The World

The Reddit War

How the site became a front in the Syrian civil war.

A screenshot of the r/syriancivilwar header over an image of Syrian fighters.
The subreddit’s 75,000 subscribers include foreign fighters, academics, politicians, even active military. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.

On April 14, Reddit user nadiahamilton logged onto the Syrian Civil War subreddit to submit the following post:

4:02 am syrian time, damascus, I’m hearing some seriously loud and strong blasts. Is it happening already?”

A bit later, she added an update: “EDIT: somoene in barzeh just confirmed they’re attacking that area.”

The responses by the rest of the community varied wildly. User syrus5 added soberly that his family had also been awoken by the sounds of airstrikes. NewHendrix wondered whether the OP (original poster) and their family had survived the attack unscathed. Upholding the subreddit’s mission statement of “critical and substantive on-topic discussion,” DONUTof_noFLAVOR compiled a quick collection of press releases and livestreams of the raid. As the rest of the world soon learned, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had just ordered retaliatory strikes in response to a recent chemical attack, targeting the Barzeh research center in regime-held Damascus. Other Redditors soon swarmed the thread to put in their two cents, mostly either denouncing American imperialism or calling for a diplomatic solution. As was typical for the community, it was easy to discern Syrian users from the rest: While Europeans and Americans were caught in the heat of the moment, those with deeper ties to the region postponed political judgments to discuss the facts.

Although the Arab Spring has been popularly nicknamed “the Facebook Revolution,” Reddit has proved to be far more flexible as an outlet to discuss current events. The sixth most visited website in the U.S. and 19th in the world, Reddit is a social news aggregator whose users can subscribe to multiple communities, or “subreddits.” Interaction consists of submitting links, textual posts (“self-posts”), images or videos, as well as commenting on the content of other users and voting on its pertinence. Most dwellers of r/syriancivilwar (including yours truly) are Westerners, overwhelmingly male, and have little connection to the actual country of Syria. But the subreddit is hardly an observation deck detached from the horrors unfolding on the battlefield: It is itself, one could say, an active front line of this war.

Consider the current crisis dominating the board. As the situation has grown dire for the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG , users from Turkey, whose government considers the YPG a terrorist organization, have started to flood the subreddit, brigading posts related to the group, trying to shut down criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies and pushing an anti-Kurdish agenda. The mod Woofers_MacBarkFloof, one of my main conversation partners on the matter, was very frank about it. “I think you contacted us at the worst possible moment in years,” he said when I asked him for comment about the subreddit.

Still, the moderators of r/syriancivilwar are used to these seasonal floods. In 2015, thousands of Russian bots invaded the forum, likely part of the Kremlin’s online operations. Then it was the turn of what users suspected was an Iranian intelligence cell. (In both cases, it was impossible to prove the government’s involvements, but the bots’ sympathies were clear.) Every time major events focus the world’s attention on Syria, an influx of new subscribers arrives, upsetting the fragile ecosystem of factions populating the sub. Moderators are forced to impose an aptly named “martial law”: instant bans, zero-tolerance policy, and increased severity.

The subreddit itself was born out of an escalating flame war. It was 2011 and the (actual) war had just started, throwing the national subreddit r/Syria into disorder. A couple of users decided to disengage from what had become a “no-rules slugfest” of insults and unbridled trolling. They founded a community dedicated to discussing the war, minimizing verbal abuse, and avoiding talking past each other. Through a firm use of bans and a balanced composition of the moderation team, more users started to join in, bringing along tons of firsthand accounts of what was happening on the ground. The moderation team, whose work is entirely voluntary, was subsequently expanded through the selection of some longtime users. To protect “mods” from harassment, their identities remained concealed.

The genius of Reddit isn’t being a source of original content but giving a platform to an immense, heterogeneous set of information. Even better, the data are raw and unfiltered. When it came to Syria, this niche naturally attracted people looking to craft their own narrative of what was going on on the ground—be it by sharing top-tier academic pieces or the most outlandish conspiracy theories. The subreddit’s 75,000 subscribers include foreign fighters, members of academia, politicians, even active military. A few months ago, a pilot of a U.S. B-52 bomber even messaged the mods asking for details about a video that had been published on the board, showing ISIS members targeting his aircraft.* He wanted to see the pictures taken by the people trying to shoot him down.

Simply put, the r/syriancivilwar offers its denizens privileged access to quick information, often days in advance of its publication by newspapers and TV, and the chance to confront different perspectives. Thanks to its swelling ranks, the community has even started to produce original analyses and educational material—and the rest of the world started to take notice. During the 2013 sarin attacks, “founding father” Christopher Kingdon compiled an extensive collection of footage, which was promptly used and shared by outlets like Time magazine. He was later hired by Bloomberg.

Since then, other media organizations have been in regular contact with the moderation team: In December, representatives of German weekly magazine Der Spiegel asked to be given a space on the board to address misinformation one of its reporters had spread about the war. The community also engages in an obsessive archival activity. As war-related digital content is more and more at risk of being deleted, Redditors’ work downloading and archiving thousands of hours of war footage will be crucial for future historians and the collective memory of the war. And since the “pics-or-it-didn’t-happen” mentality has reached the Middle East, there’s an immense volume of material to work with. However, an inherent bias in the selection of data could be contributing to the deletion of countless life stories. There’s a tendency to ignore “boring stuff,” sticking to spectacular combat footage more likely to garner hundreds of upvotes from other users.

As Woofers_MacBarkFloof recalled, “I remember there was this YouTube Channel about a Syrian family just logging their day-to-day life: one day they’d be watching barrel bombs falling on their neighborhood, the next smoking shisha talking about sports. I still regret not archiving it before being deleted.”

But most problems emerge from the daily clash of worldviews unfolding on the subreddit. By being a mirror to a ferocious war, the community never got rid of the ideological fractures between regime backers and the opposition that had led to its birth in the first place. This has turned in to a point of pride. A former mod told me that the moderation team has made it its mission to balance freedom of expression and civility, banning unrelated agenda-pushing and cheers for killing. The moderation team has progressively increased in size, including people of different ideological backgrounds to review bans, thus implementing checks and balances to ensure an unbiased governance of the sub.

Users are called to help police the forum by reporting trolls, but it’s impossible to see who files the reports, opening the system to abuse. The mods are harassed, and those with connections to the Middle East often receive threats addressed to family and friends. To complicate things even further, r/syriancivilwar’s prominence has turned it into the front lines of an information war that runs parallel to developments on the ground.

In 2015, thousands of Russian bots took the community by storm, overwhelming users with regime-friendly news. It wasn’t just disinformation: Extensive effort was put in systematically brigading comments and submissions critical of Moscow’s intervention. Images of the Russian National Orchestra playing in the liberated Palmyra contribute to selling the Kremlin as a tough but responsible actor on the international scene, maybe even more than the concrete gains of liberating a given area from ISIS presence—especially if the “collateral damage” on the road to victory is systematically downplayed.

The latest round of Turkish activities in Northern Syria have triggered a spontaneous influx of Turkish users, and since Kurdish activists are more likely to dwell on Twitter than Reddit, the new arrivals have faced little opposition. This puts the mods in a dicey position. Enforcement requires more nuance and a 24-hour presence. It’s also a deeply political endeavor.

As the British academic Mary Kaldor has written, modern war is so different from past conflicts because it has stopped being a tool to achieve a political objective. Rather, it has become a way to define our own community: We are what we are because we fight our enemy. Confrontation is just an excuse to cement a sense of communal belonging.

Over at r/syriancivilwar, it has become the norm to complain that abstract debates on strategy or politics are more and more perceived as personal attacks, even when positions are held just for the sake of argument. The truth is that what surrounds a conflict—analysis, arts, media coverage—have become as important as its real-life battles. We identify with the information we consume and the media niche we carve out, and political actors will increasingly attempt to shape this identity into a useful asset. The victims may be in Syria, but the intended audience is often us, the onlookers. 

Correction, March 18, 2019: This piece originally misidentified the aircraft in footage of an attack as a B-21 bomber. It was a B-52 bomber.