#BreakingSyria: Who Shapes the Narrative on the Free Syrian Army

Looking at the highest profile English and Arabic language networks covering the Free Syrian Army

In recent months, especially after Damascus fell to forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Assad turned the tide and went on the offensive. Rebel forces in Daraa are now on the verge of complete collapse, leaving few pockets of resistance in the north.

One of the remaining rebel groups is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose faction of rebels actively fighting in the conflict since 2011. In 2017, FSA material lost the United States’ support after President Donald Trump announced the end of covert aid to the group.

As FSA rapidly lost ground, @DFRLab took a closer look at who shaped the online public image of the FSA in both English and Arabic-language spaces.

Using the social media listening platform Buzzsumo, @DFRLab analyzed highly engaged media outlets and news sources that covered FSA in the past two years. @DFRLab compared the results of one-year and two-year periods in both English and Arabic languages.

FSA in English

In the past year, the FSA was mentioned primarly in four media outlets. The most engagement was on southfront.org, a Russian outlet known for its propagandistic tendencies, followed by the pro-Assad media outlet Almasdar News. Russian state media outlets Sputnik News and TRT World also showed significant engagement. Buzzsumo defines an engagement as a reaction, comments, or a share.

Most engaged domains by network in English over one-year period from July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018 data. (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Out of the six most engaged domains in last year, four were of Russian origin and known for dealing in propaganda.

Most engaged domains by network in English over a one-year period from July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018 (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

By comparison, over the period of two years, the pro-Assad media outlet Almasdar news held the highest level of engagement, followed by Sputnik News, South Front, YouTube (users undefined), and TRT World.

Most engaged domains by network in English over a two-year period (Jul 19, 2016 — Jul 19, 2018). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Over the period of two years, out of the six most engaged with outlets, three were of Russian origin, and another two were pro-Assad media outlets.

Most engaged domains by network in English over two year period (Jul 19, 2016 — Jul 19, 2018). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

FSA in Arabic

In the Arabic language space, Russian state-funded RT Arabic media outlet dominated over both the one-year and two-year period.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over one-year period from July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018. (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

RT Arabic held over half of all the engagements last year, followed by Syrian state news outlet Shaam. The third most engaged source was the Revolutionary Forces Media Office (RFS Media Office), which represents the Syrian rebels. Lastly, an Iranian source — Alamam — was fourth, showing similar engagement stats as the RFS Media Office.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over one-year period from July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018 data. (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

RT Arabic was also the most popular over the two-year period, but RFS Media Office and Iranian Alamam outlet had similarly high engagement statistics.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over two-year period from July 19, 2016 — July 19, 2018 data. (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

Out of the five most engaged with outlets, one was of Russian origin, two run by the Syrian opposition and one Iranian state media outlet. The steep decrease of opposition media engagement over the one-year period can be explained with massive territory losses over this period of time.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over a two-year period from July 19, 2016 — July 19, 2018 data. (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

Absence of U.S. Coverage

Taking a closer look at the full list of most engaged with domains revealed the absence of Western news outlets, especially American media. In the list of 22 most popular domains over one year period and in the list of 30 most popular over two year period no major U.S. media outlets were present.

Full list of most engaged domains over one-year (July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018) period and two-year period (July 19, 2016 — July 19, 2018) (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

Applying filters to look only for five major U.S. media outlets — including the New York Times, Fox News, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and CNN — did not yield any results. Buzzsumo suggested that it does not have enough content to analyze both over one-year and two-year periods.

Failed searched filtering most popular US media outlets over one-year (July 19, 2017 — July 19, 2018) period and two-year period (July 19, 2016 — July 19, 2018). (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

Google Advance Search over one-year period shown that all of these five outlets have released articles concerning the Free Syrian Army.

Google Advanced Search with the keywords ‘Free Syrian Army’ in these domains: New York Times, Fox News, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN. (Source: Google.com).

This is an alarming tendency, indicating that the information from major U.S. media outlets is not having any significant engagement, despite providing articles with the same “Free Syrian Army” keywords as in Russian and Iranian media outlets. These findings suggest that Russian, Iranian, and even Syrian rebel outlets are providing more appealing articles to the wider public on this topic than major U.S. media outlets.

Conclusions

Russia is supporting Assad not only militarily, but also in information warfare via Kremlin outlets. In both Arabic and English, Russian media outlets dominated the searches for FSA. The data showed that Russian and pro-Assad media outlets were most engaged with in the English language space in the periods of one and two years.

A rather large share of engagements was garnered by the Iranian state media, reflecting Iran’s active interest in the conflict.

In the Arabic language space, the opposition media was more present, but their influence seems to be declining.

The list of most engaged with domains contained almost no Western media outlets. These tendencies raised questions of whether FSA was fairly represented in the Arabic and English language spaces.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor significant military developments, operations and information warfare in Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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