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Useful Idiots: How YouTubers and Influencers serve the Assad regime

Updated: Aug 13, 2023


In the years since its forces have recaptured large areas of the country from opposition factions, the Syrian regime has turned its attention to the war on our collective memory. While the regime’s propaganda has been incessant since day one of the Syrian uprising, its methods and mediums for the dissemination of propaganda have, in some ways, changed drastically. One of these methods has involved inviting foreign YouTubers and influencers to visit Syria.

The French newspaper "Libération" has written about the Syrian regime's use of YouTubers and influencers in its propaganda war. The writer explains that ever since the reopening of the country's borders, more YouTube vloggers have been travelling to a country that was previously inaccessible to them.

The Syrian regime saw a tremendous opportunity by granting travel visas to tourists with cameras and huge audiences. These vloggers are invited to promote the regime’s narrative of Syria as a safe and normal country, which serves to whitewash the regime’s past and ongoing crimes against the Syrian people. These videos will often receive a lot of views, thanks to social media algorithms which prioritize sensational and unusual content. This enables the regime to disseminate its propaganda through individuals who enjoy popularity in Western countries and around the world, without incurring the costly expenses associated with organizing large festivals and events that serve the same purpose.

Coordination for these visits is carried out through regime institutions and under their direct supervision. Ghayath Al-Farah, the Deputy Minister of Tourism in the Syrian regime, considered the significant influx of content creators (YouTubers) to Syria as a major contribution to promoting tourism in the country. He added in an interview with local radio station "Melody FM" that the visits of content creators are coordinated with tourism offices, the Chamber of Tourism, and the Ministry of Tourism. Many activists have confirmed that the arrival of these YouTubers is coordinated directly through security channels, and they are accompanied by members of the regime's intelligence to oversee their content and ensure that its overarching narrative serves the regime’s interests.

For example, local media outlets circulated photos taken from the videos of a British YouTuber ‘Simon Wilson’, who is an active travel vlogger in his visit to Syria. At one point in one of his videos, having seen various destroyed buildings near archaeological sites and in devastated villages, Wilson asks his companion about what happened to those buildings. Unsurprisingly, the man pretending to be a tour guide responds by echoing the regime’s narrative and claims that the new-found “safety” experienced by Syrians is thanks to the efforts of regime forces.

Another notable individual is British YouTuber ‘Benjamin Rich’, who has 3.8 million subscribers on his channel titled "Bald and Bankrupt". He visited Syria in April 2022 with a translator and a licensed tour guide approved by the Syrian regime. He captured footage in several Syrian cities under regime control, attended a football match in the capital, visited the historic Aleppo Citadel, and inspected a hotel that had been bombed in Maaloula.

Although he expressed surprise at the effects of the bombing, he did not hold the regime or its allies responsible, despite knowing that it was the regime that employed barrel bombs as a weapon of repression for an entire decade.

Content creators from the West also use misleading and clickbait titles on their videos to exploit algorithms and increase the number of views they receive. This was the case with Danish YouTuber ‘Gustav Rostrup’, who has 291,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. He has published several videos, one of which is titled "I was Tortured in Syria."

In the thumbnail, Rostrup appears shirtless with a man seemingly choking him. However, in reality, the scene shows Rostrup undergoing a massage and scrubbing session in a public bathhouse in Damascus. He proudly showcases the service, which includes entrance fees, massage, and towels, costing no more than 4 Euros.

This video is just one of at least 18 videos that Rostrup published on YouTube and Facebook after his visit to Syria in December 2022. He also appears in another video capturing the nightlife in Damascus, marvelling at the city's vibrant night scene with dancing and celebration. Rostrup is seen in a bar called "Abu al-Zulf" located in Bab Sharqi, opposite the Church of the Olive Tree. It is one of the famous bars in the area and is usually frequented by affluent individuals. Its prices are very high and it is one of the few bars that have managed to continue operating despite the challenges faced in Syria. This is not a coincidence. The Syrian regime encourages travel vloggers to focus on aspects of nightlife and lively parties as a form of pinkwashing, so as to present itself as a guarantor of freedom in contrast to what it claims is a dark Islamic revolution. At the same time, it prohibits the display of impoverished and devastated neighbourhoods, or people suffering from poverty, hunger, and lack of security, despite 9 out of 10 Syrians in regime-controlled areas living below the poverty line. As a consequence, most videos by YouTubers focus on safe and prosperous areas such as restaurants and nightclubs that are frequented by a very small and wealthy portion of the Syrian population, who are often beneficiaries of the regime through their family connections.

The Syria portrayed by these YouTubers is beautiful and welcoming, filled with life, joy, and simple people, as well as wonderful culinary experiences and generosity. Yes, the Syrian people are kind and hospitable, but this is not the complete picture of Syria. It is the skewed image that the regime wants to paint, far from the chaos, images of death, destruction, and poverty, for which the regime is primarily responsible. The entry of a foreign content creator to film "Beautiful Damascus" is just a strategy for whitewashing that dark reality under the false pretence of presenting a different narrative from what is shown in mainstream media.

This is precisely what Janet Newingham expressed after her visit to the country in 2021, where her latest video received approximately 185,000 views. She said: "We don't hear about the Syrian people, only about the war and the brutality of Assad. I want my followers, 90% of whom are from the West, to know who the Syrians are because they don't know much about them." Newingham also claimed that she didn't notice any government officials or security personnel accompanying her. The same can be said for Turkish influencer Gugaham Yildirim, who visited Syria in March 2022 and informed his audience that he did not notice the presence of Syrian government officials. He also claimed that he went to Syria to learn, saying: "I came here with biases, but I discovered a different situation than what is portrayed in the news."

It is interesting to note that the YouTubers who visited Syria did not touch upon the reasons that led the country to its current state. They claimed to be tourists sharing their experiences and contented themselves with just pointing at places and saying: "Look at the ruined houses." They regurgitated ready-made clichés that did not assign blame to the regime or even name other parties to the armed conflict. It is as if the war happened in a different dimension or a different time, and it is as if Syrians did not exist for the last decade or so and suddenly awoke to contend with the consequences of an unnamed and unknown event.

However, some of them do not hesitate to directly convey the regime's narrative, like YouTuber ‘Drew Binsky’, the American travel blogger and photographer who managed to convey subtle messages to his followers. He contextualises his visit as a tourist who has no intention of getting involved in politics. When he talks about recent battles that took place near his location, he omits relevant information about how the regime bombed and destroyed the buildings in the vicinity. Although, in the very same video, he is all too happy to feature his travel companion who informs him that Turkey has provided the armed opposition with modern weapons. And while sitting in front of one of the many pictures of Assad, Binsky also doesn't shy away from repeating cheap regime slogans that could have been plagiarised from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Work about how “the future for Syrians is today” and that “people will work together to restore life to what it used to be.”

The phrase 'without getting involved in politics' is repeated by influencers who seek to justify their immoral visits to Syria. A more accurate portrayal of their actions is "without getting involved in humanity".

They are whitewashing the image of a regime that did not hesitate to attack the innocent Syrian people with chemical weapons. One of the most famous of these attacks was in August 2013 on the Ghouta area northeast of Damascus, where the number of casualties reached close to 1,800 people. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also rely on reports which unequivocally state that the regime carried out 217 chemical weapons attacks between December 2012 and November 2022. None of these YouTubers can even acknowledge the fact that the regime has extensively used barrel bombs, let alone chemical weapons. According to a report by SNHR in April 2021, the regime dropped close to 82,000 barrel bombs during the first nine years of the war. These are considered widely prohibited lethal weapons by the international community.

According to SNHR, these weapons have killed over 11,000 civilians in Syria, including more than 1,800 children. These low-cost and easily manufactured weapons are, from the regime's perspective, tools for destroying buildings and heritage sites, which content creators are now all too happy to film in order to gain views without acknowledging the cause of their destruction to their audiences.

It is crucial to note that the absence of military operations in the majority of Syrian territory does not mean that arbitrary arrests, or detention and torture in regime prisons have ceased. Furthermore, most Syrian refugees are deprived of their homeland and are unable to safely return.

In its annual report for 2022, Amnesty International spoke of "tens of thousands of people" who disappeared during the war. In a report released in August 2022, SNHR mentioned that the number of missing persons reached 111,000, with the network holding the Syrian regime responsible for the largest number of arbitrary arrests and cases of "enforced disappearance”. Not to mention the cases of death due to torture, which reached 14,600 deaths within Assad's detention centres.

The process of filming entertainment content in areas under the control of Bashar al-Assad's regime benefits YouTubers through the views and subscriptions they gain for their channels. It also serves the regime's propaganda, as well as far-right extremists who use this content against Syrian refugees in their calls for the deportation of Syrians back to Syria.

These YouTubers are not attempting to present a side of Syria that is obscured by mainstream media, as they so tirelessly claim. Rather, they are presenting a distorted reality of Syria and are whitewashing a genocidal regime in the process - and they need to be called out for it.

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