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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Officials pose for a group photo during a Syria donors conference at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Senior representatives from scores of countries and international organizations gathered Thursday in a fresh effort to drum up aid for Syria amid growing donor fatigue as the conflict enters its ninth year. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Syria’s war news you missed - March 14, 2019

1. The Syrian civil war enters its ninth year. An Arab Spring-inspired uprising began with protests in March 2011 and since escalated into one of the most convoluted and deadly conflicts in the world, leaving at least 400,000 people dead and millions displaced. President Bashar al-Assad's enemies have been defeated and the bulk of the country is back under his control. Yet, it is unclear how the Syrian government will be able to bring the country back from the brink, with tightening U.S. and European Union's sanctions, rebuilding cities devastated by the war, economic difficulties and the many challenges of reaching a political settlement.

2. Donors pledge $7B in aid for Syria, refugees. International donors have pledged around $7 billion in aid for Syria and Syrian refugees who fled the conflict-ravaged country, the European Union announced Thursday, as the war enters its ninth year. But it was unclear how or when the money would be made available to those in need, AP reported.

3. The United States is not discussing a Turkish offensive in northeast Syria with Turkey and believes no such operation is needed to address Ankara's security concerns, dismissing media reports to the contrary, Reuters reported. In fact, the news agency claims, the U.S. sees Turkish offensive in Syria as unnecessary.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney looks behind former Secretary of State James Baker as he stands next to former Vice President Dan Quayle, back, during memorial ceremonies for former President George H.W. Bush at the Capitol in Washington. Dec. 3, 2018 (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Syria’s war news you missed - March 13, 2019

1. Turkey says it is discussing with Russia a Syria offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces. Turkey is discussing with Russia and the U.S. a potential military offensive in a region of northeast Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters, a Turkish defense official was cited as saying by state media on Tuesday, Reuters reported.

2. Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized President Trump foreign policy. Speaking with Vice President Mike Pence last weekend, Cheney warned that American allies were questioning the dependability of the U.S. as a result of the Trump's public statements. He specifically highlighted Trump's public complaints about the role of NATO and the surprise announcement of the withdrawal of troops from Syria, AP reported.

3. Russia and Turkey begin co-ordinated patrols in Idlib. Russia and Turkey initiated co-ordinated patrols on March 8 to implement a demilitarised zone in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, a major area held by Syrian rebels, as part of a deal struck last year, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced that same day, Jane's Defence Weekly reported.

Map displayed during a presentation to the International Homeland Security Forum conference in Jerusalem, June 14, 2018 (Haaretz)

Israel's Syria map

The map of today's Middle East as seen by Israel displays only two colors: red and black.

  • Red: Countries with an Islamic State presence.
  • Black: Iran-controlled countries or influence.

Why it matters: The map (above), presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Homeland Security Forum organized by the Israel Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs last June, is an indication of Israel's perception of the Middle East as dominated by Iran's progress and influence and a metastasizing Islamic State, far from U.S. President Donald Trump's optimistic assessments about the jihadist group's defeat in recent months.

The state of play for Israel in Syria: The Syrian civil war was not a bad development for Israel, Haaretz reported, as the two main fighting sides, the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad and its jihadist opponents, deeply hated Israel. Yet, Iranian involvement and dominance in Syria as President al Assad gradually regained its control of the country and emerged as the winner of the eight years war have exacerbated Israel's concerns.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speaking at a CNN Town Hall in Austin, Texas on March 10, 2019 (CNN)

Syria’s war news you missed - March 11, 2019

1. Ad-hoc repatriation of Islamic State foreign fighters would strengthen jihadist networks. Between 800 and 1,000 Islamic State fighters, many of whom retain Western citizenship, are being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at detention centres in northeastern Syria. With the US planning to withdraw most of its troops from Syria imminently, the fate of these Islamic prisoners poses a serious challenge for European governments, Jane's Intelligence Weekly reported.

2. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard cited her experience serving in Iraq as informing her approach to Syria in an interview with CNN. When asked whether Syria's president Bashar al Assad is a war criminal, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said, "I served in a war in Iraq, a war that was launched based on lies, and a war that was launched without evidence. [...] And so the American people were duped."

3. Brett McGurk, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL under both Presidents Obama and Trump, cautioned against a U.S. withdrawal on Twitter: "Given this serious situation in Syria and the SDF now holding thousands of ISIS fighters and families, the last thing we should do is plan to withdraw 90 percent of the American force. Makes no sense. The SDF needs more support right now, not less."

Illustration: Shout! News

Is Venezuela the 'Syria of the Western Hemisphere’?

Last Sunday, a former Venezuelan diplomat, Isaias Medina, in an interview for Fox News claimed that is country was the "Syria of the Western Hemisphere."

Big picture: A U.S.-supported opposition, an entrenched leader backed by Moscow, violent street protests, desperate people scrambling across borders, and the United Nations blamed for a weak response. The ongoing crisis around the last presidential elections left incumbent Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó battling for the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and brought comparison with the conflict in Syria and its embattled leader Bashar al-Assad.

What they're saying:

  • Former Venezuelan diplomat Isaias Medina pointed to the same actors as in the Syrian conflict involved in in the current crisis in Venezuela, with Russia backing up the "dictatorship" of president Nicolás Maduro. The former diplomat to the United Nations who quit the Maduro government in protest over a year ago called for the use of force to remove president Maduro.
  • "[Nicolás] Maduro did not come to power in the same way that any of these dictators did. He did not lead a military coup, nor did he inherit a country run like a family estate from his father. He was democratically elected twice. There is little similarity between the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, which Chavez founded and Maduro now represents, and the forces that backed and maintained these Arab tyrants in power. Chavismo is a democratic, left-wing, popular movement that has sought to invest the riches of the state to empower and uplift the poor," analyst Hussein Walid said on Al Jazeera.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L), Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (C), and Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu pose for a photograph as they talk to reporters after Astana-format talks on the Syrian peace process at the European headquarters of the UN in Switzerland, December18 2018 (Alexander Shcherbak/TASS/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - March 4, 2019

1. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council will seek a change of the Syrian Arab Republic's name, so that it will not contain any national or religious affiliation during the upcoming work of the Syrian constitutional committee as part of the Astana peace process, Russia's sponsored Sputnik media reported.

2. Saudi Arabia says it is too early to restore ties with Syria, Reuters reported. This announcement nuances the process of normalization some Arab countries had begun to undertake with a call for Syria's readmission into the Arab League and by reopening their embassies in Damascus.

3. North Korea has dodged sanctions and furtively sold arms to Syria, a private U.N. Security Council draft document obtained by CBS News finds, Axios reported.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, speaks during a press conference after the UN Security Council meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States on February 28, 2019. (Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 28, 2019

1. Turkey is illegally smuggling Syrian olive oil over its border to be packaged and sold as Turkish olive oil, the Olive Oil Times reported. The stolen oil comes from the Kurdish Syrian region of Afrin and may already be in Europe. Bekir Pakdemirli, the Turkish Minister of Agriculture, has acknowledged that the theft of Syrian olive oil is happening, according to the Times.

2. A divided Europe over Assad as reconstruction aid is planned. Next month the European Union hosts an international conference in Brussels to raise billions in aid for displaced Syrians, a moment of reckoning for Europe's efforts to isolate Assad as the United States pulls back its troops, Reuters reported.

3. Geir Pedersen, the new U.N. special envoy for Syria, who has largely remained silence since his nomination late last year, said his goals in the period ahead are to achieve "concrete action" on detained and missing people and the convening of a committee to draft a new constitution for the war-torn country "as soon as possible," Associated Press reported. Mr. Pedersen said he also wants to begin a sustained dialogue with the government and opposition "on building trust and confidence."

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the US Department of State February 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 25, 2019

1. Some 400 U.S. troops will remain in northern and southern Syria for peacekeeping after withdrawal, the White House said. The troops will stay in two places: in northeast Syria to assist the Kurds and others who helped to break up the ISIS caliphate; and in the south at Al-Tanf near the Jordan-Syria border, the Wall Street Journal reported.

2. Civilians evacuation from the last pocket held by the Islamic State group in Syria, the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria on the Iraqi border is wrapping up. US-backed fighters belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance are then expected to launch a final assault on Islamic State militants in Syria, the Seattle Times reported.

3. Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this Wednesday in Paris to discuss Iran and Syria. "It's very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria," the Israeli premier said of the planned meeting, i24NEWS reported.

Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle in Syria that was built in 1031, is included in the travel package offered by French tour operator Clio against the French government's advice. (Manuel Cohen / AFP)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 18, 2019

1. "It provides an opportunity for Russia." General Joseph Votel, the top US commander in the Middle East leading the war against the Islamic State, disagrees with President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria. It is because of the same decision that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, resigned. In an interview to CNN, General Votel explained why he disagrees with the president.

2. "Autonomy means the partition of Syria. We have no way to partition." Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected the suggestion that Damascus was willing to do a deal that would hand the Kurds some measure of autonomy, Reuters reported.

3. A French tour operator is offering a trip to Syria for next April. The group, called Clio, claims the upcoming tour is fully booked, but the French government is advising against and said the tour operator is liable if anything happens to its clients, French national radio France Info reported [in French].

(L to R) French Major of the Wagram Task Force Francois-Regis Legrier explains military positions on a sand map to French Defence Minister Florence Parly and French General Jean-Marc Vigilant at a French artillery forward operating base (FOB) near al-Qaim in Iraq's western Anbar province opposite Syria's Deir Ezzor region, a few kilometres away from the last scrap of territory held by IS, on February 9, 2019. (Daphné BENOIT/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 17, 2019

1. House Democrats take steps to obtain notes from Trump-Putin meetings. The contents of President Trump's one-on-one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be one of many investigative priorities for House Democrats, Axios said. The contents of these meetings includes what Trump and Putin discussed on Syria during their private meeting in Helsinki last July.

2. U.S. commander warns Syria's Kurds and SDF allies on aligning with President Bashar al-Assad. The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said on Sunday, Reuters reported.

3. Top French officer criticize anti-ISIS coalition in Syria. "We have in no way won the war because we lack a realistic and lasting policy and an adequate strategy," Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier (pictured in the headline image), who has been in charge of directing French artillery supporting Kurdish-led groups in Syria, said. Legrier also said the coalition's focus on limiting its own risks had greatly increased the death toll among civilians and the levels of destruction, Reuters reported.