Is Reddit the Best Way to Follow the Crisis in Syria?

December 11, 2013

By Christopher Kingdon via Dissected News

Few websites are as loved, and as hated, as reddit. It operates on a simple premise. There are topical “subreddits,” which are like channels in a chatroom or categories on a website. Anyone can share a link, picture, video, or thought to an appropriate subreddit. If the post is liked, it gets “upvoted” and moves up the page so more people see it. If it is disliked, it gets downvoted, and if it is disliked by enough people, it may basically disappear.

I’ll admit, I have serious problems with reddit. I have often viewed it as a popularity contest, one that is won by the people who have enough time on their hands to spend all of it on reddit. Users often create multiple accounts just to downvote people who disagree with them. Hard work, good links, and good comments, are often downvoted the most because they challenge people’s ideological points of view. Lots of people love reddit, but I decided years ago that reddit had little value, either as a tool for sharing news or as a place to discuss it. My opinion, however, has been turned around, largely due to the “Syrian Civil War” subreddit, and its head moderator, /u/uptodatepronto, also known as Christopher Kingdon. I asked Christopher if he would be interested in writing an article about his subreddit, and the value it has in covering the Syrian Civil War. As he describes below, using reddit to collect and analyze information concerning news events is a bold new world with significant potential, and a few pitfalls and dangers as well. I hope this discussion will continue, and I will continue to analyze and discuss how the media can best cover a crisis such as Syria.

And, of course, you can discuss this article on reddit. — James Miller

The Basics – /r/syriancivilwar

Founded in May 2013, the /r/syriancivilwar subreddit is dedicated to crowd-sourcing news on the Syrian conflict. In early 2013 I had turned to reddit to use its news forums to search for content on Syria and engage other users in discussions. I was dismayed by the conversation. Disinformation and unreliable sources set threads off on the wrong foot, while Islamaphobic, anti-Semitic and bigoted users caused the discussion to deteriorate in the comment section. After a couple of months of this experience, I was determined to create an alternative forum where standards for sources and conversation would be enforced to combat this vitriolic debate. The ultimate goal of our moderating team continues to be to create an online forum that ‘fosters an informed and civil discussion of the facts.’

The team has engineered the subreddit to resemble an academic discussion in that ‘poorly evidenced, emotive or biased submissions’ are discouraged, while those that utilize sources, background information and a dash of common sense are to be encouraged. Furthermore strict rules are enforced in the comment section to prevent personal attacks, offensive and violent language and racism, thus cultivating a ‘civil’ conversation. These moderators, who hail from across the globe, including from Syria, Iceland, the United States and United Kingdom, have donated countless hours to creating this forum and helping to foster a sense of the collaborative nature of the project. To briefly introduce them: /u/SebayaKeto, our second-longest serving moderator has been ever diligent in her enforcement of our rules; /u/gissisim, our resident Icelandic, built the subreddit’s coding, Twitter and webpage with his superb coding skills; /u/bigdaddybrownsugar, uses his background from Syria to help with translations and context of items; /u/BiPolarBear0 has mentored us on how accelerate the subreddit’s growth and expand our reach from his extensive experience on reddit; finally, /u/Dont_LookAtMyName has dedicated endless hours patrolling the internet searching for videos, photos, Tweets and articles to contribute to his and other’s admirable ‘live threads’.

At the time of /r/syriancivilwar’s founding, I was not aware of the subreddit’s potential — only now am I beginning to realize what it could accomplish. The subreddit is truly becoming a distinctive and groundbreaking medium for discussing news on the Syrian conflict. So how does it work? Anyone with access to the Internet can log onto reddit.com/r/syriancivilwar, click ‘Register an Account (if one does not already have a reddit account),’ and start contributing. The ‘Submit’ buttons allows users to post links or ideas (in the form of a text post) to the forum: these could be videos, photos, news articles, op-eds, breaking news, maps, questions, debates, polls; the options are as broad as the available data on Syria. Once submitted, other users on the subreddit elect to either upvote or downvote submissions, intuitively, sending them shooting to the top of the page or down to the bottom. Users then start commenting on the submissions sparking discussion. Other users can then choose to upvote or downvote comments and respond. Thus the subreddit has the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, then to encourage a discussion that grapples with the issues at hand and hopefully leads to a better understanding of the facts.

Because we encourage submissions from diverse sources, the result is an elimination of a significant amount of bias in our coverage. As /u/Dont_LookAtMyName (from now on referred to by his real name, Joey Bromirski), writes,

“What separates our coverage of events from the mainstream media is that we cover all sides of the conflict without any bias. No one is going to benefit from reading strictly CNN articles when trying to educate themselves about the conflict. What we try our best to do is to take into account what the opposition claims and what the Syrian government claims and hope that the information we present will inform the reader enough to where they can form their own opinion on a certain topic.”

As the subreddit records all submissions, it becomes a database of links and comments, meaning that any user can trawl through months of submissions and see what the news story were on any given day as well as the prevailing sentiments: a historian’s fantasy.

Research at /r/syriancivilwar

But my previous comments fail to describe what makes /r/syriancivilwar exceptional. In early June I began experimenting with ‘live threads,’ which, are best described in Bromirski’s words:

“When a news worthy event occurs on the ground in Syria, the flood of information on social media is overwhelmingly chaotic. Where we come in is we take all of the credible information we can possibly find by scouring through our sources and we condense all of the pertinent information into one place: a live thread. There is not a better place on the internet to find a comprehensive collection of information covering an event in Syria than in a live thread of ours.”

Throughout June, when the mainstream media barely mentioned events in Homs, I put together a daily thread of the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) assault on the city.The subreddit’s user-base was extremely grateful and felt that the threads connected them with the war as it was happening inside Syria, which to them, traditional outlets had failed to do. Since then, these live threads have flourished. The live thread on the August 21st chemical weapon’s attack on East Ghouta, compiled forty-five minutes after the first videos were uploaded to YouTube, was cited in TIME and USA Today. The recent thread launched by Joey Bromriski and me on during the October 30th Israeli attack on Syria was quoted in Business Insider.

But to simply name those threads quoted in the media misses out on the sheer number and quality of the close to 100 threads produced by the subreddit. For example, /u/Dont_LookAtMyName’s “Quick Guide on Polio” and his recent “The Capture of Omar Oil Field, /u/kilroy1944’s “Syria’s Humanitarian Situation”, /u/VCGS’s “Military Updates Series”, /u/KingQajar’s “Guide to Syria’s Factions” and my recent “Attack on Kindi Hospital” collectively demonstrate the potential and quality of the subreddit’s research contributions.

The true potential of these live threads is the fact that they can be constantly updated as users contribute in the comment section, logically giving them their ‘live’ nature. In the comment sections there are gold mines of information. Arabic speakers offer not only translations of Tweets, titles and articles, but also transcriptions of entire videos. Native Syrians, Lebanese and Middle Easterners comment on the details of an item, confirm locations shown in a video, identify accents, or even provide gripping first-hand accounts of events such as the recent bombing in Daheyi, Lebanon.Users with military experience identify weapons systems and comment on tactics. Crossposts to Storyful’s Open Newsroom and Twitter help with Geolocation and contextualization. Live threads epitomize the concept of an Internet group project.

Our Aspirations

As was pointed out in the recent Daily Beast piece by Nina Strochlin, “How the Syrian Subreddit Beats the Mainstream Media,” /r/syriancivilwar has the ability to collect, sort and analyze online sources collaboratively more quickly than any newsroom on this planet.While the live threads are always published under the title, ‘unconfirmed’, we are concerned about spreading misinformation and we’re asking for your help to prevent this happening. Unfortunately, analysts, journalists, experts and other casual observers from other forums such as Twitter and Facebook have appeared hesitant to participate in the subreddit. If we really want to reign in the subreddit’s potential, we need your help.

We need you to participate. If more of you would participate, then these amateur discussions could evolve to become an invaluable resource for global observers. Individuals like Eliot Higgins, Phillip Smyth, Michael Kelly, James Miller, Michael Weiss, Shiraz Maher and Aymenn Tamimi have all contributed through AMA interviews, and a few continue to comment. But we need more of you to help. We need more of you to comment. We need mentors.

The subreddit offers a forum where news is sorted in a logical and easy-to-read manner, where anyone can interact with and contribute to the news and where the final results and ensuing discussion reach a growing daily audience of 6,000 subscribers via an average of 10,500 daily page views. If observers would embrace the subreddit to augment more traditional news sources, then the subreddit could really begin to thrive and help news coverage further its ongoing revolution: collaborative news. To end with the aspirations of Bromirski:

“I want this sub to be THE go to place on the Internet for news on Syria. When someone hears about something that is happening, I want their first thought to be, “let me go to /r/syriancivilwar to find out what’s going on.”

Photo: Wil Wheaton