Ever since the social media era began a decade ago, every news event has been two in one: the happening and its nimbus of social-media activity.
The story of the war in Syria, and the U.S. reaction to it, has its own vigorous, sometimes vicious, social-media Doppelgänger, which stalks, amplifies, molds the story.
"All the actors in the conflict are vying to propel the narrative," says Chris Zambelis, a senior analyst, specializing in the Middle East, with Helios Global. "Due to the absence of independent journalists, who can't get access, social media plays an even bigger role." First reports and images of chemical warfare, he points out, came via social media.
Dozens of insurgent groups, in Syria and abroad, have taken to blogs, websites, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, online chat rooms, and short-message services, to get out their message. On July 29, 2011, the insurgent Free Syrian Army announced itself on YouTube in a video featuring defected Col. Riad Musa al-Asaad and seven fellow members of the Syrian military.
Government fights back on the same battlefield. Next to Assad's Instagram charm offensive are startling Twitter stabs, as on Sept. 10, from @Presidency_Sy on Twitter: "An opposition, opposing a government by beheading, barbecuing heads and eating the hearts of your victim? Is that opposition?"
The Syrian Electronic Army, a shadowy group of pro-government cyber-hackers, attacks opposition websites, human-rights groups, and anti-Assad western sites. It has mucked up BBC News, NPR, Human Rights Watch, the Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and other sites.
In the United States, social media churned on Aug. 31, as soon as President Obama raised the notion of a Syrian strike. Elizabeth Breese, senior content and digital marketing strategist of the Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics company, surveyed more than 530,000 tweets from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, right after the initial announcement.
"Right afterward," Breese says, "there was, among opinionated tweets (many tweets were neutral or nonopinionated), a close split in opinion, with 19 percent advocating military action and 21 percent saying no.
"But then the conversation shifted," Breese says. "By Sept. 4, some 32 percent advocated military action, and 66 were against."
A remarkably diverse array of voices came out against. It made for odd allies - military veterans and Occupy, anti-Obama Republicans and antiwar Democrats. Around the hashtag #VetsonSyria and #Ididntjoin, vets like Evan Klocinski posted images of themselves with signs saying, "I didn't join the Army to fight beside al-Qaeda in Syria. . . ."
"The Syria question seems to be a turning point for Twitter," says Breese, "in that members of Congress explicitly turned in numbers to Twitter to ask their followers and constituents to voice their opinions. This is the first time I've noticed such a widespread use of Twitter by politicians to solicit public comment."
Philip J. Crowley, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs, is now a professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He said by e-mail that social media have "definitely enabled disparate groups to coalesce behind a shared bottom line: Don't attack Syria. And members of Congress see that aggregation of opposition and are inclined not to vote for military action, and preferably not to vote at all."
The president's Sept. 9 speech on Syria lasted 16 minutes. Tweeters were watching: The word Syria was used in up to 11,498 tweets per minute. @WhiteHouse tweeted choice passages, hoping for (and getting) retweets.
Once he was done, opposition arose from both parties. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) went on Vine, the six-second video medium, to give his fresh reaction. Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) tweeted, "We are weary & wary of war."
Russia is now snuffling after a diplomatic solution. Washington, perhaps with relief, seems willing to let it play out. "So, once again, the content has shifted," Breese says. "It would be really interesting to track the social media conversation now."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.