Vlogging around Syria’s War

Syria’s war, perhaps unlike any other civil conflict this century, has been uniquely influenced by propaganda. That propaganda has exerted a crucial influence over the course of the war.

Propaganda from the regime of Bashar al-Assad underplayed the crimes of the state and emphasised the undesirability of the opposition. It called rebel fighters jihadists and terrorists, and justified regime cruelty in fighting them. Propaganda from the regime and its allies minimised the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and threw into doubt the reliability of reports of chemical attacks.

Without this element of doubt, fed by propaganda, Western powers may well have intervened in the summer of 2013 against Assad – and either limited the scale of his war or overthrown him entirely. Latterly, propaganda continued to tie rebels and jihadists together, and ensured that the global campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) did not also become a campaign against the Assad regime.

Years after the war’s central point, and long after the regime’s stay in power has been all but confirmed, the path taken by regime propaganda has forked. Now it wants legitimacy rather than survival, and the certainty of international capital which would ordinarily be denied to a government so closely tied to a destabilising war so full of crimes.

Hence a consistent push towards not only presenting Syria as a safe and civilised place, in contrast to the territory of its enemies, but also a country in need of repair.

A number of Western companies now offer tours of Syria, and the regime allows fixers to conduct foreign tourists and handpicked journalists around the country. But the regime’s media strategy, and those of its allies, always skewed towards new and social media – including the cultivation of a network of bloggers to take its side, and a spate of Twitter users to amplify its chosen messages.

Now this new media strategy has begun to include a less obviously partisan sub-group: those who make videos of themselves travelling the world for YouTube.

This is not an untapped market. In 2016, and since, North Korea has used a number of foreign and domestic vloggers to present a more favourable side of its dictatorship. One of those who has recorded videos about North Korea aimed at ‘chang[ing] your perception’ of the country is a YouTuber called Drew Binsky.

Binsky is now journeying around Syria, taking a familiar tack. In one video, Binsky says Syria is not at all as people in the West see on their TV screens or in their newspapers. He presents Syria as a fun tourist destination filled with happy people, amid the devastation. His interviews feature carefully chosen locals, but also include a mayor and militia leader, representing the fascist Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP).

The mayor thanks Russian bombers, which have been documented committing extensive war crimes, for their efforts; and he echoes the regime in asking the international community to free up money to rebuild the Syrian state.

This sort of soft propaganda uses new media ‘creators’ to undermine news reports about human rights-abusing countries to the interest of the governments which abuse those rights. It presents the country as still worth a visit despite the crimes of its governments, and minimises those crimes in the process.

Noor Nahas, an independent open-source researcher, said: ‘I’d consider this subtle propaganda whitewashing. These vloggers always have a need to produce new and unique content, so organizations are taking advantage of that to create positive media for regimes.’

The desire to produce content makes ethical considerations fall by the wayside. It emphasises the trivial over the grave.

‘I do find it offensive especially if the vlogger is in on the whole thing’, Nahas said. ‘If they’re not, it’s just sad and disappointing for them, and to be expected from the regime’.

These videos do not educate the world about Syria. They assist the country’s leaders in disseminating their propaganda in soft-focus.

‘I think [Binsky] is a useful idiot’, Nahas said. ‘From how I’ve seen him handle himself in Syria and other videos, Drew isn’t exactly the smartest person and doesn’t seem to learn or know anything about the places he visits. He considers Brunei a dictatorship that he doesn’t recommend people to visit due to his bad experiences there, while recommending Syria completely.’

Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in communications, media and culture at Stirling University, said: ‘in 1943 Dresden or Heidelberg were as beautiful as they have ever been. But if we discovered now that there was some British or American travel writer there at the time reviewing cafes or praising architecture we would rightly be revolted. So tourism is not a neutral thing. There is a difference between visiting Dresden today and visiting Dresden then.’

‘The context determines whether it was travel or complicity’, Ahmad said. ‘What makes such tourism particularly egregious is that it is happened at a time when over half of Syria’s population remain displaced and millions don’t have the right to visit their own homes.’

Wittingly or not, travel vloggers enter Syria at the behest of the regime and capture what it wants them to see. Changing foreigners’ perceptions of a land at war may seem a noble endeavour, but in practice, in Syria, it means adopting and broadcasting the views of those responsible.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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