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


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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Most incisive comment on midterm elections comes from foreign observer

Three times Ambassador to the U.S. talks about the consequences of the mid-term elections on the political landscape in America.

Scrolling through the political pundits' comments following the results of the mid-term elections last week--Democrats seized the House, Republicans kept control of the Senate--one retained my attention.

In just a few brushes, it painted the impact of the elections on the political landscape.

It didn't even come from an American observer. The author is a former Ambassador to the U.S. who served under three American presidents.

In his words:

"I was expecting more from Democrats, so elections results left me with mixed feelings, like the new political landscape.

On one hand Trump will control from the Senate all judicial nominations, immigration, border security, religion bans; women, minorities, and other special interest groups rights; foreign policy nominations; and many more items of his political agenda...

BUT on the other hand Democrats will have the power to investigate his business, his family and his administration officials, including asking IRS for his tax returns; suboena him, his sons and surrogates to question them about Russian presumed collusion in the 2016 Presidential elections; Congressional committees controlled by Democrats will also investigate about illegal payments and gratuities paid among others to Stormy;

No wonder why he [President Trump] called Nancy Pelosi last night right away to congratulate her for the Democrats take over of The House!!!

Trump will control the macro policy issues, and Democrats will control the micro issues, like Trump's personal and political life; as well as the budget, trade and appropriations...perhaps after all, this morning it could have been a rude awakening for POTUS...

Let's the DC version of the hunger games begin!"

Later the Ambassador described his political beliefs:

Photo: Screenshot via Facebook

"I am pro free market, free trade, pro-immigration, and I like also small governments, few and low taxes, preemptive policies, I believe in international cooperation at alllevels, and the multilateral system etc.

In other words I believe in many things Trump is against... I have not moved from the right... it is also simply a matter that I cannot withstand racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and a megalomaniac/narcissist that has taken down the institution of The Presidency of The United States to its lowest point in history::: other than that PXLP!"

The game development community in this war-torn Syrian city is on the rise

Recent software engineering graduate Fadi Ashy talked how he is helping build a community in his hometown.

An active contribution to the game development community comes from war-torn country of Syria.

To be sure, today this country is not one would associate with a thriving game development community. After seven years of brutal war, the situation in Syria is a tragedy of epic proportions. Beside the dead and the departed, most infrastructures are in ruins and basic services, such as electricity and water, have collapsed in most of the country with the exception of Damascus, the capital.

I visited Homs in August 2015. Bullet pocked or blasted walls were an indication of the heaviness of the fighting between the Syrian regime and rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. We drove in an eerie calm. The regime had not yet allowed the vast majority of the city's population to return. We drove through a ghost town.

A street in downtown Homs in August 2015. Photograph: Flavius Mihaies

A street in downtown Homs in August 2015. Photograph: Flavius Mihaies

Yet, despite these terrible conditions, a youth-driven programming community is emerging and wants to play a role in rebuilding their country, as in Homs, Syria's third largest city.

Fadi Ashy, an organizer in the local programming and game development community, introduced himself as a recent graduate from Al-Baath University in Homs and a self-taught game programmer and AI developer. He said he has been participating in the community for the past four years and explained how one does learn game development in a war-torn country.

Fadi's profile photo. Facebook

"The hardest thing after all this period is the damaged community we're in, especially the IT community, with low to no support on creativity, work and it's hard to find similar talents around you to collaborate with," said Fadi. He estimated the number of game developers in Syria to not exceed fifty.

To fill this gap, him and his friends pooled resources and secured a small office in downtown Homs, where they started to host skill-training workshops, covering basic programming to self-marketing and how to prepare yourself for the job market. The community, he said, has offered training sessions and various meet-ups and activities to boost its participants developments skills.

Fadi said he has also been busy as a game developper with one game already released and the second one, Deadly forest: shelter survival, available but still in beta (see article's header GIF).

Screen capture of upcoming game Deadly forest: shelter survival. Google Play

According to the description posted on the Google Play market place, in this game, "You find yourself at a shelter in the forest surrounded by monsters that are attacking your shelter every night, You need to collect resources and find survivors at day to be able to defend your shelter at night."

It is hard not to think of the Syria of these past seven years.

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Islamists and beer in the Sahel

Muslim Niger's Bière Niger beats U.S.'s King of Beers, aka Budweiser, if all that you want is a light beer

An arid, landlocked country of the Sahel with a population 21 millions, Niger is surrounded by countries where militant groups linked to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda are operating.

But the day I arrived in the country's capital, Niamey, I was told that a group of French tourists had just left the hotel for an expedition on fleuve Niger.

Perhaps some kind of evidence that tourism had returned to this country where both Islamist extremists and U.S. Army Special Forces have deep roots.

In spite of being under a state of emergency and food-insecure, Niger produces Bière Niger, a light beer that easily rivals with Bud Light, America's top-selling beer.

Not many people associate Niger, which is mostly Muslim, with beer: when I returned to Paris a few days later and boasted about the beer, a friend asked if I was talking about a non-alcoholic beer.

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It is true that in Niger on ne boit pas dans la rue (one can't drink on the street) and this likely is a reflection of the country's Islamic identity, but Islam has historically been commonly mixed with Animism, a traditional belief system, all across West Africa.

"The country is 50% Christian, 50% Muslim, and 100% Animist," a friend said referring to neighboring Burkina Faso.

Libyan weapons, demands for independence and Islamism in the Sahel

France's role in removing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi blamed for current mess in the region

'You are not going to drag us into your shitty war.'

It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had called her French counterpart.

France was urging the U.S. to join them in a military campaign to prevent Libya's strong man, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering his opponents.

The French won. On October 20, Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed as rebel fighters took his hometown of Sirte. His convoy had been bombed and scattered by U.S. and French airstrikes only moments earlier.

In our recent visit to the region, seven years later, we found that it is the French who are largely taking the blame for the current mess in Libya, a failed state and a terrorist haven, and the region as a whole.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Paris on March 19, 2011. The French president, who had pressed for the bombing campaign that guaranteed Gaddafi's demise, told Mrs. Clinton that French fighter jets were already in the air. Photograph: Lionel Bonavent


Yet, it is striking that only a few Western news media have paid attention to what happened to neighboring countries after the Libyan leader's demise.

The Dictator's Weapons

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Photograph: Reuters

Colonel Qaddafi left behind a vast military arsenal.

By late 2011, this huge arsenal of weapons was turning up in Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Gaza, often in the hands of terrorists, insurgents or criminals, the New York Times found.

It looked really scary. In the fall of 2012, American intelligence agencies produced a classified assessment of the proliferation of arms from Libya. "It was like, 'Oh, my God,'" said Michael T. Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. "We've not had that kind of proliferation of weapons since really the end of the Vietnam War."

A connection to the region's largest terrorist groups was also established. Libya had indeed become a source of materiel for Boko Haram, as evidenced in transfers of weapons from Libya that transited Niger en route to Nigeria.

The U.S. did try to take measures to secure the vast arsenal left by Colonel Qaddafi, but they largely failed.

"There was one arsenal that we thought had 20,000 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, SA-7s, that basically just disappeared into the maw of the Middle East and North Africa," recalled Robert M. Gates, the American defense secretary at the time, according to the New York Times.

Weapons have been trafficked out of Libya since the fall of Colonel Qaddafi in 2011, especially through the south. Visual: The New York Times

Superjumbo: the Tuareg and the Islamists

The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic people who live in the Sahel-Sahara zone of north-west Africa.
In Mali and Niger they have fought on and off for many years with their central governments, demanding greater independence or at the very least more investment in the areas they live.
Many Tuareg were in Libya's armed forces when the uprising started in 2011. Left unemployed when Qaddafi fell, returning Tuaregs--to Mali, especially--were able to bring with them considerable quantities of weapons and ammunition from former army storages that suddenly nobody controlled when the Gaddafi state crumbled.
In Mali, these returning Tuareg reinvigorated an insurgent army and soon joined forces with Islamists group from the region, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They formed an uneasy but potent alliance that quickly routed Malian government forces, prompting the French military to intervene in 2013 as insurgents risked threatening Bamako, Mali's capital.
The French military intervention assisted by troops from Chad and Niger was able to beat back the Islamist and Tuareg rebels in the northern part of Mali, but France has had to maintain a sizable military presence to this day.

Tuareg rebels storming towns in Mali's northern desert in 2012. Photograph: Veronique de Viguerie/The New York Times


The end of the Qaddafi regime in Libya triggered regional instability as men and weapons poured through neighboring countries.

Interestingly, in Mali, while those we talked to during our recent visit blamed former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for the current instability, it is France, the country, they expressed gratitude toward when Sarkozy's successor, Francois Holland, decided the military intervention that routed insurgents and Islamists in 2013.

Syria Unknown #1

In #Syria near Raqqa: whose troops do you think they are...
American, Syrian or someone else? Let us know your thoughts

Syria's very own Woman fighter, fights to protect women's rights

Teacher and women's rights organizer, founder of Syria's first NGO dedicated to gender-based violence

Meet Munaa... since our last interview, the Law to protect women, passed in 2014, is now becoming known. Munaa wants to open projects for women to teach them how to self help and take care of themselves. She wants to get women involved in any financial projects, training them via a computer course, then helping them find a job afterwards in administration.
Unfortunately in 2017 there was a lot of violence towards women against the law raising the challenge that not all men in society accept ideas of protecting women. She has currently informed Christians, Armenians and Arabs of woman's rights and the law with the intention of generating awareness.
Munaa and her organization would go to Villages to educate about the law only leaving some men to only accept with fear. All the while, it is still allowed for men in some Arabic cultures to have have multiple wives. For example, with the Islamic Sharia men can have 4 wives. And as she tries and educates women on the law but they also don't accept the rights because of their fear from man. She is trying to be an active spoken voice for women in an unspoken environment due to the previous laws and rights of her culture.

Syria: What may seem 'Hopeful' is now looking 'Hopeless' for refugees

Thousands of refugees are looking to return back to Syria from the northeastern town of Arsal in Lebanon. Syria wants its Refugees to return home and rebuild the country, according to Lebanon's President Joseph Aoun he believes that keeping many refugees in Lebanon is an "existential danger". Making the return of the Refugees to Syria very hopeful and prominent.

Syria imposes a new housing rule called 'Law 10'

Ali Abdul Karim, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon delivered a letter from the Syrian foreign minister to Lebanon's foreign minister that responded to the questions and concerns about 'Law 10'

Al-Masdar News

Law 10 states that destroyed areas of Syria are to be redeveloped and reconstructed. To prove your claim to property, damaged or destroyed, Syrians must appear in person with newly appointed real estate documents by the government within a year. Meaning the millions of refugees who are still waiting to return might are at risk to lose their homes if they don't return within the year period.

UNCHR discourages refugees, Bassil speaks out.

Lebanon's foreign minister wants for the refugees to return to their country but feels as if the UNCHR, United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, has spread fear of returning. 3000 refugees in the town of Arsal were expected to return home however the UNCHR discouraged them by telling them about the poor accommodation and security problems upon return, according to Lebanon's Foreign minister Gebran Bassil.

Illustration: Shout! News

Analyst: Prospects for Northern Syria's future at the June 4 Pompeo-Çavuşoğlu meeting

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he will discuss northern Syria--where most of the U.S. troops in the country are deployed--at his June 4 meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

Reuters reported yesterday that Turkey and the U.S. reached an agreement on a plan for the withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia from Syria's city of Manbij. Turkish and U.S. military forces are then to start joint supervision in Manbij.

What to expect: U.S. troops will withdraw from part or all of Manbij and likely relocate further east, in Kurdish-controlled territory. A source with knowledge of the negotiations said Turkey will not want to govern Manbij and could ok the Syrian regime to control the area.

What's next: How is Manbij going to be divided between Turkey and the U.S.? In addition to the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG militia, a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey asked that 300 names associated with the Kurdish-led political party PYD leave the city.

"Ultimately, it's not just Manbij; it's from all of Northern Syria that the PYD and its military wing, the YPG, will be sidelined. You can expect [Kurdistan of Iraq's leader, Massoud] Barzani's puppets to step in."

— Analyst from Syria with knowledge of the negotiations