Syrian Social Media Buzz: A Falling Pound, Social Media Shabiha
By Mohammed Sergie from Syria Deeply
Millions of Syrians are using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Skype to disseminate and discuss the conflict. Each week Syria Deeply monitors the online conversation in English and Arabic, pulling out the highlights in a feature called the Social Media Buzz.
A major topic of conversation on social media this week was the plummeting currency, which fell to 225 pounds to a U.S. dollar before settling at around 200, a sharp fall from 130 at the end of May and 47 in March 2011. There isn’t much that the Assad government can do to reverse the slide, and its decision to hike state employees’ salaries by 30 to 50 percent doesn’t give workers the same purchasing power they had last year – prices of most commodities increased at a faster rate than the devalued currency.
Somar Hatem, a pro-Assad media activist who also prepares reports for Hezbollah’s official TV channel, said on his Facebook page that the Syrian government’s ability to raise salaries indicates it has control over the economy. Commentators on his page agreed that the move doesn’t solve inflation or civilian poverty, and that it was inherently biased against the majority of employees in the private sector who didn’t get a similar raise.
Syria’s official media channels have plucked a number of analysts from obscurity to defend the Assad regime over the past two years, providing a voice for the government and, more often than not, a platform for conspiracies and hate-filled rhetoric.
In 2011, Ali al-Shuaibi, a self-proclaimed sheik, described (in vulgar detail) allegations of homosexual activity of Qatar’semir, and said he has a recording of a sexual encounter between a Gulf sheik’s wife with a Central Intelligence Agency spy. He’s now attracted large followings on Facebook and YouTube.
As the conflict dragged on, similar new stars emerged on social media and were heavily promoted by traditional state media outlets, making household names of the most marginal of characters. In recent months, the search for new “talent” has spilled over Syria’s borders.
Ahmed Spider (right), an activist, singer, “conspiracy theorist” and television personality, is the newest, most famous such public defender of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Spider, an Egyptian, took part in his country’s protest movement in 2011, and was able to land a job as a TV host there. On air, he expounded on conspiracies like claims that the U.S. was promoting terrorism through the Muslim Brotherhood in order to protect its ally, Israel.
Egyptians called into the show to mock and insult him.
In the last year, Spider turned his attention to the Syrian conflict, and started defending the Assad regime against what he called the “cosmic conspiracy” (regime loyalists’ unofficial label for the uprising against the Syrian government). He took the stage in Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year during a protest against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and declared himself a Shabiha for Assad, forever, a chant that was repeated by some in the crowd.
It was a coming-out party: his fervor led Spider to an 80-minutelive interview on Syrian TV, followed by an invitation to lecture at Damascus University, meeting with top officials in the government and military. In spring, Spider was taken on a tour of Homs and other battleground cities, including Qusayr, later overrun by Hezbollah and the Syrian army, and he received a uniform with an officer’s insignia.
His rapid rise to fame upset some pro-Assad commentators, who criticized the rash distribution of military ranks (below). On Facebook, users mocked his interview with a page from the Alawite neighborhood of Akrameh in Homs.