How I Used Social Media to Become an “Accidental Arms Expert”
For just about everyone, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are places to share experiences — from the mundane to the extraordinary. For me, however, these sites are where I spend my workday — tracking, online, the illegal trafficking of arms into Syria.
When I started a blog — the Brown Moses Blog — to record what I found online, I had no idea that that it would end up being quoted by newspapers around the world. The reason it comes as a surprise? I’ve never been to Syria — or anywhere in the Middle East, for that matter, other than the Dubai airport. I don’t speak Arabic. I’m thirty-four years old, and, for the past ten years, I’ve had pretty normal office jobs. The only semblance of military experience I’ve had is playing computer games and watching movies.
It’s not exactly the resume of an arms expert. But then came the Arab Spring.
It all started as a hobby. As a news junkie, I watched — first by the day and then by the hour — the democratic ripple grow into a tidal wave that was the Arab Spring. Quickly, I realized that it wasn’t just college students that posted pictures to Facebook, and not only wannabe rock stars broadcasting themselves on YouTube — armies, militants and terrorists were doing the same thing.
I began to dig deeper into the conflict in Libya and found a treasure trove of information being shared online from the ground. But, on October 19, 2011, my daughter was born. The day before Muammar Gaddafi was killed by Libyan rebel forces. Of course, I was itching to investigate, but I found, as a new father, I had much more important things to focus my energy on.
Six months later, however, my life as a parent became less chaotic just as the conflict in Syria began to escalate. Looking for a way to spend my free time, I decided to start a blog. The name “Brown Moses” was a screen name I had picked to use in internet forums over a decade before. The song “Brown Moses” by Frank Zappa had been playing back then when I first logged on. And it just stuck. When it came to naming the new blog, I decided to reuse the name — mostly because I assumed no one would ever read it.
My earliest Syrian blog posts included daily collections of interesting, and often humorous, videos, like “Syrian Activists — Laughing In The Face of Danger,” posted online by activists on the ground. At that point, I was mostly collecting videos I had seen posted on Twitter and various internet forums, rather than making a serious attempt to record the events of the conflict.
The blog’s original purpose was modest — to record my thoughts and some of the tidbits of information I thought were interesting and often going unnoticed. When I began following the Arab Spring, I had no idea how much information was being posted on Twitter and found that gathering the strands of information could build up a greater understanding of the events unfolding on the ground. Journalists would Tweet things that wouldn’t appear in their reports. Those doing the fighting would post pictures of their triumphs, just as civilians posted videos of the horrors they faced as a result. I wanted to record these minor pieces of information because I figured, if read the right way, they could be important.
Part of what I learned early on was that how you looked at the images was important. The occasional video would come out and the veracity of the video would be debated to death. In an attempt to confirm the veracity of the footage, however, I realized it was sometimes possible to locate where it was filmed by comparing landmarks in the background of the recordings with satellite maps of the area. In Syria, far more videos were being posted online each day than anywhere else, so there was plenty to work with.
It wasn’t until May 25, 2012, the day of the Houla Massacre — which I live-blogged — that I started to develop a more systematic approach to examining videos from Syria and working on growing my own knowledge of the conflict.
This was when I first realized that activists were using local YouTube channels, and by collecting their feeds I could sort them by location to get a “view from the ground” of events taking place across the country. I began monitoring a couple dozen channels daily and adding new ones as I came across them. Now, I keep track of some 500 channels from dozens of locations all over Syria, with hundreds of new videos being posted each day.
After the events in Houla, I started to put together regular posts looking at the arms used by the Syrian opposition, which I would go online to research. In the beginning, I would start with a basic Google search. When I couldn’t read a label on a weapon, I would plug the words into an online translator. As I went, I found a surprising amount of information about the Soviet/Russian arms used by the Syrian army online. A visit to Wikipedia would often supply enough information to be able to search for images of the arms or munitions in question.
By June of last year, I had built up a significant online video library and had enough knowledge to make my first big discovery — a partly unexploded OFAB 250-270 high explosive fragmentation bomb. I wanted to be sure I was right about the identity of the bomb used because it meant that the Syrian air force was bombing its own people. I spent hours searching for the perfect match. This was the first time there had been evidence of an aircraft dropped bomb in Syria and ended up as the first of many more bombs used in the conflict.
Weeks later, during my now daily trawl through Syrian YouTube channels I made another discovery — the first video evidence of cluster bombs deployed in Syria. After a great deal investigating online I managed to find a match for the type of cluster bomb used, a discovery that was picked up on by Human Rights Watch.
For months I scoured for more video evidence of cluster bomb use, but it wasn’t until October 2012 that those following the conflict began to see a massive increase in the use of the weapon. I began to collect every single video of cluster bomb use I could find. I started to collaborate with Human Rights Watch to compile a database of every cluster bomb video including where they were being used, what types were in use, and any other data we could find. (The information will all be freely available at a future date.)
One thing that stood out as I tracked the weapons being used in the conflict is how there has been one escalation after another over the last year, rather than every weapon in the Syrian government’s arsenal being deployed at once. To me, these escalations mean the conflict isn’t going the Syrian government’s way.
Sitting in my living room in England, it’s incredible to think that from anywhere in the world it’s possible to see the day-to-day struggles of the Syrian people and the scale of the violence they witness. What makes Syria so unusual is — despite the two years of conflict in the country, from street protests to civil war — the Internet has rarely been cut off. As a result, there has been a constant flow of information from the country through social media — with hundreds of thousands of Syrian YouTube videos, Tweets, and Facebook posts over the last two years. It’s an overwhelming amount of information, a maelstrom of data.
In the past year, I’ve developed a routine that now lets me follow this daily barrage of information. Before I was recently laid off from my day job, I was working nine-to-five, then spending time with my wife and daughter, before finally sitting down with my laptop. From a comfortable sofa I’ve seen the most incredible and terrifying events occurring in Syria. That the internet and social media allow such access into the lives of ordinary — and not so ordinary — people in Syria is what makes the conflict so unique.
On the Internet, I see the experiences of thousands of Syrians every day. And making sense of this vast amount of information to help improve everyone’s understanding of the conflict, and the Syrian people’s experience, is what drives me to do what I do.
Author Eliot Higgins is the founder of the Brown Moses Blog.