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Is Facebook Censoring the Syrian Opposition?

Anti-Assad activists feel like their freedom of speech has been taken away.
06 marts 2014, 7:00amUpdated on 06 marts 2014, 1:42pm

All images via the author

Last December, a woman from the Syrian community in Toronto reached out to me for help after a Syrian opposition Facebook page, for which she was an administrator, was expunged from the internet. She told me that Facebook had deleted the page – called "Likes for Syria" – in mid-December, by which time it had garnered more than 80,000 Likes.

Several Syrian Canadians had organised the page shortly after the revolution in Syria began, back in 2011, and used it as a tool for posting news stories about the crisis, spreading messages of hope and creating awareness in the Western world – something that many feel is desperately needed.

“We feel like our freedom of speech has been totally taken away,” said Faris Alshawaf, another administrator at Likes for Syria. “We have a right to talk about what is happening.” Facebook had removed the page once before, but quickly republished it after administrators made an appeal. Just days later, Facebook deleted the page a second time.

But Likes for Syria is hardly alone. In the past six months, Facebook has deleted dozens of opposition pages – including one started by Syrian youth roughly a month before the revolution begun – because they allegedly violate the company's Community Standards policy and Terms of Use agreement. Two weeks ago, the Atlantic reported that Facebook opposition pages were disappearing. While I was doing more research into the issue, Facebook took down another page. This time, it erased the Syrian Coalition page, a move that shocked administrators and caused panic in the Syrian community, as it was seen as one of the most important pages of the revolution. People from the Syrian community reached out to me again and sent me screenshot images of what had been reported to Facebook. It seemed clear that many of the images would have been very hard to take offence to, and were not violent in nature.

Now, Facebook finds itself in an extraordinarily complicated situation. Its role as the world’s biggest social platform has hit a serious stumbling block and put the company in a position where its actions are affecting a civil war. The UN has reported that the conflict has already taken more than 100,000 lives. Facebook has become responsible for globally policing its users, many of whom are now part of increasingly violent revolutions whose messages are breaking company policies, but who have come to rely on Facebook to share information.

I can attest to interviewing people in hiding over Facebook chat for stories I’ve worked on. Last spring, for example, we interviewed a man named Louay Sakka, who, from his home in Ontario, has played a vital role in facilitating communications for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) using social media platforms like Facebook.

All over the country, media centres have been established where displaced Syrians and rebels can hop onto a revolutionary Facebook page and communicate what is happening and where. To me, Sakka’s role in helping rebels unite halfway across the world seemed pretty outrageous at the time, but this is partly how the revolution has worked.

I reached out to the Syrian Support Group (SSG) – one of the few North American organisations able to provide help to Syria – to see if they had been affected. According to spokesman Dan Layman, who works very closely with the moderate members of the FSA and the US State Department to facilitate aid to moderate members of the opposition, they had. Layman says SSG was working on the English translation of the Supreme Military Council’s (SMC) Facebook page, which was previously the moderate command structure for the majority of FSA groups. But it has been taken down, while the Arab page remains posted.

“This is really affecting us, because we have used these pages to help deliver the messages of what is happening in Syria to the Western world, and to communicate with members of the moderate opposition in Syria,” Layman told me. He had reached out to the US State Department to try to determine what happened, and was told that Facebook had its own group of employees scrolling through the pages, looking for red flags that might promote violence or coarse language.

“I think what is happening is that Facebook has determined that some of the things we were posting were promoting violence, when really we're just trying to explain what is happening. The opposition are not terrorists,” said Layman. Part of his work is translating messages from Arabic to English, such as: “In Damascus, there were four bombings and many martyrs.” It’s possible that someone at Facebook thought the language was offensive, but no one knows for sure. “The revolutionary page was the easiest way to get the Supreme Military Council’s position out directly to Western media," Layman said.

Many people in this community believe that the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has been behind a vast majority of the reporting and are in part to blame for the removal of these pages. The SEA is believed to work closely with the Assad regime, though they steadfastly deny it. Regardless, they have proven to be an intelligent electronic force that has claimed to hack systems such as Skype and Twitter.

Last December, the SEA posted that they would be working towards having all opposition pages deleted, though the group have since deleted that message. Whether they are behind it or not, these pages are coming down at a rapid rate. An internet-security expert – who requested anonymity – told me that, if you were to draw a line from the Facebook pages being taken down and images being reported, it would likely lead to the SEA.

Although the SEA clearly attempts to orchestrate mass report campaigns, which result in the review of flagged content, Facebook has improved its monitoring of mass reporting and clearly believes that the buck stops with the humans who review content for Terms of Service violations. The expert did not believe that mass reports alone could force page takedowns.

Obviously Facebook can’t be blamed for what's happening in Syria, but there is now a need for them to respond to their role in the revolution and what might happen next. Could they try to shut down revolution talks completely? The social site is available to anyone over 13 years old, so there are obvious reasons why they would want to keep content clean. But many of the images that have been reported and deleted on the opposition’s pages were warning people about the locations of reported bomb detonations. Other deleted messages included reports from the UN that notified the outside world about the state of the conflict. People like Alshawaf have family in Syria and no real way to connect with them, except through social media.

I spoke to Linda Griffin, head of policy communications for Facebook in London, the same day the Syrian Coalition page was deleted. There's no doubt that Facebook is in a difficult position in this complicated situation, and she seemed aware that these pages played a significant role for communication and connection. Griffin denied that the SEA had hacked Facebook, stating they learned early on in the platform’s history that people would try to abuse the system this way. She explained that if a page repeatedly breaches the rules, it would be shut, and that it doesn’t matter if it has been reported one time or 1,000.

Shortly after our conversation, I sent over the screenshot images I'd received from the administrators of the Syrian Coalition page and asked her to explain how they broke the Terms of Use for Facebook. The following morning, I received an email letting me know Facebook had made a mistake with the Syrian Coalition page, and that they had put the page back up.

This was considered a relief for many, but administrators for Likes for Syria and the English version of SMC want their pages reinstated, too. Combined, they had over 300,000 followers and experienced the same problems the Syrian Coalition page had. They have now started an online petition asking Facebook to stop its censorship.

All the administrators I spoke to are aware of what will break the Terms of Use agreement with Facebook and say they're trying to avoid this. One of the Terms of Use that is likely being broken is that nudity is not allowed on the site. Many of these pages will often post pictures of emaciated children and adults, and the images are taken down. Unfortunately, these are the images of war.

There are very few journalists working in Syria because it's currently too dangerous (though you can watch our Ground Zero: Syria series here), and there are even fewer methods of translating to the Western world what's actually happening there. So in the absence of journalists, Facebook has become the primary tool of communication to the outside world. Therefore, when Facebook decides to delete a page, it’s deleting one of the few tunnels the opposition has to access those outside of Syria.

“In doing that, and taking down the content, they are kind of doing the moderate forces a disservice. It’s not terrorism at all – they are taking down the pages of people who are directly fighting the al Qaeda–affiliated rebels," said Layman. "Someone at Facebook is missing the point.”

At one time, Facebook saw its involvement in the Arab Spring as something to be proud of. In fact, even founder and CEOMark Zuckerberg had discussed how his social media platform was a useful tool; in 2012, Reuters reported that, shortly after Zuckerberg filed papers to raise over $5 billion (£3 billion) as Facebook went public, he sent an open letter to prospective investors. In it, he wrote:

“We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

This could no doubt become a PR nightmare for the billion-dollar company. But while Facebook figures out how to handle what’s next, revolutionaries who have come to rely on the platform for connecting and communicating will need to tread very carefully and possibly start considering alternative options. The question now is where will the revolution go?

I spoke to Sami, an administrator for the Syrian Revolution page, who asked that we not use his last name. He told me their page "was created by a group of Syrian youth who had an old dream to live in freedom, just like most other people do... That’s why we made this page, so it could be the main engine driving our demands for freedom and democracy”. Sami explained that, on Fridays, the page would call on people to pick a word and then people all over Syria would hold up signs with that word to see who was on their side. “When Facebook takes this page down, it creates great confusion with this type of thing.”

Sami says many feel the world has started to turn its back on them, despite the evidence of Assad’s crimes, but that they will continue to get their messages out. “This will not make us stop on going [sic] on our way to freedom and justice, we will still re-build our destroyed country. We are made of will and determination."

Follow Angela on Twitter: @angelamaries