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Syria's civil war plays out on social media

Sunday - 10/20/2013, 4:30pm  ET

ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Amid all the bloodshed, confusion and deadlock of Syria's civil war, one fact is emerging after 2½ years -- no conflict ever has been covered this way.

Amateur videographers -- anyone with a smartphone, Internet access and an eagerness to get a message out to the world -- have driven the world's outlook on the war through YouTube, Twitter and other social media.

The tens of thousands of videos have at times raised outrage over the crackdown by the regime of President Bashar Assad and also have sparked concern over alleged atrocities attributed to both sides.

The videos have also made more difficult the task of navigating between truth and propaganda -- with all sides using them to promote their cause. Assad opponents post the majority of videos, and nearly every rebel-held area or brigade has a media office that produces and disseminates them. To a lesser degree, regime supporters produce some videos -- but they also pick apart opposition videos, trying to show they are fake.

In the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War and the second Gulf War in 2003, foreign media directly covered the conflicts, often with reporters embedded with or accompanying the American military.

Media organizations, including The Associated Press, have sent teams to Syria to cover events directly, often at great risk. But they are for temporary stints and are limited both by government regulations and by war zone dangers, ranging from random bombardment to kidnappings. At least 28 journalists were killed in Syria in 2012.

That has forced international media to cover the war to a large extent from the outside, and the flow of videos is one element taken into account in the reporting.

The videos have undeniably ensured that details of a bloody conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and ravaged the country do not go unnoticed, providing a look at the horrors of war: villagers digging with through destroyed buildings with their bare hands for survivors; massacre victims in pools of blood; children with grave wounds from heavy bombardment.

"In the past, if the media wasn't there to cover an event, it was like it never happened," said Yuval Dror, head of the digital communication program at Israel's College of Management Academic Studies.

The phenomenon of amateurs chronicling the war themselves "is changing the rules of war," he said. "There are no restrictions. It's cheap, it's easy and you don't need permission from anyone to do it."

Magda Abu-Fadil, veteran journalist and director of the Beirut-based Media Unlimited, said that while some professionals in the field have covered the war, it has mostly been "citizen journalists, activists, warriors and anybody with a mobile device, Internet connection or functioning telephone line."

"We're being bombarded with messages from every direction at breakneck speed, the likes of which we've never seen before," she said.

The world's response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria was driven in part by opposition activists documenting a suspected sarin attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, with images of choking, convulsing victims, as well as the bodies of victims, including children. The Syrian government denied it was behind the attack, blaming it on extremists among the rebels.

The U.S. and its allies used those videos to build a case against Damascus, at first threatening to bomb Assad regime targets in retaliation, then agreeing to a compromise by which Syria would join the international treaty banning chemical weapons and give up a toxic arsenal it long kept secret.

The White House assessment on the attack cited more than 100 videos and "thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area," along with other U.S intelligence information. The report said the opposition "does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack."

Jamal Flitani, a 24-year-old video activist, was among those who rushed to Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma to record the aftermath of the attack.

"I honestly never thought our videos would be adopted by the U.S. administration and Western governments. ... We were simply doing our duty," he said.

Flitani is an engineering student, but when the uprising against Assad began in early 2011, he and his friends began shooting video of protests with their cellphones.

"Only after we saw similar videos and photos being used on satellite TVs and international agencies, only then did we start realizing the importance of our work," added Flitani, who now heads an opposition media office in Douma.

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