Storyful Blog

The battle for Maarat: Using social media to cut through the fog of war

Following Syria’s civil war is never easy. The old adage that the first casualty of war is the truth still applies, and such is the relentless brutality it is often difficult to even confirm when an incident took place. But we’ve been following the Syrian conflict through social media since the beginning, and have developed a number of methods of cutting through the fog of war to get a clearer picture of what’s taking place in the embattled state.

The recent battle for Maarat al-Numan was a case in point. Activist sources are almost always our starting point, and it was through activists sources on Storyful’s Syria Twitter list that we first heard of the destruction of a helicopter near this northwestern city on October 17. The information was also posted to the Facebook page of Syria’s local coordinating committees (LCCs).

Our first step in these instances is to get closer to the story, usually by finding a local activist or LCC Facebook page in the town in which the incident occurred. Syrian activists, in particular the LCCs, almost invariably have a strong social media presence, and Maarat al-Numan proved no exception, with a regularly updated Facebook page calling itself the ‘Revolutionary Command Council in Maarat’. The page contained corroborating information regarding the destruction of the helicopter, and an indistinct video purporting to show the attack was also posted to the page. Other Maarat al-Numan based activists also tweeted about the incident.

Using the relevant Arabic search terms on YouTube, we found several other videos of the same incident, including this high-quality footage of the helicopter exploding in mid-air:

The problem, as always, was finding a way to make sure that what we were seeing had really taken place when and where it was being reported. We often start with attempting to geolocate a video like the one above (see tips on how to geolocate a video here), but the absence of notable landmarks this time made it tricky. So we moved on to a closer look at the YouTube account where it had been uploaded and noted that it posted videos exclusively from Maarat al-Numan and its surrounding areas. The video description stated the incident had taken place in Deir al-Gharbi (الدير الغربي), just outside Maarat al-Numan. The account also added this short clip of the chopper under fire on the same day. The uploader uses the same fonting across all of the videos, another clue that they were likely originals.

Next we looked for supporting evidence. The events depicted in the video were backed up by videos from surrounding areas, such as this video from a familiar account in Morek in which the caption and a voice at the start of the video mention Kafr Ruma, which is just outside Maarat al-Numan. As seen in this map, all of these locations lie just a short distance from each other, with Maarat al-Numan marked by the blue arrow, Deir al-Gharbi the red, and Kafr Ruma the green:

We also made contact with an English-speaking Maarat al-Numan-based activist through the Facebook page, who directly engaged with us about the event. The activist, a moderator of the page, confirmed the destruction of the helicopter and said that Syrian forces were attacking the town “every day… by helicopter and other fighting planes”.

The retaliation of the Syrian army to the downed helicopter was swift and severe. On October 18, activists reported that air strikes were launched against Maarat al-Numan and surrounding areas. Once again, we made contact with the local activist via Skype, who said air strikes landed “near his home”. Several videos of the attacks emerged from Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding areas.

The video below was uploaded by the 2021maher1 account which has been uploading content exclusively from Maarat al-Numan for several months. It was linked to a Maarat al-Numan-based Facebook page. We had verified and used videos from this uploader in the past, and considered the account a reliable and trustworthy source.

Activists also tweeted about attacks on towns near to Maarat al-Numan. This final video, shows an enormous explosion in the town of Maarat Hurma (معرة حرمة), near to Maarat al-Numan. It is dated October 18 and was shared by a Maarat al-Numan-based Facebook account, which lent it further credence. The distinctive water tower and minaret seen in the video helped us confirm the location as Maarat Hurma, using Google Maps:

In journalism, there is no substitute for having a trusted reporter on the ground. However, media organizations simply do not have the resources to be everywhere at once. Citizen journalists and activists, on the other hand, are everywhere. Their reporting may be unreliable, sometimes misleading and even downright false, but that doesn’t mean such reports should be discarded. Careful interrogation of a source, methodical research and sometimes a simple phone call can help parse and verify information coming through these channels, often the only information on the subject that’s available to news organizations.

It’s not about replacing journalism: it’s about asking the same questions and applying the same journalistic values in an ever-evolving media landscape. We weren’t on the ground during the Battle for Maarat, but the witnesses were many and they have new ways of documenting and disseminating what they see and experience. Our job was to find them –  to interrogate their story and the evidence they shared – and through them, the truth.

Credit to Storyful’s Jenny Hauser and Eoghan mac Suibhne for their efforts in verifying much of the content in this entry



5 comments on “The battle for Maarat: Using social media to cut through the fog of war

  1. Def_izit == bb_king and vv
    November 1, 2012

    one of the “centralized” information multiplexors about Syria was set up by independent ppl and is with over 200k information posts, reviews, talks now still up since AJE struggled in their SW-Change simply go

    • Joe Galvin
      November 1, 2012

      Thanks for that; we’ll check it out.

  2. downwinder
    November 1, 2012

    I am still seeking evidence of cluster munitions attacks that would have a chance of standing up in court.  So many of the videos available at present are not clearly attached to a particular place, and appear to offer circumstantial evidence at best.

    I have seen nothing yet that seems able to cut through official denials or stand up in court.  CJ Chivers made the point in July that cluster bomb use by Syrian government forces was unconfirmed, despite allegations.  What has changed?

  3. Jethro Murphy
    November 8, 2012

    Interesting article.  I can see a allot of time was spent verifying fact from fiction and this was only as regards a helicopter being shot down.  

    But what of the bigger questions being asked about this conflict?  

    There are many who say the uprising / revolution is fake.  It is nothing more than about 10,000 foreign funded ‘bandits’ and mercenaries trying to overthrow a stable country of 60 million people.  The majority of whom support the regime and don’t like how the country is being portrayed by the western media.

    Who’s funding the action?  Why?  

    Why is the media not asking better questions rather than merely reporting on incidents?

    Seems it’s easier to report on what’s happening ‘on-stage’ rather than looking behind the curtains to see what’s really going on.The same can be said of how the media in Ireland and abroad have ‘reported’ on the financial crisis.  There are many people on the ground blogging and broadcasting insightful and intelligent insights and opinions as to what’s really going on, but the main stream media, it seems, is obsessed with the theatrics of politicians.  RTÉ’s coverage has been meaningless.So what’s the result of this bland, unquestioning, ‘skin-deep’ approach to journalism in Ireland and abroad?  People buy the theatrics believing it to be news. Report on the theatrics long and often enough and people in Ireland and abroad will believe it is their ‘moral duty’ to repay the banks (d’oh…too late, they already do).The mainstream media is useful to find out things like car crashes, helicopters being shot down, births, deaths and other gossip and political theatrics of who said what, why, when and how. It’s a kindergarten rag for ‘adults’.For example, I have been inspired and educated by the guests that have been on Max Keiser’s show.  He has done a really good job of finding grass-roots people who know what’s going on in the world of finance.  Without this type of journalism I would be none the wiser as to what is really going on behind banking curtains. Journalism should empower, enlighten and educate.  Imagine the impact news would have if there was a platform available that allowed smart people on the ground to collaborate and speak with ‘one voice’ to a public being dumb ed down by main stream media that no longer ask better questions or try to look behind the curtains?

  4. Pingback: On the Meedan Radar – November 2012 «

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This entry was posted on October 31, 2012 by in Social Journalism, verification.
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