Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Syrian Digital Activism in the NYTimes

This morning, in the New York Times of all places, is a good article highlighting Syria’s pervasive Internet censorship.  The premise is this: a disturbing (though not particularly graphic, as the Times suggests) video of teachers beating their young students is put up on Facebook (which Facebook, shockingly but to their credit, doesn’t remove for a TOS violation); then, despite Facebook being filtered by the Syrian government, the video and Facebook group go viral, people get angry, and the end result is Education Ministry moving the teachers to desk jobs (which, as my Syrian partner points out, is not that surprising; Syria, for all its faults, takes child abuse very seriously).

This is, indeed, a fascinating example of a successful social media campaign that has nothing to do with democracy or regime change.  I note that because, at last week’s Google Internet Liberty at 2010 conference, this was a point of contention amongst attendees, particularly those from India, who felt that much of the focus on digital activism is geared toward democracy and regime change (a point with which I would have to agree).

The article also quotes Khaled el-Ekhteyar of All4Syria.info, a site with which I am quite familiar: “Asked who his audience was, Mr. Ekhetyar paused and said with a weary smile, ‘My friends and the secret police.’”  Ekhteyar may very well be right; All4Syria is blocked in the country (or was at last check, anyway) due to its fairly controversial and sensitive coverage (the site is known for interviewing bloggers upon their release from prison, for one).

Kudos also to the author for mentioning currently-detained young blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, whose crime, it seems, is asking why her government hasn’t done more for the Palestinians (the campaign hub to free Tal is located here).

Now, on to a comment about Monday’s post, in which I stated that “digital activism” and “traditional activism” were false poles.  In Syria, where a great number of the methods of traditional activism are stifled, it often makes sense to take causes online, despite pervasive government-level filtering, low Internet penetration, and US export controls that limit which communications tools Syrians have access to.  Thus, activism has gone digital.  No need for distinction.  As my friend Mohammad Ali Abdullah put it nicely: “The Internet in Syria is a bit like the samizdat publications were under the Soviet Union”.

The story of Tal Al-Mallouhi’s imprisonment would not have become widespread were it not for the Internet; now she’s in the New York Times. And no doubt, when it comes to the nine month imprisonment of a teenage girl for something she said on her blog, that Internet penetration rate expands well beyond 17% as net users share their findings with non-net users.

One note, however: An anonymous Internet user in Damascus stated for the Times that “Without Facebook no one would have known about [the incident involving teachers beating students].”  Just as I mentioned in my last post, we shouldn’t pretend that we would be nowhere were it not for Facebook or Twitter.  We can applaud the platforms, certainly, but let’s also remember that they are third-party platforms with their own rules and terms.  And again, who’s to say such a video couldn’t have gone viral ten years ago via e-mail?  Sure, Facebook gives it broader reach, but so does a WordPress blog.  This should not be about individual platforms (which sure, are great, and I love Twitter as much as–no, probably much more than–the next person), but about the individuals who find innovative ways to get information out into the world, regardless of which platform they choose.

5 Comments

  1. Jillian — thanks! This sort of thing is what I mentioned in my comments to the earlier blog post, that the best hope for “digital activism” in nonfree societies is exposing this sort of local corruption.

    I would hope that this article gets a tenth of the attention as Gladwell’s train wreck does.

  2. Dear Jullian
    syrian people are reading the website for sure
    we have 1000 readers according to google analytics enter directly whom i assume the ministers and the palace and the intelligence
    also we have thousands enter through proxy we cannot estimate their number from the 15000 visitor we have daily
    plus we are sending 17000 newsletter daily to syrian inside whom they whish to receive all the info we published by email because the website is blocked in syria due to its writing about the corruption of big officials and providing platform for the syrian civil society
    thank u and if u have any question pls do not hesitate to contact me

  3. Important facts and Excellent style you got on your blog! I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the things you submit! Thumbs up

  4. Really liked this piece, Jillian.

    Democracy is about much more than just elections – citizens having the power and the right to hold public officials accountable is also an essential aspect of democracy. It appears to be happening occasionally in Syria, despite the government’s best efforts to block the many online tools that can facilitate such citizen oversight.

    I was thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece as I read this, and how he missed the point on at least one major aspect of social media – information sharing. Social media shouldn’t just be judged on how effectively it gets people into the streets or convinces them to sign a petition – raising awareness and drawing attention to wrong or evil acts is also useful. It can embarrass the perpetrators and oblige them to correct their course (as in the Syrian case).

    Social media isn’t going to save mankind overnight, but it does offer ordinary citizens a unique and powerful set of tools.

  5. These types of videos are surfacing after that video was published…
    1. A teacher directing his students to hit each other
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1X_0wJKr84
    2. A group of some students’ drivers (which is popular in Syria for those close to the gov) at Int’l University in Damascus hitting (to bleed) the university director because he had an argument with a daughter of a high-profile person in Syria. Again, this person was taken by state security for a few months, accused of espionage and money laundry, then deported (he was an Iraqi refugee)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=la9jOw9c3vs
    Original article: http://all4syria.info/content/view/33686/80/

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