Of all current conflicts, Syria's civil war is the most difficult for journalists to cover. The difficulty of reporting its initial phases, when the primary risk factor was government bombardment, has been eclipsed by the rise in formerly rebel-held areas of the Islamic State and its sleeper cells, whose ongoing policy of kidnapping and murdering members of the press has been harrowingly documented. Given the risk of covering Syria on the ground, much of the reporting has relied on the use of anonymous activists as sources, which presents its own problems.
This is also the first war to be fought as actively on social media as on the ground. First on Facebook and now overwhelmingly on Twitter, activists representing the government, various rebel factions, Kurdish YPG forces, and the Islamic State are engaged in a war to influence coverage in a campaign that owes as much to 4chan-style trolling as conventional "psychological operations" in its manipulation of information and emotional responses. Social media has become enough of a battleground for the US government to embroil itself, promoting an anti-terrorism Twitter feed called "Think Again Turn Away" with lackluster results.
Anyone who has followed the Syrian conflict closely on Twitter knows the @ShamiWitness account. Initially functioning as a pro-rebel feed that dealt affably with journalists, ShamiWitness slowly mutated into the greatest single source of pro-Islamic State propaganda on Anglophone Twitter, inspiring a flurry of more radical followers. ShamiWitness slowly turned on the mainstream Syrian rebels he once lauded, agitating against secular and Islamist rebels alike — and even the Syrian al Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra — as "apostates" and "filth."
The account's influence cannot be underestimated. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) pointed to ShamiWitness as the single greatest "influencer" on militant jihadist Twitter, around whom foreign fighters and their fans would cluster.
"We found that of all the Twitter accounts that Western foreign fighters followed, he was by far the most important, popular, and influential one, with more than 60 percent of the foreign fighters in our sample following, re-tweeting, and/or mentioning him," ICSR director Peter Neumann told VICE News.
The rise and fall of the IS Twitter fanboys is a salutary lesson for journalists as much as wannabe militants.
ShamiWitness had well over 17,000 followers, and its operator was admired by young sympathizers and various disseminator accounts.
"He was the biggest player on the block, enjoyed the biggest following, and had tremendous influence," Shiraz Maher, an ICSR analyst, added. "I think it's ridiculous when he tries to play down his prominence. He knew what he was, and what he was doing. Shami radicalized, inspired, motivated, encouraged, and incited scores of people on Twitter. Some of them ended up traveling to Syria and joining Islamic State, while others took inspiration from his model of providing support to Islamic State from abroad. It was a way they could help further the group's aims without actually having to be on the ground."
The man behind ShamiWitness presented himself as a kind of jihadist Scarlet Pimpernel, frequently advising his fans on internet security and deflecting questions on his own geographical whereabouts. But unfortunately for him, his own internet security was eventually fatally compromised.
On Thursday, Britain's Channel 4 News unmasked ShamiWitness by exploiting a security gap in an earlier Twitter account, @elsaltadoro. While he had once represented himself through hints and direct messages as a Libyan exile and an expert analyst on the Libyan civil war, not least through his use of the image of the Libyan resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar as an avatar, the truth was far more prosaic: he was actually an office worker in Bangalore, India.
The man allegedly behind the account, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, was arrested Saturday for "waging a war or abetting the waging of war against powers friendly to India," according to a CNN report that cited statements from the Bangalore police commissioner. Bangalore police also confirmed the arrest in a Facebook post.
While ShamiWitness had reviled non-Islamic State militants fighting in Syria as apostates and traitors, his Facebook account showed him enjoying Hawaiian-themed parties and pizza get-togethers with his office buddies, far from the mud and gore of the Syrian battlefields.
On the face of it, this is open hypocrisy. But many analysts see an important distinction between those actively fighting in Syria and those calling for others to do so.
"An actual member of Islamic State is on the ground and has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/Islamic State," Maher emphasized. "Fanboys on the internet are just that, informal virtual warriors."
"Most internet supporters are what I would call 'fanboys,' and they are still several steps away from becoming members," echoed Neumann. "Regarding Shami, he was a very prominent and influential supporter but he was probably not a member. That, however, doesn't make him unimportant, nor does it render his behavior unproblematic."
ShamiWitness's meteoric rise to internet fame, coupled with the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the Islamic State over the summer, inspired a flurry of younger, more radical imitators, including the various accounts attributed to @ghazishami — perhaps the second most important disseminator of Islamic State propaganda on English-speaking social media.
Ghazishami is a curious case. A teenage schoolboy in the UK, with notably lax internet security — he used to use a selfie of his own weakly-bearded face as his profile pic, and linked openly to Instagram and Ask.fm accounts that showed him in school uniform, threatening to behead his teachers — he would nevertheless enthusiastically encourage the murder of captive Western journalists, Shias, Kurds, and Alawites using various handles and accounts.
Whereas ShamiWitness for the most part cautiously avoided breaching hate speech laws, Ghazishami flagrantly abused them. Eventually, Ghazishami won the enmity of actual Islamic State fighters for assuming a dominant role in pro-IS Twitter while frequently making excuses for never actually joining them.
On one level, this is just a spat between teenage boys on the internet, though with the added distinction that some of the teenagers in question are armed militants in the Middle East and others are besotted fanboys who had drunken so deeply from the Islamic State Kool-Aid that their trolling got them on the radar of the security services.
In the case of ShamiWitness, it is unclear whether or not he actually broke any laws, and therefore whether his unveiling as a beardless Twitter cheerleader is merely an embarrassment to him rather than a public service to humanity. Indeed, the disruption of these accounts might possibly have inadvertently made the process of tracking jihadists more difficult.
Following wider media awareness of the role of social media in IS recruitment and propaganda, the continued existence of both the ShamiWitness and Ghazishami accounts raised suspicions among both jihadists and analysts that they were being allowed to remain functioning as honeypots for the security services, allowing intelligence analysts to track would-be recruits and their networks with ease.
Through their own vanity and lust for retweets, accounts like Shamiwitness and Ghazishami might well have presented an easy route to the networks of more committed jihadists, tracking them from their initial phase of curiosity through their migration into the heart of the Islamic State. In this regard, it is unclear whether the deactivation of these accounts, though an admirable feat of journalistic research, possibly compromised the fight against the group.
The rise and fall of the IS Twitter fanboys is a salutary lesson for journalists as much as wannabe militants. As the pro-Assad government Twitter personality @partisangirl points out, journalists often cited ShamiWitness, an Indian office worker, as an impassioned voice of the Syrian opposition.
"How about when he was quoted in a Telegraph headline about something as important as the US-Russia deal on Syria?" she asked. "They said he was an activist and it was implied that he spoke for Syrians in his comment. Whether you're a middle-aged American man living in Scotland called Tom McMaster pretending to be a gay girl in Damascus or an Indian man living in Bangalore pretending to be a Syrian witness, if you happen to oppose Assad, you're going to get quoted far more in the media than actual Syrians."
The Syrian war is primarily a tragedy for the Syrian people, roughly 200,000 of whom, on all sides and none, have been killed as of April, according to a United Nations estimate released in August. And yet it is also an internet spectacle in which the voices of analysts, hoaxers, and fanboys located far from the bloodshed are often heard louder than those of the people on the ground.
The rise and fall of ShamiWitness and his adolescent imitators are both a symptom and a consequence of the war on actual journalism practiced by both the government and jihadist groups within Syria. In a conflict where journalists are targets as never before, the proliferation of partisan aggregators of propaganda remains unstoppable.
Follow Aris Roussinos on Twitter: @arisroussinos
Photo via Bangalore City Police/Facebook