A civil defence rescue worker carries an injured child after an air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region, 19 February 2018 Getty Images

Programmatic Activism From Syria

A REVIEW OF THE TWEETS USING THE HASHTAG #SAVEGHOUTA.

Findings from our analysis of the ongoing tweet and retweet activity using the hashtag #saveGhouta help us understand programmatic behavior on Twitter in connection with the current war in Syria and the complexities of the information landscape.

This hashtag has been used in activist campaigns to bring the world's attention to Eastern Ghouta, an area on the outskirt of Syria's capital Damascus where armed rebel groups have been locked in a fight with the Syrian government forces besieging them. Both civilians and opposition fighters are entangled in this dense urban tissue, and civilian casualties from government airstrikes have been rapidly mounting. The tragedy of Ghouta is being promoted for fundraising purposes by groups based in the United States, such as the Syrian American Medical Society. The Society's Facebook verified page prominently features the hashtag on its cover photo and is currently holding fundraisers.


Upon returning to Washington from Syria in 2015, I closely followed the events going on back in Syria via the internet and social media. Connections I had made there regularly posted updates on what was happening in Syria on Facebook and Twitter.

At times, discerning facts from the information war could be a challenge. "This is a war," I thought, "and of course, warring parties will do their utmost to make sure that any piece of information they release will achieve the maximum impact for their cause and struggle." Syrian government channels labeled almost all opposition as "terrorists," while an Al Jazeera America executive told me in 2016 that he could not broadcast videos of opposition shelling of government-controlled part of Damascus.

It was in this context that last week Yasmina, who is originally from Damascus, now lives in Washington and working as an analyst of the Syrian conflict for leading organizations, John Gray, a social media researcher, and I looked into who was tweeting with the hashtag #saveGhouta, especially keeping an eye out for accounts that tweeted or retweeted using that particular hashtag a lot.

These events are taking place at a time when Americans have been reeling from revelations that Russia-aligned hackers had deployed networks of Twitter bots, i.e., automated fake accounts, to spread divisive content and junk news during and after the 2016 presidential election. It planted the seeds of doubts on the authenticity of any information published on social media.

In the wake of such phenomena against the American public following the 2016 presidential election, John and I were interested in the possibility that some of the accounts using this hashtag were bots as well. We were not the first to wonder this: the question of Twitter bots being used in the Syrian conflict had been raised by journalists as early as 2011. At the time, those interested in this possibility were looking at various government-aligned accounts that seemed aimed at discrediting anti-government activists. For example, The Guardian found that "pro-regime accounts have been set up to flood the pro-revolution narrative."

Accounts from which tweets using the #saveGhouta hashtag originated were mapped on select moments on February 23 and 24 of this year with the help of Mentionmapp, an analytical tool that John and his co-founder built.

John's research revealed that many accounts participating in the #saveGhouta campaign displayed a "bot-like" behavior.

He explained that a large number of the accounts tweeting or retweeting the hashtag #saveGhouta tweeted over fifty times per day, the definition of a programmatic activity, according to the Oxford Internet Institute. Some accounts even tweeted over one hundred times per day.

The finding that not all of the "propaganda" was being aimed at the people and coming from the government provided more insights into Twitter and the complexities of the information landscape. Clearly, if the Assad government could do it, why couldn't the opposition?

"If a public awareness campaign is getting fake accounts to amplify it via automation, should it bring into question the authenticity of that campaign?" I wondered.

In response to my musings, Yasmina did not deny the existence of fake accounts nor did she find them problematic. "The point is what," she challenged me, "[to show that] this is `all fake, a fake revolution? They are pro-revolution, especially this 'turtle lady' [TurtleWoman777, an account that tweeted 438 times a day on average]. Real people are being killed and real bombs have been targeting civilians and tweeting 50 times a day is not unusual."

She said there was "an agreed storm of hashtag campaign among the activists" around the current events in Eastern Ghouta.

All the same, in the light of events unfolding in the United States, I had to wonder whether the public ought to know when activists are deploying amplification bots in order to generate awareness for their campaign.

Should the Twitter's security algorithms somehow flag these bot accounts and inform the user?

If we expand our sample set, will we see the same kind of ratio of bots/non-bots?

A separate analysis could attempt to measure these accounts in terms of impact, engagement, or audience actions taken.

We will continue researching the Twitter hashtags connected with the Syrian conflict and report here.

Methodology and findings

Do tweets and retweets using the Twitter hashtag #saveGhouta display a 'bot-like' behavior, i.e. programmatic activity?

We looked at 2000 tweets that originated from 765 unique accounts collected at 10 specific moments in time Feb 23 and 24 and narrowed this data set to 88 accounts that had tweeted at least twice from this data set. Of these 88 accounts 42 exhibited bot-like behavior.

We found on a 7 day average:
42 accounts tweeted 50 + times per day = definition of programmatic activity
23 of these accounts tweet 100 + times per day

Additional notes:

We subscribe to the Oxford Internet Institute baseline of 50 tweets per day to classify an account as a Cyborg, an account that exhibits bot-like behavior.

36 accounts joined Twitter since January 2017.

The map is a visual representation of how we see the conversation at that moment (mentionmapp.com)


The red icon (over the account's avatar thumbnail) indicates bot-like behavior.

Flavius Mihaies is an independent journalist and consultant at the World Bank. In May and August 2015 he traveled to Syria, where he visited Damascus, Homs and the Kurdish-controlled region in northwest Syria. Follow him on Twitter.

John Gray is CEO and co-founder of Mentionmapp Analytics Inc. and a freelance writer. He is social media researcher and reporter focused on the interactions between real people, bots, sockpuppets, and trolls. John's main consideration is how misinformation is impacting our socio-political discourse, and that cyberspace is becoming a less human place. He's co-authored "The Ecosystem of Fake: Bots, Information," and "Distorted Realities." John earned a Bachelor of Applied Science (Communications) and a B.A. (English) both from Simon Fraser University.

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"Checkpoint zero," marking the frontline just outside the city of Manbij, Syria, June 20, 2018 (Flavius Mihaies)

Report: Why Syria's Manbij matters beyond the Islamic State

Last June I visited "checkpoint zero," marking the frontline just outside the city of Manbij, Syria, where an Islamic States-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans on a routine patrol last Wednesday.

"Checkpoint zero" is manned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Syriac Christian militias and other forces created in 2015 to defeat the Islamic State.

However, there isn't the Islamic State on the other side of the frontline that "checkpoint zero" defends, but fellow Syrians; rebels backed by the Turkish military. The Euphrates Shield, as Turkey named them.

They are there to prevent Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from expanding further west of the Euphrates and toward the border with Turkey--a scenario the Turkish government considers as a threat because of what it claims is an existential link between the Kurdish fighters in Syria and the PKK in Turkey, who has been engaged in a bloody armed struggle with the Turkish state.

The Kurds and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies said they have every reason to fear that Turkey and allied Syrian rebel forces will act in Manbij the same way they did in Afrin, a Syrian city further north, where Turkish-backed rebels reportedly committed exactions against the local population.

Jonathan Farmer was a decorated soldier (US Army)

Top 3 Syria war news - January 21, 2019

  • Three of the four Americans killed in the Islamic States-claimed suicide attack in Manbij, Syria, last Wednesday have been identified: Jonathan Farmer, a soldier, Shannon Kent, a sailor, and civilian and former Navy Seal Scott Wirtz, the BBC reported. The fourth victim of the explosion is an unnamed contractor, according to US Central Command. President Trump met with their families at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware during the weekend.
  • A suicide bombing hit a U.S.-Kurdish-backed Syrian Defense Forces convoy in northern Syria today, making it the second suicide attack to target American troops in five days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says two U.S. soldiers were injured and five of their Syria Democratic Forces escorts were killed. The convoy was driving on the road of al-Hasakah – al-Raqqah near al-Shaddadi area. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, CNN said.
  • In an unprecedented move, Israel confirmed latest attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. Israel's acknowledgment of its strikes reflect a shift in policy, with the country increasingly taking responsibility for specific attacks in Syrian territory after years of ambiguity, the New York Times said. The Israeli military said the targets included sites in Syria of the Iranian Quds Force, the branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
An armoured vehicle, part of a US army convoy patrolling near the city of Tall Tamr, in the northwestern Syrian province of Hasakah on January 16, 2019 (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Amb to Syria: “The Iranians understand” that if American soldiers are killed Trump will abandon Syria

Before I left for Manbij as an independent journalist last June I talked to Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

The big picture: On Wednesday an Islamic State-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans, including two soldiers, on patrol in Manbij, Syria.

Highlights:

  • "[President] Trump has been consistent about what he says about Syria. He does not want to keep American forces in Syria, he does not want to get too involved in it."
  • "If there is an incident where ten or fifteen American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S., and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that."
  • "We don't know who is responsible" for the death of Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar. Mr Dunbar, who was killed in an IED attack March 30, 2018, was the last U.S. soldier to die in Syria prior to Wednesday's attack. Also in Manbij.

Go deeper:

What will the President do?

Two U.S. troops killed in Syria attack claimed by Islamic State

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses during the American Commemoration Ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery in Paris, France, on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. (Getty Images)

What will the President do? ​


News media are pondering whether President Trump will reconsider his plan to withdraw troops from Syria following the suicide attack that killed four Americans, including two US soldiers, on patrol in Manbij yesterday. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

So far, U.S. officials said there were no plans to reverse Syria pullout decision, CNN reported.

The attack emboldened critics of President Trump's assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, which was the reason invoked when he announced the troop withdrawal on December 19. They hope he will halt or reverse his decision.

"I hope the President will look long and hard at where he is headed in Syria," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.

But the President will certainly weigh in the possible consequences of any further American casualties in Syria. More American deaths will inevitably lead the public to demand that the troops be withdrawn.

What's next: In fact, yesterday's attack could paradoxically comfort President Trumps in his decision to pull out troops from Syria. And with the 2020 presidential election approaching, the President will not want to see more American casualties in the news.

Scene of the attack in Manbij, Syria, on January 16, 2019 (Getty Images)

Two U.S. troops killed in Syria attack claimed by Islamic State

Three U.S. soldiers have died in Manbij alone since America sent troops to Syria in 2015

The bomb attack took place in the town of Manbij, controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, while U.S. forces were conducting a routine patrol, officials said and Reuters reported.

This would be the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015.

Photos and footage on social media show a large explosion on a busy street and wreckages that include human remains.

Three U.S. soldiers have died in Manbij alone, so far. A total of four lost their lives since 2015, when the U.S. sent troops on the ground in Syria.

Graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members at a camp in the countryside of the northern Idlib province, Syria, on August 14, 2018. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Can an al Qaida-affiliated militia stay in control of Idlib?

Last week, al Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militia network increased its control of the city and province of Idlib in northwestern Syria, at the expense of Turkish-backed fighters.

The Turkish government listed HTS as a terror group in August 2018 and last weekend carried out counter-terrorism operations against the group's alleged members in cities throughout Turkey, AFP reported.

Yes, but Abu Muhammad Al Julani, HTS leader, expressed his support for Turkey's military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Al Julani is a U.S. government wanted terrorist.

"HTS can not afford losing Idlib despite their in-fights with other groups. The only side that can protect them at this point will be Turkey," says Yousif Ismael from the Washington Kurdish Institute.

If HTS was to succeed and reposition Turkey from nemesis to potential tacit ally, it could make the task of reconquering Idlib harder for the Syrian regime and potentially give an al Qaida-affiliated group a say in Syria's future.

However, a preferred outcome for the Turkish state is for its allied armed groups to retain control of Idlib. The response to HTS' avances toward Turkey would therefore be a fin de non-recevoir.

Syria's conflict news you should know - January 14, 2019

  • Al Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham militia network increased its control over the city and region of Idlib in northern Syria. Consolidation of territory control and fighting forces will help the Islamist-majority in control solidify their hold and render the task of reconquering Idlib harder for the Syrian regime.
  • The Turkish government continued pushing back against U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton's statement that "the U.S. military would only leave Syria if Turkey guaranteed the safety of Kurds there," he said on his trip to Turkey last week. Sources said Turkish military is amassing more troops at the border with Syria, raising the prospect for an attack into Syria, in the region currently under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control.
  • Former veteran with combat experience in Iraq and current Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, announced her intention to run for US president. A member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, she stood out for her position on the ongoing conflict in Syria, arguing against the U.S. removing President Bashar al Assad from power. She visited Syria last year.


Syria's conflict news you should know - January 11, 2019

  • U.S. military has begun Syria withdrawal process…Well, not so fast. Today's initial media reports said that the U.S. military began the process for withdrawing its 2,000 troops in Syria. The Pentagon later said it has begun withdrawing equipment but not troops.
  • "The U.S. military would only leave Syria if Turkey guaranteed the safety of Kurds there," U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton said, on his trip to Turkey this week, prompting a harsh Turkish diplomatic backlash.
  • Russian troops arrived near Manbij, the Manbij Military Council announced today. Earlier this week, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces--to which the Manbij Military Council is affiliated--said they were in talks with Russia on the future of northern Syria and their safety from a Turkish military attack.
  • Scoop: at this year's CES, the world's largest consumer electronic trade show that just ended in Las Vegas, I spoke with technology and social impact entrepreneurs with experience working with Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as Jordan as well as in Syria. They said they want an end to the armed conflict and stability, seemingly less obsessed about the "Iran threat" and the Assad-must-go focus prevailing in Washington.
Axios

What Trump's Syria policy means for Syrians

We are about three weeks into President Trump's announcement that he will withdraw American troops from Syria and I caught up with Sameh, the young engineer from Damascus who is developing alternative and sustainable way of farming that could help bring food security to local populations in Syria. His story was published by the Atlantic Council last November.

Sameh told me what he thinks American troops pulling out of Syria means for his country and the future of his agriculture project.

  • "A crazy turn of events for an area [northern Syria] everybody around me took for granted was going to be under the protection of the U.S.."
  • "We don't know who's going to be in control [of northern Syria], which has been a recurring problem with the Syrian revolution…Since 2011 there has been too many people and too many parties involved, each with their own agenda for Syria. Islamic groups, fighters who don't have religion, fighters backed by Arab Gulf countries gulf and who follow their orders, groups backed by Turkey…Each come with their own propaganda."
  • Three main opposition fighting groups are left in Syria. "Islamic groups, like HTC, groups backed by Turkey, and in between the Muslim Brotherhoods who lost in Ghouta and southern Syria and might have joined groups backed by Turkey and therefore support Turkey's policy in Syria…and the Kurds."
  • The U.S. might be taking a stand for the Kurds and delaying withdrawal. "According to a recent statement [by the Trump administration], the U.S. wants to make sure that the Kurds are not going to be killed. What is the meaning of this big statement? Will the U.S. give weapons to the Kurds or seek an agreement with Turkey? Are they going to leave one single military base in northern Syria, perhaps near the oil wheels, around which Kurdish fighters would relocate?
  • "My agricultural project [initially planned for northern Syria] is in wait and see mode. But we are still working on building the prototype, here in America."
Flavius Mihaies

Syria's 2000 American troops: Strength is not in numbers

But "if there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," last U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me.

With President Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria on December 19th, analysts and American media have deemed the presence of about 2000 troops in northern/eastern Syria controlled by the U.S.-allied and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces either as:

  1. Wholly insufficient compared with the number of troops and military assets from the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, or,
  2. In the word of Hagar Chemali, a former spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations, on CNN yesterday: "a very low-cost effort. You have about 2000 troops in areas that have already been liberated. They're there to make sure that things are rebuilt, that refugees can go back. And we know that ISIS is not completely defeated."

"Only" 2000 troops, but boots on the ground is not the full story about American military capability in Syria. On February 8, 2018, an attempt by pro-Syrian government forces to attack territory controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and where American troops were present was met with devastating American and coalition airstrikes and repelled, the New York Times reported. U.S. troops on the ground typically collect intelligence and call in airstrikes.

Characterizing American presence in Syria as a "very low-cost effort [...] in areas that have already been liberated," is equally inaccurate and misleading. As I saw the day of my arrival in Manbij last June, American troops go in patrols in groups of three Hummvees and go on foot patrols as well, reportedly. This makes them vulnerable to attacks. One U.S. soldier was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Manbij on March 30th. Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar was the fourth service member who has died in Syria since the U.S. sent troops to Syria in 2014.

"If there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me in May.