“Will I die, miss? Will I die?” asks a Syrian boy in panic. The recent video shot in a wrecked hospital in Aleppo in the aftermath of a chlorine gas attack went viral on social media. Just a few months earlier, Aleppo hit the newsfeeds with another shocking image of an injured child: five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an orange ambulance chair.
Aleppo has been one of the highest trending news on social media in the United States for a while now. People express anger, sadness, disappointment; they like and share; they tweet. And what of it? Nothing changes in Aleppo.
At the same time, across the ocean, in the US, there has been a heated discussion about the major role social media played in the recent elections. Some have argued that Donald Trump’s tweets got him more media coverage and attracted voters’ attention while fake news, which spread on social media, helped him seal his victory.
So why is it that social media can help win an election in one country and cannot stop a month-long massacre in another?
Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has argued that social media is helping dictators, while giving the masses an illusion of empowerment and political worthiness.
At a recent lecture at Columbia University, when asked for an example where social media played a negative role in a social movement, Chenoweth paused a little to finally say, “what comes to my mind now is Syria.”
Indeed, social media hurt the Syrian uprising. It gave the Syrian people the hope that the old dictatorship can be toppled just by uploading videos of protests and publishing critical posts. Many were convinced that if social media helped Egyptians get rid of Hosni Mubarak, it would help them overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
It created the false illusion that toppling him would be easy and doable.
The limits of social media activism
Social media didn’t highlight the differences in the political structures of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. The absence of a developed political opposition in Syria didn’t come to the mind of those young protesters eagerly posting on Facebook and Twitter. Egypt had decades of experience with political opposition to the regime and Syria didn’t.
But with a society under constant and pervasive surveillance, how could the Syrians develop a mature political opposition? The brief period of political relaxation following the death of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in June 2000, could’ve been an opportunity to start this process.
But the Damascus Spring, as this period of intense political and social debate was later called, ended in the autumn of 2001 with serious government repressions.
In March 2011, it looked easy to be in opposition on Facebook; it was a great platform for those who wanted to protest. The Facebook page “Syrian Revolution” was just a click away and its followers quickly grew above 100,000. What few people knew in Syria was that the administrator was actually a Syrian living in the safety of Sweden and that only 35 percent of those liking the page were Syrians actually living in Syria.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the numbers turning up sometimes at scheduled protests were low. Many were waiting for a huge sit-in to be in Umayyad Square in the heart of Damascus, or at least in Abaseen Square near the big stadium. It never happened.
Instead, the regime was able to organise major counter-marches in the same squares. The difference is that Assad wasn’t relying on Facebook to gather the crowds. He had some loyal supporters who would volunteer to turn up and the rest of the crowd would get volunteered – that is to say, various state institutions would force its workers to rally … or else.
Social media also limited social movements to only one tactic: street demonstrations. Crowds of protesters were easy targets for killing (live ammunition was widely used) and mass arrests, quickly shrinking the numbers of those willing to come out.
People react virtually while not much is changing on the ground. The number of actual protests on the ground for Syria had declined by 2013. The feeling that social media gives you that you've done your bit by posting online is one reason for this demobilisation.
The few attempted boycotts would also fail for the same reason. In December 2011, activists tried to organise a trade boycott, encouraging shops to close down; many refused to do it after they saw all the shops that were burned in Deraa after a similar initiative.
The use of social media also made activists and regular protesters highly vulnerable. When the regime allowed direct access to Facebook (which had been only accessible through VPN until then) in February 2011, it was clear that it is doing so to facilitate surveillance and the targeting of the protest movement.
Many were arrested for just sharing a photo, commenting or uploading a video. Facebook-organised protests also allowed the regime to know in advance the location and prepare its crack-down accordingly.
Virtual protests stay virtual
More importantly, social media created the illusion that one can change and challenge the events on ground by being active online. Aleppo has been severely bombed since September 2015 with the Russian intervention. This year, when news erupts that the situation is catastrophic, thousands of Syrians around the world protest … by changing their Facebook profile picture.
People react virtually while not much is changing on the ground. The number of actual protests on the ground for Syria had declined by 2013. The feeling that social media gives you that you’ve done your bit by posting online is one reason for this demobilisation.
In this regard, Syria is like Palestine, where calls for a third Intifada have not materialised into actions, despite the growing number of Israeli violations.
In fact, this trend is obvious, not just in the Middle East, but globally. In the 1990s, before the advent of social media, around 70 percent of nonviolent social movements succeeded while this number plummeted to only 30 percent in the Facebook and Twitter era.
Social media, of course, is not the only reason why the Syrian uprising failed. But it is something that Syrian revolutionaries should think about when thinking about the future of their movement.
Facebook posts cannot defeat an unscrupulous dictator armed with a brutal repressive apparatus and resolved to use it at will.
Riham Alkousaa is a Syrian journalist covering refugees in Europe and conflict in Syria. She is currently a masters’ student of Politics and Global Affairs at Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.