The Story of the Syrian Crisis through Facebook: The Diaspora Network

Facebook’s Social Network Graph

I don’t remember when exactly I took the decision of deactivating my Facebook account but I remember feeling the urge to close the door in the face of all the dark, disastrous, hopeless, and helpless news feed that was spreading slowly into my out-of-control everyday thoughts.

The Arab Spring

In 2010, Facebook became one of the major portals for the revolution in the Middle East. It was the spark that spread the Arab Spring to Egypt and later Syria among other countries. I remember the first invitation I got to participate in the Syrian revolution on the ground. I couldn’t believe the growing number of users intending to participate. That page soon multiplied into more. Every region, every city, every district started their own page and their own campaign. They were mostly created by enthusiastic freedom-driven youth in Syria who started joining Facebook to take part electronically and then physically in the protests. The blue portal flooded with news feeds and images in real time capturing almost the real narrative in Syria. No one cared what the official media news had to say, in a matter of fact, most the news hubs were getting their material from Facebook. Of course, not all of those pages were from revolutionists. Many were created by the regime supporters as a response and a way to fight back. Users from both sides started to abuse the ‘report abuse’ feature in Facebook and launched campaigns asking followers to report their opponents to get them shut down. They also started spreading fake news that would help their case by fabricating stories and posting pictures and videos about the other side to prove how evil and corrupted they were, leading to many conspiracy theories being told on Facebook pages.

It is worth mentioning that FB was originally blocked in Syria by the government for a long time before the revolution, as many other websites for political reasons, but that didn’t stop people from using VPN (Virtual Private Network) softwares to get access or even continue the fight over Twitter and Google plus. After few months, it was unblocked to the public when the government discovered it is a double-edged sword and they can use it for their own benefit by monitoring users posts and orientations.

“Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”

Arrests started to spread quickly against young Syrians for their political opinions that they shared on FB. Even if they chose to post it privately, one of their friends on FB would happen to be a pro-regime and end up reporting them to the authorities who would easily arrest them. No questions asked. No lawyers hired. They might be lucky and get a warning, few slaps and kicks, but in worse cases, they end up disappearing in a dark cell with no trace behind. One could easily tell if someone is pro or anti-regime by taking a quick peek on their friends’ list. Any hint like a profile nickname or a picture could directly put you in trouble with either side especially when you have to pass through a security checkpoint which is normally run by low educated soldiers. The first thing after asking for your id would be asking to take a look at your phone. That includes checking contacts list, messages, photos and your FB page and friends’ list. Having a friend on FB with opposed opinions and posts was an offense. A reason for getting arrested no matter what your own view is. Eventually, people started hiding, blocking and deleting, if necessary, some of their closest friends and even family members to avoid getting into trouble.

The Dark News Feed

A year into the revolution, protests and political arrests, Facebook pages related to the Syrian Revolution lost its passionate tone and began to have a weaker one. Users were busy posting locations of explosions, checkpoints to avoid, lists of names or even pictures of people who were arrested, tortured or vanished. Sources behind those lists of information where usually someone who managed to escape or turned against the regime and leaked all that info. Photos were brutal. I used to go through that dark feed first thing in the morning and all through the day. I would check the security status in my neighbourhood and around my work place. I make sure I am aware of all the hot zones and if I knew anyone there so I can call or text and check on them. I would go through the lists and hope that I don’t find a name I know. My family, outside Syria, were probably doing the same with me in their minds. I was too stubborn to leave the country at that time. I wanted to take part of that change. I wanted freedom. There were days when the conflict would rage suddenly and sounds of explosions would shatter everywhere leaving people worried and confused about the location. It was enough to open FB and scan the pages to know where the conflict was happening and what roads to be avoided. I remember when I woke up to a sudden explosion next to my house. I was living alone at home with my cat who jumped scared to hide. I panicked and wasn’t sure to leave the house immediately or to stay and take cover until things calmed down. I quickly scanned FB and discovered that a car explosion happened less than 100 meters from my place. I decided to leave to return later that day when things calmed down. I would normally go to work. If things around work escalated, I would go home. If in both, I would go to my grandparents’ place. Luckily the three districts did not rage at the same time so I kept moving between the three until the day came where I sadly had to leave the three districts and the rest of the country, for good.

The Death Pages

As things kept escalating on the grounds, the smell of death and destruction started spreading over the FB pages. People started posting photos of dead bodies. Humans that passed away after inhuman torture in prisons. Parts of humans that split as a result of a missile. Skinny children suffering from severe lack of nutrition and medicine after being trapped in besieged areas for months. They had no hope and we, who watched those photos, were helpless. In 2013, my husband got the tragic news from his family informing him of the death of his father while trying to check on his house in an area that became a conflict zone. His mobile phone, found in his pocket was used to call the last number on it, which was his wife, to announce his death. I refused to accept the news. I was still an optimistic person at that point. I had some hope that it would be a wrong number. What if someone had stolen his phone and that person died? His phone was stolen recently so that was a possibility that my husband held on so tight and decided to pursue the truth. He couldn’t reach home again by phone due to connectivity issues and he couldn’t wait any longer. He decided to go online on FB to check the current situation.

One search query was enough to confirm the news.

One photo of my father in law, laying on a floor, his face covered in blood, wrapped in a blanket and .. dead.

The photo was in a page named “Unidentified dead bodies”.

Where To Go?

The revolution in Syria started to take a different turn. What was first a call for peace and freedom soon turned into an armed movement. Weapons started coming from everywhere to Syria. Other countries started to take part of the conflict and push for their own agendas. Leaders were making a profit and people were losing everything. After moving to neighbor countries, what we thought was a temporary stay till things get resolved, became clearly a wrong move with no return. Syrian pages spread over Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf Countries. Syrians started sharing their experiences. Explaining and answering questions like what areas to look for houses? How much money would they need? Are there any jobs? How to apply for residency or to the UN Refugees Agency? People were trapped in a temporary country spending from their savings or working in the minimum wage to survive. They were being exploited and harassed daily on different levels even on their Facebook pages by some of the host countries citizens who simply had their own problems and didn’t want to deal with one more.

Latitudes, Longitudes and The Sea

A rope was starting to tighten around the necks of Syrians who fled the country. A new option appeared in the horizon and publicly available on FB pages. The road to Europe that seemed a solution at that time, securing a new beginning and a decent future to those who lost souls, homes and all of their life savings. To those who just wanted to live. Pages around trips to Europe starts spreading quickly on FB. Different options were available including routes, rates and estimated days. Human traffickers, also known as smugglers, started to sell the European dream to the broken people over FB. They were smart enough not to share their details there but they always knew how to catch their target and then move to a more private channel to exchange more in-depth details. I admit that I considered that option. I was stuck in Egypt, a country with its own political and unemployment problems. All my legal visa applications were getting rejected. All doors were closed in front of my face, and most Syrians. The unknown sea sounded more understanding than the known harsh embassies visa impossible requirements.

Even though eventually I was lucky enough to get a work permit visa and a job offer in Europe, I always wonder if I would have ended up on one of those boats. I kept getting notifications of my friends’ statuses updates and locations change to a country in Europe. Some of them kept checking in during the whole journey through Europe. That was the only trace they could leave to their families and friends if they ever got caught or drowned. Some even posted their location from the middle of the sea in smuggling pages with thousands of subscribers. A latitude and a longitude, a desperate geographical point in hope of a quick rescue from their shabby boats upon drowning. FB were their signal flare in the middle of the sea.

Life on The Other Side of The World

When I moved to Europe in 2014, I had access to a whole new network on FB through people I met and places I visited. I started exploring new pages on FB different than what I was used to for the last three years. Even FB pages in Europe looked shinier. After a while, I became an edge in the social network between Syria and Europe. People from Syria would know more about Europe from me and vice-versa. I explored more pages from both sides and tried to understand and channel the comments and opinions between both parties. Most Syrians on FB were afraid of the west, their open lifestyle and how that would affect their lives if they lived in Europe. On the other hand, Europeans were afraid of the Syrians, the terrorists and how they are coming to destroy their peaceful countries. I went into battles of arguments between commenters trying to explain that Syrians are not terrorists and Europeans are not conspiring against them but I lost most of those battles as I lost many friends due to conflict of opinions.

Syrians who were still in Syria at that time created pages for selling and buying used items. Since everyone was forced to move either internally between cities and districts or leave the country, there was a need to find a quick way to sell your house, your furniture and your memories. Syrians also started pages as they spread in Europe’s different countries, writing about their experiences on boats and on roads, through different routes and smugglers, how they applied for asylum to what type of services they found. They shared struggles, warnings, and regrets. It was their only portal to express any type of feeling in the lonely solitude.

Soon enough, I felt the need for a fresh beginning. I started unsubscribing to pages related to news in Syria. I couldn’t live both lives. I couldn’t process the dark feed anymore. I was getting schizophrenic and torn apart. After canceling most of my links to pages from Syria, I started losing my identity that was defined on my FB page , my network, my likes, my photos, my check-ins, my pages.

I think at that point, I decided to close the door on FB.

Facebook Data for Social Good

In 2016, I joined UNICEF office of innovation as a Data Scientist enthusiastic to look into data-driven solutions to aid refugees and make their lives less complicated. I started exploring available data sources, and since I already knew that FB had lots of that, I had to go back there for research purposes. I created another account, started searching for refugees-related pages and subscribing to the Syrian pages all over the world. Before I knew it, I had an account that was only producing dark feed. It was depressing to open FB but the fact that I was doing it to help, gave me the strength to continue. I tried extracting a sample of the data through the public API to use it later on in analytics projects but it was not enough. The API had a strict limited access but the data there was definitely valuable. It was representative, informative and could eventually save lives or at least make lives better. FB data contained information about dangerous routes details that could help humanitarian organizations be better prepared with intervention points to provide support, approximate number of children taking the hardest journey of all, testimonies of harsh situations from people stuck on borders or in refugees camps, calls for aid and medicine in besieged areas inside Syria, economic and social indicators, education and unemployment rates, statistics about deaths, conflicts, arrests, torture, kidnaps, lost Syrians, and much more critical data that was unfortunately out of our reach.

The Syrian Diaspora on Facebook

Today, almost all Syrians are on FB. The young and the old. The rich and the poor. The educated and the uneducated. It became their number one activity in Syria in the lack of electricity and outdoors activities. Connecting to FB became the only way for Syrian to stay in touch with their dispersed families and friends all over the world. People inside Syria are locked down with a minimum hope of being able to leave or for things to improve. On the other hand, Syrians who fled the country are stuck in asylum applications queues and are not allowed to work or study until they get settled officially which could take years, so they created a virtual reality on FB where they are all still together and connected. Where they can talk, joke, complain, argue and have company. Where they are still home.

On a final note, FB never activated the Safety Check feature for people in Syria. In a general statement they explained:

During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.”