Watch out—your Facebook or Twitter profile could be overrun by the Syrian opposition (if your friends so choose), thanks to the new “Syria Updater” program launched by 25-year-old Syrian-American activist Kenan Rahmani.
Here’s how it works—say a Facebook friend of yours, concerned about the situation in Syria, signs up for Syria Updater (official website here). Instead of seeing your friend’s latest “liked” articles, music videos, or pictures float down your mini-feed (for non-Facebookers, a mini-feed is a sort of information highway of all your friends’ Facebook activity), you’d start to hear about battles raging between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition seeking his demise. Ditto on Twitter.
Pretty intense, right? It’s certainly an innovative activist approach for interested parties on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict. The project is similar to applications created by marketers eager to access intimate social media networks, but what makes Syria Updater different is that it posts Syria-related statuses directly under participants’ name.
The idea has taken off—Rahmani said 1,770 people have signed up for the service on Facebook, and 635 people joined on Twitter. And because it’s a rather novel way to raise awareness, people were quick to share the idea—more than 12,000 people linked to it on Twitter, while another 7,000 support it on Facebook.
Even so, the new project raises questions on everything from politics to privacy. So World Affairs turned to Rahmani, who recently returned from a humanitarian mission to the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Idlib, for more information about the project. Rahmani’s parents were born in Syria and he has made several trips to the country, both before and after violence broke out. He also co-directs the civil society initiative Watan Syria and serves on the board of the powerful advocacy group Syrian American Council, while pursuing a degree in international law at the University of Notre Dame. (Note: This e-mail interview has been edited to adjust for length and clarity.)
WORLD AFFAIRS: Can you recall what first inspired you to start something like this?
RAHMANI: The idea occurred to me not long after the Syrian Revolution started [in the spring of 2011]. I was contemplating the impact of social media in the Egyptian Revolution, and speculating how Syria would be similar or different. It was pretty clear to me that Syria’s Revolution would last a much longer time and that the kind of engagement that allowed Egyptians to keep each other updated would be impossible to maintain without help. It also puzzled me that everyone had acknowledged the huge role of social media, but nothing innovative had really been done. Then I realized that building a social app where users could opt-in once and continue to be updated and update others on Syria was the way to go. I can also credit some annoying Facebook apps with being an inspiration. I remember some time in May getting an overload of notifications from a Facebook “friends’ birthdays” app, for example. I just took the marketing practices that were used to spread user apps and use a similar approach to making Syria updates viral.
WORLD AFFAIRS: How can you assure Facebook users interested that you’re not going to sell or share their private data, or than promising not to? Seems like a big leap of trust in today’s social-networking world.
RAHMANI: I see a lot of people add the application and then remove it because they don’t feel comfortable with the idea. But I still have hundreds of users on both Facebook and Twitter that continue to trust me to post in their name. I’ve been running this thing for over a year now and haven’t gotten any complaints.
WORLD AFFAIRS: The Syrian conflict has many different voices at this point, and things are particularly cloudy when it comes to the opposition. What is Syria Updater’s position, exactly? Whose interests does it represent? Is it merely raising awareness for the violence there and alerting to human rights abuses, or is there a possibility some posts may enter more political or ideological territory? Do you send any users posts to pre-review?
RAHMANI: Syria Updater does take a clear position in support of the Revolution and against the Assad regime. This may sound cliché, but I really mean it: Syria has only 1 voice, and the Assad regime has another. Of course, both sides have diversity within their respective voices, but I think the opposition to the regime all agrees that the Assad regime is a killing, oppressive regime and must be removed. They disagree on what should replace him, but Syria Updater does not approach those questions. I have taken some heat before for sharing support of the Syrian Coalition or for sharing campaigns that promote US action for supporting the people. Not everyone agrees on that. But the majority of Syrians do and that is good enough for me. I don’t send users post to pre-review. 80% of all messages are directly sharing updates about violence and human rights abuses.
WORLD AFFAIRS: What’s the standard length of time for users donating their Facebook “real estate” to the Syrian cause? A day? A month? Do you have any data on that? Can you sign up for an automatic period with a start and end date?
RAHMANI: It’s indefinite. People opt in, then they must remove the application to get back out. I don’t have any functionality for automatic periods.
WORLD AFFAIRS: How many people run this? Is it a one-man operation?
RAHMANI: Sometimes it feels like a one-man operation. There are a few admins now that can send messages but I keep all of the computer programming to myself. I am really paranoid about security. The Assad regime has hackers that have been trying to break into the server and sometimes they are able to overload it but they have never been able to break into user information or the admin panel. I spent a lot of time putting as many safeguards as possible to thwart hackers. But if the regime’s hackers are ever able to infiltrate and send messages on users’ behalf, it would be a disaster. The regime puts in a lot of effort just to hack 1 account… imagine how much effort they are putting in to break into hundreds through this app.
WORLD AFFAIRS: Does this project exist in Arabic? If you were to say where you’re getting the most interest in the English platform—geographically—where would that be?
RAHMANI: I do send messages in Arabic sometimes, but I need to think more about how to solve the language problem. It’s a complex issue. I have played with some language functionality, not just for Arabic, but other languages as well. I haven’t come up with anything yet.