Even in the middle of a civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made time to hold hospital patients’ hands while his blue-jeaned wife helps in soup kitchens. At least, that’s how Syria appears on Assad’s account with Instagram, the photo-sharing website.
From the narratives of Thucydides and Homer to U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s World War II radio orations to videos of Syrian civilians gasping for breath on Google Inc.’s YouTube, the media have always been tools of statecraft, stagecraft and war. Now Facebook Inc. and its Instagram application, Twitter Inc. and 24-hour cable news are leveling the playing field among nations, boosting the role of public opinion and accelerating the tempo of war and diplomacy.
Assad, always impeccably attired, appeared in an interview that aired last night on Fox News, and he uses Instagram to appeal to his supporters and counter President Barack Obama’s portrayal of him as a bloodthirsty dictator. Russia’s Foreign Ministry uses Twitter, newspapers and television to oppose U.S. action in Syria. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is using social media, as well as an NBC interview broadcast yesterday, to portray himself as a moderate successor to the erratic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Governments have always used media” in conflicts, said Christopher Steinitz, a Middle East analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, a policy group in Alexandria, Virginia. “Now social media are amplifying those dynamics. It’s a force multiplier,” Steinitz said, using military terminology.
Social media provide “a new landscape for creating and transforming narratives that governments are just learning to use,” Steinitz said, and “they do increase the clock speed at which people have to react. They increase the pressure.”
Nineteenth and 20th-century media still have their roles. Round-the-clock operations such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC in the U.S., Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya are important outlets. The Obama administration mounted a blitz of television appearances to make its case for action against Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a New York Times opinion piece to argue against U.S. intervention, presenting himself to his own public as a bulwark against U.S. aggression.
“When you see high officials distributing that kind of thing, it’s an information war,” said Alec Ross, the senior adviser for innovation under former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ross said the Assad regime is making sophisticated use of media by deploying propagandists; cyber-warriors such as the Syrian Electronic Army, which has hacked U.S. newspaper websites including that of the New York Times; and public-relations experts who orchestrate Assad’s TV appearances.
It’s no surprise that “the Assad government and Russian government have made a concerted effort to get their voices into the American political dialogue,” Steinitz said.
Assad also needs to appeal to groups at home. He represents minority groups in Syria, including Christians and Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam, who fear they have a lot to lose if Assad goes.
“Even dictators need popular support or they end up hanging from lampposts,” Steinitz said. “He needs to show them he’s out there, fighting for them.”
Assad also uses his family on social media to rally his backers, said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
Assad’s Westernized wife Asma appears all over the Instagram account with tousled hair and wearing T-shirts. Swift pointed to a Facebook page attributed to Assad’s son Hafez where the 11-year-old called out the U.S. as cowardly.
The Syrian opposition has used the YouTube service of Mountain View, California-based Google to show videos depicting carnage it blames on Assad’s regime. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assembled a collection of the opposition videos to document the U.S. case that Assad used the nerve agent sarin in an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus.
Seven years after San Francisco-based Twitter was founded, terrorist groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and leaders including Assad and Rohani are using its short messages to speak to a world increasingly linked to social media through smartphones, tablets and modems.
Eighty-nine percent of people in the developing world have mobile phones, and 31 percent are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union based in Geneva. In the developed world, there are more mobile phones in use than there are users, and 77 percent of people are online, the groups says.
Old, New Media
With most “old-media” companies using “new-media” platforms such as websites, blogs and feeds on Twitter, which last week announced that it confidentially filed to go public with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the distinctions between the two have become meaningless, said Ross, the former Clinton adviser. “Today, they spin in the same orbit,” he said, and reinforce each other.
So when Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose aired last week on CBS, the Syrian leader’s Twitter feed echoed his comments in terse blasts for those who couldn’t watch. “#Assad: Opposition is different from terrorism,” one said.
Another read: “#Assad: An opposition, opposing a government by beheading, barbecuing heads and eating the hearts of your victim? Is that opposition?”
Hours later, the Obama administration retaliated with the same old media-new media punches. Obama told network TV audiences why the U.S. had to pressure Assad, and a barrage of White House postings on Twitter followed: “Obama: When dictators commit atrocities-they depend upon the world to look the other way.”
Ross, who’s writing a book about the future of globalization, sees an important distinction between new and old media.
“The formation of views is taking place on social media before it appears in print,” he said. The Obama White House is acutely aware of that difference and its importance “and is emphasizing social media in efforts where persuasion is the intent,” he said.
Despite the care with which the White House, the Assad regime, or the Russians design their media strategies, the 24-hour roar of social networks, news websites and cable TV make it “much more difficult to govern” or to control the storyline, Ross said.
With more than a billion people using Menlo Park, California-based Facebook and more than 300 million “tweeting,” Ross said, news consumers are no longer passive recipients of information as they discuss events in real time and shape opinion.
“There’s a huge loss of control over narrative and an inability to command a message from on high in the way that was possible as recently as six or seven years ago,” Ross said.
In this environment, where media often emphasize the urgent over the important, the danger for a government preoccupied with message is losing sight of priorities, said Swift.
“A great example is how we have an agreement with the Russians on how to deal with chemical weapons in a civil war when we have no plans to deal with the civil war,” Swift said. “We’re so obsessed with the immediate term that we forget the central issue.”