Raqqa: “Psychological war” fueled by rumors

An aerial view of the clock tower square in the center of Raqqa, northeastern Syria - 6 December 2022 (AFP)

An aerial view of the clock tower square in the center of Raqqa, northeastern Syria - 6 December 2022 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Raqqa

The prospect of any military operation in northeastern Syria, with political change in the region, is a fertile environment for widespread rumors and false news about the nature, timing, and gravity of the military operation and its security, social, and livelihood effects on the population, especially given the interest of most of them in information related to this news, which directly affects their daily decisions and the arrangement of their fates.

These rumors are causing panic and fear among the residents, while the Autonomous Administration (AANES) operating in the area is held responsible for confronting this misinformation.

Why are rumors spreading?

Civil activist Imad Darwish, 32, a resident in the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa, considers individuals’ lack of confidence in the ruling authority the main reason for spreading rumors in his city and other areas of northeastern Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are militarily dominant.

“Fear of the ruling authority and lack of confidence in it, along with its confused decisions, reinforce the spread of rumors in its regions, particularly those related to political and security matters directly related to the lives of the population,” said the civil activist.

In a poll conducted by Enab Baladi in Raqqa, in which 15 people were surveyed, most of them agreed that the rate of rumors increases in the city about issues related to security and political matters.

According to the poll, most rumors speak primarily of the Syrian regime entering the region, SDF launching forced recruitment campaigns and carrying out security campaigns and arrests. This causes the cut-off of food and fuels.

Multiple parties in control

At the beginning of 2018, the scene of control in northeastern Syria became multi-faceted, belonging to different military and political references. The US-backed SDF controls the areas east of the Euphrates River, from the Turkish border to the Iraqi border in the east.

The Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias also control the area south of the Euphrates River from Manbij to al-Bukamal, with certain points north of the river. It maintains a presence in the center of the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli.

Islamic State’s sleeper cells are still active in separate areas of the desert, north of the river on the Iraqi border and south of the river, adjacent to regime-held areas.

Raqqa-based civil activist Fadi Hassan (33) believes that one of the main reasons behind the spread of rumors in the city is the multiplicity of parties in control over a period of time that can be described as historically short.

“The ambitions of the overlapping military parties highlight the need to spread rumors that are detrimental to the other party,” the activist told Enab Baladi.

“All parties look forward to extending their control over the region. In the absence of any military operations, these forces would deal the card of rumors to cause a psychological war that would weaken the other party’s control over its region,” he added.

The activist explained that the rumors adversely affect the lives and stability of the population, create negative psychological effects within society, and reinforce the political and military tension that the region has been experiencing for years, which can confuse the ruling authority, causing it to lose the ability to create a safe environment through which it strengthens and legitimizes its rule.

Several local activists have Facebook news pages. Among these activists is Fadi Hassan, who said, “Dozens of messages containing misleading and false information are received daily in the page’s mail, intended to cause a ruckus in a particular village or area for the benefit of one of the parties.” Upon refusal to post it, the activist is accused of treason.

Raqqa fell out of the control of the Syrian regime in March 2013 and was taken over by factions of the Syrian opposition. It then came under the control of Is from 2014 until late 2017, when it became SDF-held.

No unified national identity

Raqqa-based counseling psychologist, Ali al-Mohammad, considered that the city’s inhabitants had become “without a unified national identity as they lived in an intellectually, politically and socially disjointed society. This creates an atmosphere conducive to the creation and dissemination of rumors”.

“When society does not have a unified intellectual and political approach, it is difficult to confront the spread of rumors legally, and therefore it is easy to spread rumors, especially those that contain hate speech for a particular group or clan,” the counseling psychologist told Enab Baladi. In this case, a rumor turns into a “tool to systematically exclude and incite against individuals.”

The counseling psychologist believes that the best solution to end the state of societal disorder in the regions of northeastern Syria in general, and in Raqqa in particular, and the resulting negative social phenomena, including the spread of rumors, is to “create a unified cultural awareness according to well-thought-out approaches and plans to deal with people’s suffering from crises and wars.”

No law

Neither AANES laws nor its Charter of the Social Contract did address the term rumors or criminalize it as one of the instruments of incitement and negative profiling to spread hate speech in a region characterized by cultural, social, and nationality diversity. Thus, rumors may target a particular community or a segment of that community.

The Raqqa-based human rights activist, Abdullah al-Radi, considered that it was the duty of AANES, as a ruling authority in Raqqa and large areas of northeastern Syria, to introduce laws, legislation, and organs to pursue and punish rumor-mongers, or at least to refute such rumors.

According to the human rights activist, the lack of laws that deter those who tolerate spreading rumors, especially those affecting the security and stability of society, has led to societies’ leniency in disseminating and transmitting misinformation significantly and widely. The abandonment by some journalists and media activists of the ethics and rules of professional journalism in the region has also led to the spread of rumors even to media outlets representing official local authorities.

On 21 July, the head of AANES’ Defense Office, Zeidan Asi, dismissed rumors that the reason for the recent forced recruitment campaign was to bring fighters to potential fronts in the event that Turkey launched military action against AANES.

Speaking to AANES’ official website, the head of the Defense Office denied rumors that people required for conscription must be among those born between 1980 and 2004, considering that social media circulated absolutely incorrect information.

AANES officials’ dismissal of such rumors was not the first of its kind, as it has been repeated many times over the past years that AANES officials have gone public denying rumors and news circulated by residents on social media.

In 2015, an American study, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content,” spoke of a large number of electronic media lacking accuracy and contributing to spreading rumors, noting that not everything posted on the network is credible.

The study said that “a large number of electronic media contribute to misinformation to gross more visits to their sites and have more attention.”

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism added that the media had to process unverified news, but some were quick to spread falsehood.

 

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