The siege of Aleppo reads like a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria has, since 2012, been a battle point between the rebels (the Free Syrian Army plus the Army of Conquest, as well as Al-Queda’s Syrian arm).  Some 31,000 people are estimated to have died.

The government forces (and Russia) have been airstriking (is that a word) the shit out of rebel positions and the rebels, while falling back, have been shelling government-held parts of the city. Here is a breakdown of the sides by Nassim Taleb (Black Swan / Antifragile):

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Both sides have had it rough. In July the government forces managed to circle the city, but the rebels hit back, cutting government supply lines into the western part of the city and hanging on like grim death onto Eastern Aleppo.

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And yet this conflict only made our timelines when some bizarre tweets from #aleppo started trending on Twitter. Amidst the voices was that of Bana, a 7-year old girl tweeting about being under fire in Syria.

Initially, I spent a full day just reading #aleppo, horrified at the conflict it revealed and equally horrified that, if you go by the shares, Kim Kardashian’s butt is more important than one of the most brutal sieges happening in the world today.

It took a while for me to spot the implausibilities. Bana is a verified account.

1) Why does a 7-year-old have a verified account?

2) There was a whole host of beautifully worded “final messages” on #aleppo. As  Sri Lankans, we know what wartime misinformation looks like; during a 30-year civil war it was used internally by the government of Sri Lanka, but (much more successfully) also by the LTTE to drum up international support.

Given that the Aleppo rebels are no chicken farmers , but are sophisticated militants, how much of this “news” was propaganda? 

3) Why is the mainstream media not talking about this?

The second question was easy to verify. #Most of the eloquent “Goodbye messages” were too similar and well-done to be real. They all have a scripted air – the common narrative is that there’s all-out genocide; Assad (government) forces are raiding houses and slaughtering civilians; and that Aleppo’s militant Islamist rebels are valiantly fighting the Russian-backed genocidal government.

Anissa Naouai, host of RT’s “In the Now”, identified these popular videos and the rebel-affiliated activists / propaganda artists generating them. They all have massive social profiles that are verifiable with a few searches. The videos are clearly part of a funded operation: most of these people have MSM access. Their activism might be real, but they’re a) not terrified civilians recording their last thoughts and b) are on the side of an ISIS analogue.

Is Bana real?

a_ov_bana_161004-nbcnews-ux-1080-600Is this endearing seven-year-old real? Or is this a carefully constructed media trigger? Remember that most of us didn’t know or care about the Syrian war until that photo of a boy washed up on the beach went viral.

At this point some of you will, naturally, be looking disgusted at my rationale.

Fortunately, Megan Specia from the New York Times was working on a piece on the Syrian war and actually kept in touch with Bana. Her balanced and rather moving article points out three things:

1) Bana Al-Abed is a real girl living a real life in a very real war.
2) The Twitter account is operated by her 26-year-old mother.
3) In some of the videos shared, Bana calls for an end to the bombing and appears to be prompted from off camera, as if speaking a rehearsed message

Is this seven year-old girl, who the Washington Post calls “the Anne Frank of the Syrian War” a propaganda prop? I think she (unwittingly) is.

I have no doubt that the child is real and wishes for an end to the war. I have no doubt that the bombing is real and that people are dying in terrible ways. However, she is not the one writing this story. Her mother is. Willingly or not, the child is being used as a prop.

Which brings us to the 3rd question: why is the mainstream media not talking about this?

I assumed the media wasn’t, but as it turns out, every media outlet worth its salt has something on Syria.

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Granted, it’s not as much as all the other trivial stuff. But I’ve come to believe that this assumption about the media is more a problem with the way I / we consume news.

The logic is as follows: newspapers thrive on advertising. Advertising models thrive on shares, clicks and views. What do people share, click and view?

Not the most important stuff. Consider the following recent headlines:

  • Japan overtook China as the largest holder of U.S Treasuries.
  • Justin Trudeau, the only Prime Minister who could double as an underwear model, is tossing his liberal politics in the bin.
  • Scientists discovered a way to potentially reverse aging in mice (imagine the implications for humans).
  • A 12-year-old boy tried to detonate a bomb at a German Christmas market.

And yet we don’t see these things, because this don’t really interest most of us. My personal feeds, for instance, catalogue none of this information.

It follows that to survive, media outlets, too, must cater on some level to their audiences. Nobody would read pure highbrow journalism; such a paper would die out too soon.Therefore, perhaps it’s not just that mainstream media (which is largely dominated by America) is ignoring Syria: it’s could also that we don’t see, consume and share that kind of news.

Where there is no demand, can supply thrive?

Conclusion

Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

That’s a quote from Arrival (which, by the way, might easily be one of the most intelligent sci-fi movies ever made: watch it).

If you substitute “communication” for “language”, the phrase also reflects the reality of modern warfare, which is as much about misinformation as it is about shooting the other guy in the face. Now you have to make the world root for you (again, a tactic the LTTE did so well).

The ‘liberators’ drumming support against the government now garnering much of the support on social media. But if we hark back to Taleb’s comparison:

20161215_syria_0Are the “bad guys” on social media really the bad guys? And are the good guys the good guys? There are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, but how much of the news can be believed?

Previously, the victors in any conflict wrote the narrative. But as David Blacker pointed out, the Internet changed all that. Communication now decides whether you go down as the hero or the villain. Syria – and every warfront in the world right now – is a masterclass in how to do it.

In a perfect world, we would accept that there are always biases, even in reputed media; we would consume information from different sources and consider a weighted average as the truth. In this world, we all get triggered by one image and a winning tweet. So, note to self: stop relying on Facebook for news and start reading the papers again.

Because, as Goebbels said, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

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9:09 PM: edit note: thanks to Devika Brendon for spotting the error in the title.