Telegram channels in northern Syria: Uncontrolled incitement or tool against authorities

Leading figures and defendants in northern Syria whose cases were circulated in Telegram channels and groups (edited by Enab Baladi)

Leading figures and defendants in northern Syria whose cases were circulated in Telegram channels and groups (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Some Telegram channels and groups are active in northwestern Syria under different names and affiliations. These accounts are managed by unknown persons or entities, some of which are close to the armed factions or the de facto authorities ruling the region. 

Telegram channels that are named after cities, villages, towns, and military factions, with tens of thousands of followers, have been producing reports, news, photos, and video recordings that can move the concerned authorities and even the public opinion. This impact has the ability to create a state of tension or chaos around matters, some of which are related to public affairs, while others are private and personal, floated to the surface and taken out of their private sphere in an infringement on individual freedoms.

Some groups also post local corruption cases, opening room for subjective discussions, circulation of inaccurate information, and defamation. 

The way in which these issues are handled in these accounts draws attention to several factors, including the ability of these Telegram channels and groups to create a state of popular or social mobilization towards an issue, the volatile content, the control mechanism in cases of violations, and the responsibility of containing the impact of these mediums.

Exposing violations, corruption cases

Some Telegram channels keep abreast with daily events in northern Syria, pointing to the shortcomings in some service issues, or warning about the presence of some suspects or even suspicious vehicles and mechanisms, and contribute to pushing the local authorities to move, which led to the opening of several investigations after posting information or video recordings on these channels.

Some channels circulated video recordings of people who spoke about separate incidents of violations against themselves, related to royalties, extortion, kidnappings, arms sales, drug trafficking, and land seizures, which contributed to the condemnation of the leader of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amashat), Mohammed al-Jassem, also known as Abu Amsha, who escaped accountability eventually. 

The Telegram broadcasting mediums shed light on some violations, infringements, and manifestations of luxury for some faction leaders or their sons and publish the names and images of individuals accused of being involved in or standing behind these violations.

Walid al-Khuwailid, the son of the leader in the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), Adnan al-Khuwailid (Abu Walid al-Izza), posted videos of himself on his private social media accounts, only to find that some Telegram channels republished the same videos, which made them reach the public street that became enraged by the extravagance shown and called for accountability. 

The videos showed the young man riding horses in Aleppo countryside and luxurious cars with armed private security. He was also seen using light and heavy arms at a time when the region is being gripped by harsh living conditions. 

Threats, false information, and defamation

Some Telegram channels recently circulated a video of a teacher in the city of Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo, in which she showed her feet accompanied by a song. A few hours later, a decision was made to suspend the teacher from her work for the public good, according to what was mentioned in the decision. 

Some accounts viewed the decision as a victory and posted words that caused a wave of insults and ridicule against the teacher and her family.

The Director of Education in Azaz, Youssef Hajula, explained to Enab Baladi via e-mail that the suspension decision against the said teacher is temporary and that she is not dismissed as social media accounts claim. He also clarified that the teacher was referred to the Oversight Committee for questioning, and based on the questioning, a committee will be formed to decide in accordance with the established laws and regulations.

Some Telegram channels repeatedly published threats and warnings to young men or women to stop some practices that the admins of these channels considered “offensive.” The teacher’s neighborhood and street were named in some channels, and she was warned against publishing personal video recordings.

Moreover, many individuals, including military and civilian persons, were threatened with publishing “scandalous” details or images in public, in some kind of a defamation campaign that would stigmatize and haunt individuals throughout their lives, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

This was done by channels, local networks, and social media accounts close to the security services of the armed factions in the region, which publish photos and videos of those accused without a judicial or legal decision.

Media and judicial experts whom Enab Baladi previously contacted considered these cyberspace practices illegal and an invasion of privacy.  

There are active channels affiliated with people or parties whose policies align with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has military influence in Idlib, while other channels are linked to the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, which has military influence in the countryside of Aleppo.

These channels are tasked to attack the opposing faction and to bring accusations against it, including accusations of treason, association and normalization with the regime in secret, handing over “liberated” areas and subordination to external parties, creating a split in the ranks of the revolution, and managing smuggling operations through the crossings with the regime and the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The head of the Syrian Media Union in Aleppo countryside, Jalal Tallawi, told Enab Baladi that some Telegram channels had previously caused tension in the street without verifying the authenticity of the information they published.

Tallawi noted that there are people and groups in many areas that create channels for the purpose of mobilizing factions against each other, as “today everyone is able to create fake media accounts to slander a particular faction or government, and sometimes true news is circulated only with a poisonous touch,” Tallawi said.

Popular mobilization, more freedom

Ahmad Primo, a Syrian journalist and founder and executive director of the Verify-Sy platform, which is specialized in verifying information and press reports, told Enab Baladi that Telegram channels are very popular in northern Syria and can create popular and social mobilization and stir and incite public opinion on any issue of concern to society, especially the popular channels that have loyal followers.

Primo believes that these channels’ popularity can be attributed to the region’s military situation as a conflict zone witnessing many political, intellectual, and ideological interactions, as well as affiliation and subordination, pointing out that the majority of these channels are not funded under or follow political agendas.

He added that Telegram channels and groups can also have a positive aspect, as they allow more freedoms regarding crossing red lines for the residents of the regions.

The fact that such accounts can be established with an unknown phone number allows people to speak and expose violations by military militias or groups affiliated with other countries without fear, Primo said.

Many channels and groups depend on an unknown phone number, especially after the spread of what is known as American numbers, which are now available and accessible to everyone. Therefore, anyone can create a Telegram channel and publish information, news, and topics that may be considered red lines.

Users publish different issues on those channels, which are very popular among the northern Syrian public because they do not require high internet speed, with the Telegram application adding several features for admins of channels and groups in the interaction and commenting section.

According to Primo, Telegram is the Facebook of northern Syria because people are thirsty for knowledge, news, and information and for expressing opinions and commenting on everything related to their lives amid difficult and deteriorating living conditions, which these channels can provide thanks to their proliferation. 

He added that some channels are followed up and fought by the de-facto authorities, especially those that contributed to exposing violations and crimes that were committed in the name of the Syrian revolution and the military factions affiliated with the opposition.

“A curse without control”

Primo told Enab Baladi that the Telegram channels and groups could turn into a curse when used to incite violence and hatred, broadcast false information, and inflame the public opinion against unverified issues, especially the sensitive social ones involving women and other people’s private matters.    

As for Tallawi, he said that some Telegram channels and groups’ moral standards are very law, posting insults, invading privacy, and criticizing people’s actions in a way that stirs up hatred against them under the pretext of not respecting society or taking into account its special circumstances. 

Such practices caused a negative response on the part of people against these channels and groups, Tallawi added. 

Primo pointed out that it became difficult to monitor or control these platforms as they are founded by unknown people using foreign phone numbers distributed for free online.

The only way to reveal the identity of the owners of such accounts is to contact the Telegram app management team under a judicial order, which cannot be done in the Arab world except in Dubai, which contains a headquarter for the company managing the Telegram application. 

Primo also indicated that sometimes the ignorance of the account owners of digital security puts them at risk of hacking operations through malicious links that allow the hacker to get information and identify the IP address, the digital identifier of the device that runs the internet activity.

The information verification expert said that identifying account holders through hacking links is illegal and dangerous, especially when the accounts attacked are the ones publishing information exposing violations of the de-facto authorities controlling the northern regions.

Coordination moves the street

Despite the existence of many Telegram channels and groups of thousands of followers, Primo believes that northern Syria is not governed by Telegram channels run by de-facto authorities or those close to them. The incident, when a person was released from detention two weeks ago, in the city of al-Bab in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, despite being linked to the Syrian regime, proved that the northern region’s population is able to coordinate a protest movement to express their anger and demands.

The protests would not have taken place if it was not for the coordination done through private Telegram groups, which exposed the release of the man and circulated the news and the calls for protesting among them.

On 18 May, the Military Police in the city of al-Bab released a man who confessed to committing acts of murder and rape under the regime’s orders, after paying a fine of 1,500 US dollars and with the mediation of a leader in the Syrian National Army.

Even though the Military Police re-arrested the young man, hours later, the incident angered the locals, and the Telegram channels and groups contributed to broadcasting the demonstrators’ statements and showed the sit-in tent that was erected after the incident.

The protesting activists issued several statements demanding accountability, that were published on Telegram and reached the rest of the areas that participated in the protests at the time.

Primo mentioned that there are organized groups in the northern region established under different names by displaced people or entities and parties on the ground through representatives. These groups hold elections in which both the city and the countryside are represented.  

Quicker access to information… awareness, concise content

According to Primo, Telegram channels and groups cannot be controlled at the present time, as it is the era of user-generated content or journalism, which has an influence that matches and competes in access and not in quality, the largest media organizations that have a long history in the content industry and providing news.

Admins are able to reach a large segment of people by posting topics that are prohibited or not circulating or information the publishing policies of media organizations do not allow their publication.

Many Arab media organizations in general, and Syrians in particular, have not yet been able to keep pace with the transformations affecting journalism by presenting brief content that reaches readers wherever they are in a smooth manner, as some media outlets are still concerned with matters that readers are tired of. Today’s audience is more inclined to follow news on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. 

To address this issue, Primo recommended developing some strategies to deliver concise content to followers or readers to keep them away from content creators that use social media to spread malice, hatred, and false information. 

Although most countries are heading towards enacting laws and legislation to control the content provided and created by social media users by banning the dissemination of unverified information, the matter cannot be contained, according to Primo.

The attempts to monitor content on social media have sparked great controversy among human rights organizations that defend freedom of opinion and expression before governments alleging that these laws are designed to control cybercrime.

For his part, Tallawi said that the only means to deal with the phenomenon of Telegram channels and groups in northern Syria and their misleading information is by raising awareness through official pages and activists on the ground and establishing special groups for each city or town to follow up on issues of interest to the residents.

Tallawi indicated that some accounts could follow alternative ways to resolve any dispute or deliver any message, without any violation of privacy, as revealing the identity of the account owners does no harm but instead proves the credibility of information published and is a sign of good intent. 

Tallawi ruled out that Telegram channels and groups established under fake numbers or names would constitute a popular or social base at the present time because, over the years, people learned to question all news and rumors by resorting to trustworthy sources or accounts founded by credible locals.

 

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