Beehive: Syrian City of Madaya: Uses and Limits of SNS in Humanitarian Crises

In this article from the March 2016 issue of Beehive: Middle East Social Media, AMSITAU fellow Natasha Spreadborough discusses the use of SNS in combating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
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From Twitter
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From the Twitter campaign.


At the beginning of January 2016, Western media networks began covering the siege imposed on the Syrian city of Madaya, which was causing severe hunger and suffering among the local population. This coverage was the result of an extensive campaign on social networking sites (SNS) that aimed to bring the humanitarian crisis in Madaya to the attention of the world, after it seemed that the traditional media had tired of the Syrian crisis. The success of the campaign can be seen in the media echoes that followed, which in turn spurred the UN and international community into greater action to end the siege.

The siege of Madaya started in July 2015, as part of an attempt by forces aligned with the Syrian regime to exert pressure on the rebels, in nearby Zabadani, a city close to the Lebanese border that has been controlled by the rebels since 2012.[1] The crisis worsened when government and Hezbollah forces mounted an offensive against Zabadani last fall, resulting in some ten thousand refugees escaping to Madaya, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the city. The situation was further compounded by Russian airstrikes that continued despite the September 2015 cease-fire, and in violation of promises to evacuate residents of the besieged city.[2]

In September 2015, the first scattered reports emerged which exposed the harsh conditions faced by inhabitants of Madaya – whose existence was largely dependent on bulgur wheat and weeds.[3] During this time, the UN struggled to get aid into the besieged town mainly because of opposition by government forces[4] and the reluctance to deliver airborne assistance for fear that rebel and government forces alike would try to down the planes.[5] Whilst it succeeded in October to send a shipment of biscuits to Madaya and Zabadani, the food turned out to be expired.

Only in January 2016, did more significant media interest in the humanitarian crisis in Madaya begin. This was the result of a massive online campaign launched on SNS in early December, primarily through efforts of aid workers and human rights activists in Madaya. The campaign focused on disseminating images and videos of emaciated, starving children and elderly people, alongside corpses, with the hashtags #Madaya and #Save Madaya, in English and Arabic.[6] The campaign also included pleas from the city’s residents for urgent international aid.

The success of the campaign was facilitated firstly by using simple and unique hashtags, making it easy to locate and link pictures from the scene across multiple SNS. Furthermore, the campaign transmitted a clear, direct message. This was augmented by the shocking pictures chosen, particularly those of emaciated children. Activists and health officials’ reliable testimonies about the situation on the ground, augmented the shock created by photographic evidence. All these factors combined with the Christmas holiday period, and the swelling of the news wave from Madayain early January shows that the campaign worked – it seems – on public sentiment in West that was influenced by the holiday spirit of giving. Also contributing was the perception that the crisis in Madaya, unlike others in Syria which were hampered by operational constraints (the deployment of combat forces in the field, high integration of the rebels among the poor population, etc.), actually had the chance of being solved.

Image from Twitter
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Image from Twitter


Yet the campaign was not error-free. Between January 4 and January 12, several images purporting to show the situation in Madaya, but actually documenting Iraqi citizens several years ago, were shared by various news outlets. These pictures were eventually removed, but not before causing confusion.[7] The effect of the campaign is evident in the response it drew from the international community. On January 14, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that preventing food from reaching civilians is considered a war crime, regardless of who was behind the action. Around the same time, reports surfaced indicating that the UN had been aware for months that residents of Madaya were starving. As a result, on January 19 the UN gave permission for western countries to deliver food to Madaya by air, even without the approval from the Assad regime. The UN further declared, “All options should remain on the table” for stopping the siege of the city. In the opinion of Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, this uncharacteristic decisiveness reflected the failure of the UN to respond to the siege, as part of its continuing failure to resolve the five years of civil war in Syria.[8]

Despite the success of the campaign, this remains a limited means of influence for raising awareness and creating long-term media attention on specific issues. The main test, therefore, will be the extent to which awareness remains in the public consciousness over time, and whether it leads to a positive change in the situation of the local population. In this context, the benefits of using social networking as a tool for floating issues, including humanitarian ones should be recognized. This is especially true considering the fact that these means were previously unavailable, and citizens and non-establishment forces had little, if any, ability to have a significant impact on the content disseminated by traditional media. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that SNS have limitations, and there is a need to find effective ways to leverage the media hype they form around different issues.

The SNS campaign to encourage assistance to the Syrian city of Madaya demonstrates the significant contribution that SNS can make to increasing public awareness and recruiting the international community. The campaign also contributed to increased interest on the part of traditional media, despite the fatigue that characterizes it after covering the war in Syria for more than five years. Launching an organized campaign at the right time proved that it is possible to awaken emotions; moreover, it led to action that provided relief, at least temporarily, to the people of Madaya. Conversely, it is necessary to recognize the limitations of medium and its short-term influence, and effectively leverage the media echoes it creates, in order to maintain the effect over time and create meaningful change in the field.

 



Notes

[1] Mustafa al-Haj, “Besieged Madaya residents face starvation,” Al Monitor, January 3, 2016. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/syria-madaya-siege-famine.html

[2] Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “In Syrian Town Cut Off From the World, Glimpses of Deprivation,” The New York Times, January 14, 2016.

[3] Mustafa al-Haj, “Syrian regime dis young people who are more active on SNS.places Zabadani residents,” Al Monitor, September 15, 2016. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/syria-zabadani-madaya-regime-hezbollah-displacement-refugees.html; Avi Asher-Schapiro, ‘“Children Are Eating Leaves Off the Trees: The Nightmare of the Siege of Madaya, Syria,” Vice News, January 4 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nick Paton Walsh, “Starving Syrian town: How did Madaya get so desperate?,” CNN, January 12 2016. http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/12/middleeast/syria-madaya-qa/

[6] #Madaya #SaveMadaya,

[7] Avi Asher-Schapiro, ‘“Children Are Eating Leaves Off the Trees: The Nightmare of the Siege of Madaya, Syria,” Vice News, January 4 2016.

https://news.vice.com/article/children-are-eating-leaves-off-the-trees-the-nightmare-of-the-siege-of-madaya-syria

[8] Laura Hughes, “Air drop food to starving Syrians, UN tells Britain,” The Telegraph, January 19 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12108990/Air-drop-food-to-starving-Syrians-UN-tells-Britain.html.”