#BreakingSyria: Assad’s Search Engine Optimization

Arabic, English, and Russian language networks covering the Syrian Arab Army

(Source: @DFRLab)

The most current information available about Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in every news cycle is dominated by pro-Kremlin, pro-Assad, and propaganda outlets.

This trend is mirrored by information available regarding the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose faction of rebels actively fighting against Assad and his partners since 2011. The coverage was similarly dominated by pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad media outlets.

Both cases demonstrate the extent to which Assad and his partners have been able to dominate the Syrian information environment — as an extension of the conflict — over the past two years. As Assad’s final assault on one of the final rebel-held strongholds in the northern city of Idlib continues, the information environment remains a one-sided component of the battlefield.

Arabic Language

In the period between 2016 and 2018, the keyword ‘الجيش العربي السوري’ (Syrian Arab Army), appeared more than twice as much in the top domain than its runner-up and reached 4,508 engagements. The most engagements were garnered by the nfac-sy.net, a pro-Assad news outlet. The website was recently taken down, rendering all the available links inactive. According to data from Website Informer, the website was only active for two years and expired on September 9, 2018.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over a two-year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

The top five of the most popular domains were populated with two Assad government outlets sana.sy and sama-tv.net, two pro-Assad domains nfac-sy.net and aksalser.com, and the YouTube platform, which requires a further analysis.

It was unclear what exact YouTube content received this engagement, as a separate research is required on this specific platform to measure engagement across accounts.

Like other technology and social media companies, YouTube has come under fire for contributing to the increasingly toxic online discourse. Rumors, conspiracy theories, and half-truths platform have been reported spreading on YouTube covering the Syrian conflict. For instance, Syrian civil defense group White Helmets have been the target of various disinformation campaigns on YouTube platform in recent years.

Most engaged domains by network in Arabic over two-year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

English Language

From 2016 to 2018, the top domain in English language environment using the keywords “Syrian Arab Army” was theduran.com, an online news and opinion source with known for its far-right bias, pro-Kremlin editorial stances, and proclivity for covering conspiracy theories.

The Duran website is infamous for posting misleading information and perpetuated conspiracy theories, on many of which @DFRLab has previously reported. A few infamous examples spun off by theduran.com included the case of #SyriaHoax, when Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria was presented as hoax from the United States, or claims that U.S.-led Coalition evacuated ISIS from the front lines in Syria.

On the search term “Syrian Arab Army”, theduran.com garnered over 13,000 engagements over two years.

Most engaged domains by network in English over a two-year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: @DFRLab via Buzzsumo)

The five most engaged with portals garnered over 75 percent of the total engagements. Two of these were fringe media websites theduran.com and 21stcenturywire.com, one pro-Assad media outlet almasdarnews.com, one Kremlin-funded sputniknews.com, and lastly YouTube.

Most engaged domains by network in English over two year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: Buzzsumo.com).

Full Domain Lists

Western media outlets were significantly lacking in a ranking of the most engaged with domains for Arabic and English languages. Comparing the full most engaged domains over two years revealed that no major Western media outlet was picked up by the Buzzsumo search in English language. Meanwhile in Arabic, most of the sources were of Syrian origin, providing only one-sided, pro-Assad government arguments.

Full list of most engaged domains by network in Arabic and English languages over two-year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Russian Language

The Russian speaking environment was also investigated using the keywords ‘Сирийская Арабская Армия’ (Syrian Arab Army) but provided only limited results. As Buzzsumo only found 34 articles, the pie chart of the most engaged with domains was unavailable. The list of most engaged with articles was mostly dominated by well-known pro-Kremlin sources, such as RIA.ru, Russian.rt.ru, and riafan.ru. Despite low engagement, the overall environment was lacking any alternative coverage.

Most engaged content in Russian over two-year period (Sep 17, 2016 — Sep 17, 2018 data). (Source: Buzzsumo.com)

The causes of such limited coverage Syrian Arab Army in Russian are unclear. It could signify that Russian speaking media is reluctant to talk about SAA’s actions, or other terms could be preferable despite this being the official one. This also applies to English speaking media outlets, as other keywords as “regime forces”, “Assad’s forces”, “government forces”, and so on could be also used. @DFRLab’s analysis included each search term in each language to ensure a thorough assessment of coverage toward the Syrian Arab Army.

Conclusions

Pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad media outlets appear to be dominating the narratives of Syrian Arab Army. After inspecting information over two years, we can conclude that the information situation surrounding Syrian Arab Army is similar to the Free Syrian Army. Kremlin-funded, pro-Assad, and propaganda media outlets were dominating in Arabic and English language spaces. Not only no significant information was visible from the rebel media outlets, but also no Western outlets were noticed.

Russian language space had no significant inputs with the keywords Syrian Arab Army, which suggested either low interest or preference to use other titles in regard to SAA.

Taking into consideration that the Free Syrian Army’s narratives were also dominated by Kremlin and Assad, information dominance is becoming standard in the Syrian conflict.

@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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