Call it the Social Media War.
As the White House pushes for retaliatory strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, some of the administration’s key evidence that chemical weapons were used on civilians are the thousands of photos and videos that the rebels uploaded detailing the attack.
The powerful images showed the instant horror — victims choking, retching and in death throes — and the aftermath of children’s bodies, covered in white shrouds with just their faces showing, lined shoulder to shoulder in the streets.
“With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching, with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the country in a speech Friday laying out the U.S. case for military action.
Images of suffering overseas have long been used to help foment a fervor for action, such as a famine in Africa or the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But in Syria, the images were injected real time into a heated debate and served as key proof of an atrocity.
Although the U.S. has traditional intelligence that the Syrian regime has chemical weapons and that it fired rockets into the suburbs at the time in question, the images provide means, motive and opportunity.
The key question when it comes to whether President Obama’s “red line” was crossed, however, is whether chemical weapons were actually used. For that, the U.S. is basing a tremendous amount of its conclusions on images from social media sources and what Americans saw on their computers and mobile phones.
Indeed, the official U.S. government four-page public assessment of the attack refers to the social media evidence. Senior administration officials briefing reporters Friday referred to social media evidence three times — what they called “open-source information.”
“We need to stress that we are leveraging heavily both open social media as well as [nongovernmental organizations] and medical reporting,” one official said at the briefing.
Trying to bolster the case beyond social media, Mr. Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. obtained samples of hair from victims that he said showed traces sarin gas.
The Syrian regime has denied a chemical weapons attack and has suggested that the rebels may have used the toxins to draw the U.S. into the fight. Mr. Obama declared last year that chemical weapons use by the regime would cross a “red line” that would result in an American retaliation.
Chris Zambelis, a senior analyst specializing in the Middle East for Helios Global Inc., said there has not been a precedent in which social media — essentially citizen journalists, shooting and uploading what they are seeing — has been at the crux of a major foreign policy decision.
He cautioned against placing too much stock in the videos and photos because it could be a false-flag attack.
“I think it is one of those things where people are now taking stock of what happened,” Mr. Zambelis said.
In this case, he said social media are taking the place of snapshots and eyewitness accounts.
“We have to look at this. Maybe step away from the fact that it came from social media and look at it in a different context,” he said. “If this was just an example where eyewitnesses were on the ground, it would be probably be very problematic to base a foreign policy decision on the alleged firsthand accounts of a few.”
Even as the U.S. grapples with a response to social media evidence, both sides in Syria are engaged in a ferocious struggle to win the online propaganda war through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and other social media outlets.
Indeed, analysts said the Internet has become a battlefield in itself — a virtual civil war.
Where the rebels try to win recognition and support by posting videos of attacks, pro-Assad forces push back with hacking.
One pro-regime hacking group claimed credit for shutting down major websites, including the one for The New York Times, and for briefly targeting the U.S. Marine Corps recruiting Web page.
Agence France-Presse reported last month that the Assad regime also tortured some opposition activists to gain access to their social media accounts, which then were mined to build lists of people to monitor.
All of the online information has given outsiders a glimpse — just a glimpse — of the struggle inside Syria.
Eliot Higgins, a blogger in Britain whose work compiling and writing about social media from the Syrian conflict has been a tremendous help to journalists covering the situation from the outside, said hundreds of thousands of videos have been generated by both sides.
“You’ve got jihadists using Facebook and Twitter to spread their messages, and making sense of that all is a complex task. I know a few organizations started out trying to turn it into useful data, but it’s such a huge task finding the justification to dedicate so many resources to it is difficult,” Mr. Higgins, who blogs at Brown-Moses.blogspot.com, said by email.
He said nearly 200 videos related to the Aug. 21 attack have been posted online and show everything from victims to munitions that apparently were used. He said intelligence agencies likely have been scouring those images for clues.