It has been said that CNN first achieved international prominence during Gulf War I, and that Al-Jazeera captured the attention of the West during Gulf War II. Is it too early to suggest that YouTube be crowned the leading news source for the Syrian revolution?
Dip into my Twitter feed at any given moment, and you’re bound to see half a dozen links for the latest videos out of Syria. A generic formalism has set in for these videos. They’re typically shot on a camera phone by a young Syrian male who begins by announcing the date and place of the video. We see scenes of bullet-scarred buildings, maybe a dead body. Sometimes, the videos are filmed during a battle scene: little puffs of concrete dust drift gently to the ground from a building or mosque that is allegedly under attack by machine-gun wielding troops or rebels. The violence is usually telegraphed: its perpetrators are invisible snipers or artillery commanders, improvised explosive devices and insurgents. We see the effects, hardly ever the crimes themselves.
I have watched a lot of these videos, more than I like to think about. Some are obvious fakes, created by cutting and splicing footage and audio from other sources. Others seem real enough but are lacking in information: Who destroyed that building? Who killed that person? Who injured that child? Who fired that rocket?
The net effect of all these fragmented shards of documentary evidence is that one approaches each new video with a higher store of cynicism. Take the latest clip that has everyone talking: an “exposé” of Danny Abdul Dayem, the most famous spokesman of the Syrian revolution in Homs. Danny has been interviewed on CNN, BBC, and other Western outlets several times, describing the atrocities of the Syrian Army and its relentless bombardment of civilian areas.
The Syrian TV station Addounia somehow got its hands on some footage of Danny standing around, waiting to speak to CNN’s Anderson Cooper on a cell phone. The annotations of the video by the pro-regime station claim to show that Danny ordered someone off screen to prepare the sound of gunfire (so as to dupe the good listeners at home into thinking he was in a war zone). At some point, he complains that his fingers are freezing and jokes darkly that someone go get him a mattress to sit on. When he eventually gets on the phone with Anderson, he says that the army has been bombing for hours, but we know that this is untrue, because we recently saw him ask for a mattress.
Here again, one detects the traces of editorial shake-and-bake. The subtitles are not quite right: he does not say, for example: “Khalas, khalli al-jift ma3naataa” (which the editors say means “Let the gunfire sound then”), but rather something else closer to “Khalas, fell al-jidd ma3naataa” (translation: “Ok, so that means that the grandfather left…” which could refer to someone’s family member leaving Homs). Even if he did say what the editors say he said, then the translation is still dubious; the phrase would more likely mean something like: “Fine, leave (or keep) the rifle, then.”
Later on, when the subtitles read “I’m waiting at the moment,” what he actually says to someone off-screen is: “Your grandmother is calling. She’s on call waiting, man.” And a bit little later, when Danny supposedly orders someone to “prepare the gunfire” and start shooting, this is followed by the sound of an explosion. But why? He wasn’t on the phone with CNN at that moment, nor does the video contain the sound of gunfire in the background when he does speak to Anderson. So why would he have ordered someone to make some noise before he even got on the phone?
You see how this can quickly feel like a wild goose chase. Without any news agencies in Homs reporting what they see and keeping each other honest, we have to rely on the pseudo-consensus of YouTube videos and social networking (what I like to call tawaatur Twitter) for our information. What’s remarkable to me is just how quickly this phenomenon has ramped up and become so sophisticated, and also so democractic, for lack of a better term.