,” he explained.
The life cycle of a rumor often ends up in silence, however, such final state of silence continues temporarily until the news is validated, or becomes constant in case the rumor is proven to be unfounded. On the other hand, counter-propaganda interferes within the process, supposedly when the disinformation affects politics or economy.
Syrians can sense rumors … Are they caught in the trap?
In his book, The Psychology of Rumor, Lebanese psychiatrist and chief editor of the Journal of Interdisciplinary psychology, Dr. Mohamad Naboulsi, argues that emotional excitement is a necessary condition for the emergence and spread of rumors. Thus, anxious individuals transmit the news with much greater enthusiasm than safe and stable persons.
Dr. Naboulsi’s point of view can explain the large number of rumors that Syrians circulated in the past few years, and the way they interacted with such falsities despite its dubious nature.
In a survey conducted by Enab Baladi on Facebook, 76 percent out of approximately 600 respondents said that they had already fallen into the trap of rumors, while 24 percent claimed that they did not believe any.
The participants expressed their awareness of many rumors which were spread in Syria during the war, citing many examples of the most famous ones.
While answering the survey’s questionnaire, Enab Baladi’s followers kept mentioning over and over rumors like “the zero hour,” “the fall of the Syrian regime” and “Farouk al-Sharaa’s dissidence,” in addition to “the arrival of NATO forces” and “Bashar al-Assad’s death.”
Some of the participants said that they do not trust media, considering that media outlets have recurrently reported falsifications. Accordingly, Ibrahim Mansour wrote that “the totality of what is uttered and written by some oppositionist social media pages and TV channels unfortunately has no credibility. It is designed for the sole reason of propaganda and publicity.”
Media: A fertile environment for the creation and spread of rumors
The emergence and spread of rumors in Syria have always been linked to media and social media platforms, which provide a fertile environment for popularizing misinformation through accelerating information flow and utilizing the internet. So, the discussion of solutions to reduce rumor spread should be based on convenient actions and steps undertaken by media outlets through their various platforms to diminish the phenomenon.
In Syria, rumors broke out in all political, economic and social issues, and disseminated mostly through social media platforms. Later on, such falsifications infected media outlets which were unprofessional regarding the way they handled and are still handling some of these rumors until today. Hence, no verification methods or proofs were considered when approaching fake news.
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, thousands of Syrian activists have used social media platforms to cover daily events in their areas as a step to reach Arab and Western media. Such trend facilitated the flow of large streams of both credible and fake news, paving the way for the emergence of misinformation, which falls within the framework of unconfirmed or unverified information that was circulated despite being doubtful.
The proliferation of rumors in Syria is not related solely to the fact that disinformation is passed through the community and media which reflect the Syrian public. The problem, according to Lebanese journalist and Coach Jad Yatim, can also be traced back to the news coming from areas controlled by the Syrian regime, the opposition or foreign forces and that cannot be verified on the ground. This factor has led to fuelling rumors and fake news that spread eminently through social media.
“The role of the media in reducing the spread of rumors is based on checking the story and finding out whether the details are logical or not” Yatim said, referring to steps that must be followed in newsrooms starting mainly with identifying the editor’s knowledge of the subject.
Making headlines is a major engine for the creation of rumors. According to Yatim, the fact that inexperienced journalists rush to take the lead in the newsroom led to facilitating the spread of fake news, due to the lack of verification methods and recklessness when checking the accuracy of received information.
In 2015, a study conducted in the US, entitled Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content, reported that a wide range of digital media sites lack accuracy and contributed to spreading rumors, noting that not everything published on internet is necessarily true.
The study stated that “several news websites establish a reputation of quoting accurate sources, but the truth is that these digital media outlets mislead the public to gain more followers and draw attention to the website.”
Craig Silverman’s study, carried on by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, added that some media platforms had to deal with unverified news, but some other ones were hasty to publish fake news.
Yatim explained that digital media is lenient in reporting accurate and credible news unlike print media which tends to be more responsible as news published on actual newspapers cannot be deleted easily and without documentation.
In addition, he emphasized that diminishing rumors is done by having wise and composed person who can calm his inner urges, identify fake news and recognize the serious damage that it may cause.
In the aforementioned study, Silverman, who is a leading expert in media errors, fact-checking and inaccuracy, stated that most of the false news was published by the “new media outlets” or the yellow press. He also pointed out that “when false news is published on the Internet, the press must refer its readers back to it.” However, the denial of an incorrect story is rarely published.
“Verify-Sy”… Syrian platform fighting “Disinformation”
Since 2011, with the rapid proliferation of Syrian news on the Internet and social media, many misleading news and rumors have spread. This has triggered many moves and initiatives that aimed at correcting the information and providing a clearer version of the main and real news.
Verify-Sy platform was one of the projects that focused its work on combating rumors and misleading news. Although it has started in 2016, years after the flow of Syrian news, it has made great strides in searching for and dealing with misleading news.
The platform was founded in March 2016, and the purpose behind its establishment was to protect followers against disinformation or false information, especially with regard to the Syrian issue.
Journalist Ahmad Primo, the director of the platform, stated that the situation in Syria is witnessing international military and political polarization. Each party is seeking to win public opinion and making use of media war. This will give room to disinformation and the proliferation of false information.
He told Enab Baladi that the work of the platform starts with the monitoring team when it faces false news or misleading information, whether a text or image or video. He pointed out that there are no conditions for fact-checking, for “the wrong story must be denied and the follower must be provided with the correct information.”
The process of fact-checking at Verify-Sy platform involves two main methods. The first revolves around checking visual content using the tools provided by major search engines, such as reverse images search via Google search engine, or by previewing video recordings and verifying accent, language, and other criteria and factors, which help identify certain keywords that may eventually lead to finding the right information.
The second method requires the platform to contact field sources or eyewitnesses or through the platform group of correspondents deployed in several areas in Syria, and compare the information they provide in order to get the right news and information.
Primo explains that the work of Verify-Sy platform within the field of fact-checking in Syria makes them particularly important, in addition to the fact that such type of platforms represents a pressing need.
He believes that the fact that platform is complying with the standards of journalism acknowledged by the world’s leading media organizations has contributed to winning public trust.
Verify-Sy is a Syrian platform responsible for searching for disinformation and false news, correcting it and alerting readers. In addition to Verify-Sy, several other platforms have been established in the Arab world that operate following the same mechanism, including the Jordanian website “Akeed,” “Fatabyyano,” “Dabgad” and “Akhbarmeter” websites, as well as international experiences including the Check News page launched by Libération, and Les Décodeurs blog via Le Monde website.
Following its working mechanism, Verify-Sy is cooperating with Syrian and non-Syrian institutions. Primo stated: “We have no restrictions on communicating with any news media, as long as this may lead to improving Syrian journalism as well as the Syrian and non-Syrian media institutions’ credibility and respect for the reader … for rumor is an essential feature of all news related to Syria.”
The director of the platform believes that the funding of the media institution, its editorial policy and its location may play a role in dissemination of the information, even if it is wrong or its source was ignored or it was issued by the opposite party and does not serve the interest of the party the institution is supporting.
He pointed out that in order to disseminate information on a large scale one needs a media platform or social media website, which are sometimes more influential than media organizations.