June 20, 2022

Social media companies failing to tackle harmful disinformation on Syria, new report shows

A new report by The Syria Campaign details how the failure to stop lies spreading online about the conflict in Syria has impacted people’s lives and government policies with devastating consequences. 

The report, Deadly Disinformation: How online conspiracies about Syria cause real-world harm reveals how human rights defenders, victims of war crimes, journalists and humanitarians on the frontlines in Syria have endured seven years of harassment and hate-filled disinformation attacks, in some cases endangering their lives. It also highlights how governments and social media companies have failed to stem this relentless tide of harmful attacks.

The report is based on data analysis by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, who examined tens of thousands of tweets between 2015 and 2021, as well as interviews with people targeted by disinformation, policy-makers and policy experts. It traces a timeline of disinformation to illustrate its human cost and its impact on political decision-making over Syria. 

Policymakers interviewed for the report said systematic disinformation attacks stalled decision-making over Syria in the face of egregious war crimes, leading governments to shirk their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities.

The report identifies 10 key impacts in the real world, and urges governments and social media platforms to take urgent action to stop disinformation over Syria. 

Human and political cost of disinformation 

Despite overwhelming evidence that the Syrian regime has carried out crimes against humanity, systematic torture, used chemical weapons and indiscriminately bombed civilians, a small number of conspiracy theorists – sometimes aided by a Russian-backed disinformation campaign, other times inspired by Russia’s disinformation talking points – have distorted the facts, endangering peoples lives and casting doubts about events on the ground. 

Frontline rescue workers, doctors and human rights defenders speaking out against atrocities by the regime have been labelled terrorists or liars and faced online harassment and smear campaigns. The traumatic experiences of survivors of chemical weapon attacks have been cruelly mocked. This has taken a devastating emotional and psychological toll on those targeted.

Hamid Kutini, White Helmets volunteer, Northwest Syria described the shadow that disinformation has cast over his life: 

“I live in constant fear of going home and never seeing my family or hearing their voices again. I am committed to saving lives, and they are targeting us for that. This constant fear makes me feel under pressure all the time, such that I could collapse at any moment.”

As well as endangering the lives of courageous humanitarian workers and stalling international action on Syria, the report finds that disinformation on Syria has legitimized anti-refugee policies, emboldened Russia to pursue its shameless use of disinformation tactics during the war in Ukraine and made a mockery of international law and institutions. 

Disinformation also threatens to rewrite history by twisting the truth and denying war crimes ever took place, with dangerous implications for the pursuit of justice for these crimes. 

Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign, said: 

For far too long, disinformation has been systematically used by the Assad regime and Russia to cover up their war crimes in Syria and deny the role they have played in civilian suffering.

“Yet for more than seven years social media companies have done next to nothing to stop the spread of these harmful lies. We have seen how Twitter, Facebook and others have stepped up their efforts and deployed additional resources to tackle disinformation in other contexts including the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. They must now take urgent steps to protect Syria’s humanitarian workers and human rights defenders from Russian-backed and inspired disinformation.

“The truth really matters if justice and accountability is to be achieved it is vital that documentation and memory of war crimes is not wiped out.” 

To find out more visit: https://deadlydisinformation.org/ 

Take action to demand social media companies to do more to end disinformation on Syria: