How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war

Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
Special How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
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YouTubers are falling for the Assad regime's propaganda and casting doubt on who is to blame for destruction in Syria. (AFP)
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Updated 30 August 2022

How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war

How Western travel bloggers project a sanitized reality of Syria’s war
  • YouTubers often emphasize security and normality, stressing how they feel “perfectly safe” in war-torn country 
  • Human rights monitors warn such content gives the wrong impression Syria is safe for returnees 

LONDON: Saddled with a bankrupt economy, a devastated infrastructure and a worthless currency, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is on a desperate mission to mend relations with its neighbors and expedite its return to the Arab League.

Although political rehabilitation on a global scale remains a bridge too far, the Assad government has made some progress in rebuilding its ties with Arab states, as evidenced by the reopening of some embassies in Damascus and the return of Syrian ambassadors to some Arab capitals.

With active conflict easing across large swaths of Syria — remaining rebel factions are confined to isolated holdouts in the far south and northwest — the regime has increasingly turned to tourism in an attempt to whitewash its well-documented crimes against humanity.

In recent months, Western travel bloggers and YouTubers have flocked to regime-held areas of Syria in record numbers in search of images and testimonies they believe offer a candid, agenda-free look inside the outcast dictatorship.

Content of this kind, which includes videos that in some cases have amassed more than 2.5 million views, is often presented as a perspective on the “Syria that the media won’t show,” as Benjamin Rich, a British vlogger who goes by the YouTube user name “Bald and Bankrupt,” put it in a recent upload.




Benjamin Rich (‘Bald and Bankrupt’) filming destroyed buildings in Homs. (Supplied)

But human-rights monitors and experts are concerned that this rise of “war tourism” projects a sanitized version of reality that serves the regime’s disinformation campaign about Syria now being safe for refugees to return and resume their normal lives.

“Travel bloggers are perhaps the best advertising the Syrian government has had in over a decade,” Simon Bayley, the lead Syria analyst at the Center for Operational Analysis and Research, told Arab News.

“They tell only stories that the government would tell, gloss over the crimes of the state, and neglect realities that the government would consider best ignored. There can be no accountability, only more denial, control and marginalization of the many millions of Syrians to have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods as a result of the regime’s actions.”

In several videos, bloggers appear keen to emphasize a sense of security and normality in Syria, for example by stressing how “perfectly safe” they feel, as YouTube user “Backpacker Ben” stated in one of his videos. “We were walking around, drinking beers on the street, talking to people,” he said.




‘Backpacker Ben’ filming a destroyed rebel stronghold in Maaloula, in rural Damascus. (Supplied)

But the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a human rights organization based in Washington, D.C., warned that the content uploaded by travel bloggers creates a false impression of stability and security.

“Syria is clearly not safe for the return of refugees,” Mohammed Al-Abdallah, the center’s executive director, told Arab News. “But, if you watch these videos, you see a Syria that is safe, stable and, in some ways, prospering.”

The videos also appear to suggest the conflict in the country is largely over and life is returning to normal.

“Syrians who return to Syria don’t have those same experiences and often face intense suspicion and persecution by the Syrian government,” said Al-Abdallah.

According to human rights monitors, including the European Asylum Support Office, the Syrian regime continues to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture and kill returnees, despite many of them obtaining security clearances and status settlement before returning to Syria.

“For millions of Syrians, returning to Syria is not an option,” Laila Kiki, the executive director of rights-monitoring group The Syria Campaign, told Arab News.

“Several human rights reports indicate that those who do so have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured or even killed.”

“Backpacker Ben” told Arab News that he does not have any political agenda and was not aware of the situation that returning refugees faced. He said that since he published his videos, displaced Syrians have sent him messages expressing “confusion” on seeing, of all people, a tourist visiting their war-torn homeland.

INNUMBERS

100,000+ Estimated number of people missing or disappeared.

50% Proportion of the prewar population who are displaced.

90% Share of the remaining population now living in poverty.

Source: UN Human Rights office

Many travel bloggers say they are apolitical and know little about the Syrian conflict. Some, however, try to offer explanations for the scenes of destruction they encounter and film during their travels. Many critics suspect that they are merely repeating and amplifying talking points fed to them by regime-approved tour guides.

For example, videos uploaded by Rich (“Bald and Bankrupt”) show bombed-out buildings in Aleppo, Homs and Maaloula. Tellingly, he attributes the damage to “militants” without any mention of the Assad regime, whose war tactics are widely blamed for most of the destruction of Syria’s urban infrastructure.




Thomas Brag (‘Yes Theory’) in abandoned neighborhoods in Homs. (Supplied)

When travel bloggers are shown around Damascus, many of them venture to the nearby town of Sednaya to visit a renowned Greek Orthodox Church monastery. What these bloggers often gloss over is the fact that one of Syria’s most notorious prisons, where thousands of regime opponents have been tortured to death, is also located in Sednaya.

Bloggers’ visits are usually arranged through Syrian travel agencies that claim to be independent. However, experts say these agencies, like all other companies in the country, must obtain the approval of the Assad regime to operate.




Jaabar Citadel, the ancient lake-side fortress once used by jihadists to launch attacks, is slowly regaining its status as a top cultural destination. (AFP)

“For a country in which it is practically impossible to establish a volunteer charity initiative without considerable — often wholly prohibitive — interference from the central state, it is improbable that a Syrian travel agency has been able to secure the requisite licensing, permissions and access without some form of state intervention,” said Bayley.

Such travel agencies are carefully vetted by state security services, he said, and it is likely they are made well aware of the consequences for their business if their tours result in any bad publicity for the regime.

“Backpacker Ben” said he was accompanied throughout his visit to Syria by a “fixer” who guided him around the country. He admitted feeling “slightly restricted” as a result. Such guides appear to stay at the same hotels as their tour parties.




A family visits the ruins of the Jaabar Citadel in Syria's Raqqa province on June 3, 2022. The ancient lake-side fortress is attracting visitors from across war-torn Syria. (AFP) 

Hesham Nasri, the marketing director at Syrian travel agency Golden Team, told Arab news that tour operators typically take care of the entire process for foreign clients, from obtaining visas to creating itineraries.

He said the agency applies to government authorities for all required security clearances on behalf of clients who want to visit Syria, and the permits that allow the tourists and their guides to travel around the country.

Although Nasri said no conditions are attached to the security-clearance process, Syrian immigration authorities have been known to reject the visa applications of certain nationalities, notably American citizens.




What the gullible travel bloggers are not saying is the danger that awaits visitors in much of war-ravaged Syria. (AFP file)

Monitors say that by facilitating such stage-managed visits for often ill-informed and gullible travel bloggers, the regime is able to peddle its propaganda in cyberspace and bypass the professional rigour of conventional journalism.

“In future, I hope those with an online presence are mindful as to the consequences of their actions in such a politically sensitive place,” said Bayley.

“Regardless of how much one knows about the conflict, it is abundantly clear that a war is still being fought and that the wounds from that conflict are still very much open for many millions of people.”

 

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Iraqis outraged after father kills YouTube star daughter

Tiba Al-Ali. (Social media)
Tiba Al-Ali. (Social media)
Updated 04 February 2023

Iraqis outraged after father kills YouTube star daughter

Tiba Al-Ali. (Social media)
  • Ali had gained a following on YouTube, where she posted videos of her daily life and in which her fiance often appeared

BAGHDAD: The death of a young YouTube star at the hands of her father has sparked outrage in Iraq, where so-called “honor killings” continue to take place in the conservative country.
Tiba Al-Ali, 22, was killed by her father on January 31 in the southern province of Diwaniya, interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan said on Twitter on Friday.
Police had attempted to mediate between Ali — who resided in Turkiye and was visiting Iraq — and her relatives to “resolve the family dispute in a definitive manner,” Maan said.
Unverified recordings of conversations between Ali and her father appeared to indicate that he was unhappy about her decision to live alone in Turkiye.
Maan said that after the police’s initial encounter with the family “we were surprised the next day... with the news of her killing at the hands of her father, as he admitted in his initial confessions.”
He did not give further details on the nature of the dispute.
Ali had gained a following on YouTube, where she posted videos of her daily life and in which her fiance often appeared.
A police source speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity meanwhile confirmed that the “family dispute” dated back to 2015.
She had traveled to Turkiye with her family in 2017, but upon their return, she refused to join them, choosing instead to stay in Turkiye where she resided since, the police source said.
Her death has sparked uproar among Iraqis on social media, who have called for protests in Baghdad on Sunday to demand justice in response to her death.
“Women in our societies are hostage to backward customs due to the absence of legal deterrents and government measures — which currently are not commensurate with the size of domestic violence crimes,” wrote veteran politician Ala Talabani on Twitter.
Human rights defender Hanaa Edwar told AFP that, according to voice recordings attributed to the young woman, “she left her family... because she was sexually assaulted by her brother.”
The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights too reported the allegation. AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the voice recordings.
Amnesty International condemned the “horrific” killing, saying “the Iraqi penal code still treats leniently so called ‘honor crimes’ comprising violent acts such as assault and even murder.”
“Until the Iraqi authorities adopt robust legislation to protect women and girls... we will inevitably continue to witness horrific murders,” Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Aya Majzoub, said.

 


MBC Group names Christina Wayne as managing director of its studio arm

MBC Group names Christina Wayne as managing director of its studio arm
Updated 03 February 2023

MBC Group names Christina Wayne as managing director of its studio arm

MBC Group names Christina Wayne as managing director of its studio arm
  • She replaces Peter Smith, who stepped down last week
  • Wayne brings ‘wealth of international expertise,’ group CEO Sam Barnett says

LONDON: MBC Group on Friday announced the appointment of Christina Wayne as the new managing director of its production arm, MBC Studios.

Group CEO Sam Barnett said the company was “incredibly excited” by the appointment.

“Christina brings with her a wealth of international expertise in content development and production where she has worked across a multitude of territories and languages, and led on the development of Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning series,” he said.

“We look forward to her building on the team’s successes as we continue to expand our horizons in international content even further.”

Wayne is a seasoned executive and producer with more than 25 years of international experience writing, directing and producing TV shows and films.

Before joining MBC Studios, she was principal creative executive and head of Canada and Australia at Amazon Studios, a position she had held since 2019.

A member of the Writers Guild of America since 1997, Wayne has also held positions with Assembly Entertainment, Cineflix Studios and AMC, and worked on a host of award-winning productions, including “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Broken Trail.”

“I am absolutely delighted to join MBC Group and MBC Studios and have heard great things about the incredible team Peter and the rest of MBC have built,” she said.

“This is a very exciting venture for me, and I cannot wait to get fully involved in one of the world’s most exciting territories for content production.”

Wayne takes over from Peter Smith, who stepped down last week after four years at the helm of MBC Studios. During that time he helped launch the production arm of the free-to-air network MBC and led numerous flagship Arabic-language productions.

Building on Smith’s legacy, Wayne will continue to push into premium non-English-language TV programming and broaden the reach of MBC Group’s content to consumers worldwide.


TikTok rolls out new account enforcement system to address repeated policy violations

TikTok rolls out new account enforcement system to address repeated policy violations
Updated 03 February 2023

TikTok rolls out new account enforcement system to address repeated policy violations

TikTok rolls out new account enforcement system to address repeated policy violations
  • The new update allows TikTok to remove harmful accounts more efficiently
  • TikTik will notify its community members when the new system is available

DUBAI: TikTok announced an updated system for account enforcement for a smoother content creation experience on the entertainment platform.

The move aims to better act against those who repeatedly violate the policies, helping TikTok to remove harmful accounts more efficiently, while promoting a clearer and more consistent experience for most creators who want to follow policies, the company said in a statement.

The updated account enforcement system is currently rolling out globally, and TikTok said it would notify all community members as the new system becomes available to them.

The existing account enforcement system leverages different types of restrictions, like temporary bans from posting or commenting, to prevent abuse of product features while teaching people about the policies detailed in TikTok’s community guidelines to reduce future violations.

While this approach has been effective in reducing harmful content overall, TikTok heard from creators that it can be confusing to navigate. It can disproportionately impact creators who rarely and unknowingly violate a policy, while potentially being less efficient at deterring those who repeatedly violate them.

Repeat violators, according to TikTok, tend to follow a pattern. Analysis has found that almost 90 percent violate using the same feature consistently, and over 75 percent violate the same policy category repeatedly.

To better address this, TikTok is updating the account enforcement system to support the creator community and remove repeat offenders from the platform.

Under the new system, if someone posts content that violates one of TikTok’s community guidelines, the account will accrue a strike as the content is removed. If an account meets the threshold of strikes within either a product feature (i.e. comments, LIVE) or policy (i.e. bullying and harassment), it will be permanently banned.

Those policy thresholds can vary depending on a violation’s potential to cause harm to community members. For example, there may be a stricter threshold for violating TikTok policy against promoting hateful ideologies, than for sharing low-harm spam.

TikTok will continue to issue permanent bans on the first strike for severe violations, including promoting or threatening violence, showing or facilitating child sexual abuse material, or showing real-world violence or torture.

As an additional safeguard, accounts that accrue a high number of cumulative strikes across policies and features will also be permanently banned. Strikes will expire from an account’s record after 90 days.

The company said in its statement that these changes are intended to drive more transparency around TikTok’s enforcement decisions and help the community better understand how to follow the community guidelines.

To further support creators, TikTok will roll out new features in the Safety Center provided to creators in-app in the coming weeks. These include an “account status” page where creators can easily view the standing of their account, and a “report records” page where creators can see the status of reports they have made on other content or accounts.

These new tools add to the notifications creators already receive if they have violated policies, and support creators’ ability to appeal enforcements and have strikes removed if valid. TikTok will also begin notifying creators if they are on the verge of having their account permanently removed.

As a separate step toward improving transparency about moderation practices at the content level, TikTok is beginning to test a new feature in some markets that would provide creators with information about which of their videos have been marked as ineligible for recommendation to the “For You” feed, let them know why, and give them the opportunity to appeal.


Big Tech earnings show digital ads market not out of the woods

Big Tech earnings show digital ads market not out of the woods
Updated 03 February 2023

Big Tech earnings show digital ads market not out of the woods

Big Tech earnings show digital ads market not out of the woods
  • Mood among advertisers remains ‘cautiously optimistic’ for the year ahead as economic slowdown looms

LONDON: After a challenging 2022 in which advertising-dependent companies faced shrinking budgets and cratering stock prices, fourth-quarter results this week from Alphabet, Meta Platforms and Snap showed they were not yet in the clear.
The health of the advertising industry closely mirrors the economy, and many advertisers have pared back their marketing budgets in response to record-high inflation rates and continued uncertainty about a recession.
Google-owner Alphabet Inc. on Thursday reported a slight fall in quarterly ad revenue, missing Wall Street expectations and surprising investors as the world’s largest digital ad platform has traditionally been resilient compared to smaller rivals. Shares of Alphabet were down 5 percent in trading after the closing bell.
“For a company the size of Google and as influential as Google to have such disappointing results, (that means the ad industry) won’t turn around in one quarter,” said Evelyn Mitchell, an analyst at Insider Intelligence.
Snap Inc, owner of photo messaging app Snapchat, said Tuesday it expects current-quarter revenue to decline as much as 10 percent due to competition for ad dollars and a challenging economy.
“(Advertisers) are managing their spend very cautiously so they can react quickly to any changes in the environment,” Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel said during an earnings call.
Meta Platforms Inc, the second-largest digital ad platform, lifted Wall Street on Wednesday with its cost cuts and big share buyback, though it posted its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year revenue decline.
Lower ad spending from brands in the financial services and technology sector was one reason for the revenue decline, the company said.
Meta Chief Financial Officer Susan Li said the broader economy continues to be “pretty volatile” and it was too early to tell what the year would look like.
The mood among advertisers broadly is one of “cautious optimism” for the year ahead, said Nicola Mendelsohn, Meta’s vice president of global business group, in an interview on Thursday.
By region, advertisers have been bullish about the US market, while sentiment in Europe has struggled comparatively and China has shown signs of improvement, though the future remains uncertain amid the country’s reopening, Mendelsohn said.


Meta accused of playing double game on data scraping

Meta accused of playing double game on data scraping
Updated 02 February 2023

Meta accused of playing double game on data scraping

Meta accused of playing double game on data scraping
  • Tech giant filed lawsuit against data collection company it collaborated with for years
  • Evidence shows Meta hired firm to pull information from a number of e-commerce sites

LONDON: Meta is accused of playing a double game on scraping, with the tech giant criticized for having scraped data for years while denouncing the practice.

According to evidence that surfaced from a legal case being pursued by the company, the tech giant has been subcontracting a company for years to scrape data from other websites, despite publicly criticizing the practice and suing companies that scrape data from its own social media platforms.

In an ironic twist, Meta filed a lawsuit against Israel-based data collection company Bright Data for allegedly pulling data from its platforms, but a series of emails between the two businesses reveals that Meta has worked with the Israeli firm for years.

The professional relationship was confirmed by Meta spokesperson Andy Stone, who said that the social media giant had hired Bright Data to pull information from a number of e-commerce sites in order to build brand profiles, as well as identify “harmful websites” and “phishing operations.”

“The collection of data from websites can serve legitimate integrity and commercial purposes, if done lawfully and in accordance with those websites’ terms,” said Stone.

He said that Meta was not using Bright Data to scrape rivals’ websites, but declined to specify what websites users’ data were pulled from.

Stone added that Meta interrupted its partnership with Bright Data after it found that the Israeli company breached terms and conditions for carrying out the practice on Meta’s own platforms.

“Many companies scrape websites to retrieve data that can help them keep track of competitors, better understand a specific audience, follow market trends and compare prices,” tech expert and writer Marissa Newman said.

“However, scraping can pose a privacy risk when it targets personal information, such as contact details, and runs foul of EU law if companies do not make an effort to prevent that through technical and legal means.”

In recent years, Meta has cracked down on scraping practices and pursued legal action against companies that carry out scraping-for-hire services on its platform.

Earlier in January, Meta filed a claim against surveillance company Voyage Lab, claiming it allegedly created more than 38,000 accounts to collect data from over 600,000 Facebook users.

Bright Data CEO Or Lenchner said the two companies had a “long-lasting successful partnership,” adding that Meta “has long been a valued client of our proxy and scraping services for six years.”

The Israeli data collection company decided to file a countersuit, claiming that it followed EU and US regulations, and acquired only public information that was not password-protected.