Simba, the last prince of Ba'ath country (English)

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This publication has been researched, written and designed by Foundland (Lauren Alexander & Ghalia Elsrakbi) with the aim of collecting and analyzing the use of digital images as seen and interpreted on social media, particularly over the last 18 months during the uprising against the Syria’s Bashar Al - Assad regime. We piece together a personal and visual narrative based on collected materials, which does not aim to create a complete timeline of events, but an insight into our perspective. September 2012



DO YOU HAVE A FACEBOOK WITH YOU? Barely twenty percent of the Syrian population has access to the Internet. However, when you cross the border from Lebanon into Syria, you are likely to be stopped by a soldier working for the secret police, and in the same breathe as asking to see your passport, he is likely to ask whether you are carrying “a Facebook” with you. He is not looking to see if you have a laptop with you or a Facebook account. The concept of “a Facebook” has come to represent a powerful weapon, one that has been used extensively by activists against the regime, but which has also been put to use by the Syrian regime since protester uprisings began in early 2011. Social networking sites were completely banned in Syria until the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, when Internet sites were made almost entirely accessible to all. The strategic opening up of social networking channels on the Internet meant that the government was suddenly able to spy on it’s citizens in a way that they had never been able to do in the past. Over the last year and a half, the way in which Syrians communicate and organize online has transformed. Citizens who may have been scared to voice political opinion a year ago have increasingly mobilised social media as a tool to communicate political will and action! The necessity to take immediate action in real time has made the abandonment of online social communication unthinkable. Virtual data mountains of video, images and information have collected on ominous servers related to activities on both sides of the uprising. Social networking tools have sparked mass digital image production, opinion making and distribution during times of war and massacre. To what extent could residue digital information constitute evidence or much needed documentation? How to navigate the highly manipulated and virtual maze?


Activist works behide his laptop co-ordinating opposition operations from his home in Homs. (December 2011)

Underground headquarters of the Syrian Electronic Army (August 2011) SOURCE: The Syrian government hired their own hackers to promote Assad and his regime [EPA]


HOW TO STORE EVIDENCE, WHERE IT CAN NEVER BE HACKED Facebook has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency concerning privacy regulations and the use of data collected on its system for marketing purposes. In Syria there is no telling exactly how much activity is spied upon on Facebook and YouTube, but what is certain, is that many activists and ordinary citizens have been caught, jailed and sometimes killed following their online postings. The virtual domain is not only being watched but is also seen as an active battleground for the regime. In July 2011, the “Syrian Electronic Army” first arrived on the scene, after being publicly thanked in a speech by Bashar Al-Assad. The Electronic Army is a team of people, with government connections, whose job it is to hack, spy and spread online propaganda. They have secret headquarters and an official website. They conduct attacks on Western websites by hacking and blocking website content and spamming with messages. The technology used to facilitate blocking and monitoring of online activity comes from companies in the United States. It is shipped through Rotterdam and arrives in Syria via Saudi Arabia. The sophisticated devices, one of which is called “Blue Coat”, are intended to protect the security of big corporations, but despite United States trade embargos “Blue Coat” is currently monitoring Syrian Internet users. Extensive spamming and commenting are regular


activities arranged by the Electronic Army by means of fake Facebook profiles. We speculate that most of the imagery created online, and distributed through such profiles, is carefully orchestrated by this same group. Great attention is given to the creation of image propaganda, especially with the aid of digital manipulation software like Photoshop. Just as the Syrian Electronic Army and pro-Al-Assad supporters post information and images on Facebook fan pages and YouTube channels, anti-government protestors use social media for various functions. Before 2011, when Facebook access was entirely banned, many Syrians used social media by means of Internet proxy servers to gain access.

Marketing images for Internet monitoring technology SOURCE:

Their expression on Facebook was always restricted to entirely “private� use of so called secret chat group and forums, which even then was considered risky. Since Facebook was unbanned until its usage today, we have witnessed a total transformation in the way that it is used for communication and mobilization of groups and resources. It has transformed from being a tentative method of expression to being an irreplaceable broadcasting tool.

Images taken from the Syrian Electronic Army website (October 2011) SOURCE:

We would like to point out some of the trends that we have noticed during this transformative period. In May 2011, the Facebook profile picture was interesting to follow as it functioned as a barometer,

gauging what the public was thinking, real-time. If many people felt they were without hope, following a disappointing speech by the president, it suddenly became visible that many people on Facebook


had black profile pictures. Facebook users also started to use the profile images of former leaders who had once fought against French colonial occupation, re-emerged as inspiration. This new form of political expression was and still is a means to voice personal identification to the struggle and a way to relate to a collective outcry.

Syrian flag profile pictures taken from various Facebook accounts between February and May 2011.

In addition to being a tool to create and express personal feelings among trusted “friends”, Facebook has become a very powerful storage and archive vault. If video or images are posted which the Syrian regime might not like, it is very difficult to remove digital information from Facebook, because of the sheer size of the entire social network.

Profile pictures used by a group of friends on Facebook. The figures from history are Syrian leaders who once fought against French colonial occupation.

Websites and blogs are easier to hack and shut down. Therefore Facebook, along with YouTube and Skype prove to be perhaps the most useful and secure social media tool at the disposal of activists who use

it’s instant communication of images, text and video with archiving and storing abilities to great gains.


Publicity and visibility tools offer activists a platform when preparing for gatherings or events while basic functionalities are used for more complex reasons. Albums of images can be stored and given public access without being shut down. Databases of images are stored. An example of this would be the cropped snap shots taken by protesters on their mobile phones of the gun men, who they witness killing unarmed citizens. These gunmen are spotted waiting at the top of buildings or on the sidelines of protest gatherings. Ordinary people use their mobile phones to capture images of the faces of these gunmen. On Facebook you can find a full collection. The function of these archives is to keep a record of the faces of perpetrators for future prosecution, and as a more immediate function they are used to warn citizens of identified individuals. Similar databases exist to record images of people who have died, perhaps without receiving proper burial, or people who have gone missing and who could possibly be in jail. Ever so often information from the activities of the regime is leaked. This could be in the form of documents proving that weapons have been given to arm civilians, or it could be letters that order school children to attend demonstrations against their will. Copies of these letters are stored online for safe keeping, and possible use at a later stage.

Archived image album of Syrian government snipers taken by protesters.

Most video footage related to the Arab Spring, which we have seen broadcast via international broadcasters has come directly from amateur recordings on mobile phone and small video camera. Due to the large influx of videos and information which comes in from ordinary citizens, there have been special systems developed to ensure the safety of those who are responsible for recording footage. Those who do not have internet access, are able to transfer their information via Bluetooth to someone with internet access or forward it to a specific email address. From here, the videos are pooled into a large collection and distributed by specific news Facebook feeds or pages. Therefore

many people in Syria and those abroad receive news about what


is happening on the ground through Facebook newsfeeds rather than through official broadcasters. These channels have become extremely important for distribution and have become a source for official broadcasters as the most up to the minute, unedited information.

Archived image album of protesters who have been detained by government forces.

Throughout 2011, we witnessed the execution of the civil disobedience plan, known as the “Freedom agenda”. A program of activist activities designed for public space interventions, but which found an audience in Syria and abroad online. One of the most profound actions was that of activists collecting ping -pong balls and writing messages on them, in much the same way as would be done in preparation for a demonstration. However, in Syria, it is very difficult to buy banners, paint and materials to be able to create protest messages for public space. Activists would take large bags of ping - pong balls up to the top

Screenschot from a Youtube video, made by Syrian activist, showing ping pong balls used as part of protest actions. The balls read from left to right: “Leave”, “Freedom”, “No sectarianism” and “Peaceful Revolution”. SOURCE:

of hilltops in Damascus and roll them down the streets. Damascus residents would awake in the morning to find their gardens filled with messages of hope and freedom, brought to them by ping - pong


ball. Evidence of off-line actions are documented and find their way onto YouTube, to be commented on and spread online. We watched in awe as activist actions of brave proportions leaked onto Facebook in the form of videos and eyewitness accounts. City fountains were coloured red with a small amount of red pigment to illustrate a huge blood bath. Police were diverted with fake protest speakers planted in empty buildings. For a period it seemed as if

Screenshot taken from a YouTube video of female activists protesting against the Assad regime from their livingroom. This protest with messages written on napkins, was distributed online for an international audience. SOURCE: source=message

creativity and bravery were bound to conquer the ruthless regime. However, the extremely violent crackdowns during the first half of 2012 have sadly caused the opposition to move away from civil disobedience and the Free Syrian Army has since been forced to take up arms. Activist groups, including those involved with non-violent activities remain strong on social media, particularly for organizing and coordinating groups of people and activities. These might include broadcasting protest songs and information from abroad over the Internet or coordinating bomb shelter posters and information for unprepared Damascus civilians. An Arabic spoken radio station called 1+1 manages to broadcast continuously through members located in Canada, France and the Netherlands. The radio station does not discriminate against proregime listeners, but because their content is related to the Syrian situation it would be impossible for them to broadcast their radio station from inside Syria. Their dedicated network of contributors is based in many different cities across the world upload and generate content ranging from chat show discussions to revolution songs. A strict schedule of shifts is followed to allow the radio playlists which the group have created to be uploaded each day for the radio’s listening audience in Syria.


Satan vs Jesus


Satan vs Jesus Picture SOURCE:


Assad fighting the West represented by “Uncle Sam” SOURCE: Facebook group: “Lovers, Bashar Al-Assad and his regime” or “The demonstration against the under developed”




Knight- Davion, Aesthetic Artworks by Jason Engle (US) SOURCE:

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Bashar Al-Assad, the knight. His flag reads: “The Lord of the land” Image shared by various pro-regime groups and pages on Facebook

Soldiers from Battery B


Soldiers from Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, pause at the end of a patrol near Wynot, Iraq. Photo Credit: Department of the Army SOURCE:

samolet _istpebitel_ MiG_35-1

07 06

Российский истребитель МИГ-35 (4++) SOURCE:

Found on Facebook fan page called “May God protect our Syrian Army”. SOURCE: eljeesh?sk=photos


Maher and Bashar Al-Assad above a New York skyline


Colt 1911 gold



Colt 1911 gold SOURCE:

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Bashar’s Gold Gun Image spread on Facebook fan pages

12 14

SOURCE: http://islamgreatreligion.

SOURCE: 281368_1015073905348543 4_747155433_20306999_4656032_n Image spread on Facebook

Flag raising on Iwo Jima


Flag raising on Iwo Jima, Wallpaper SOURCE:


Images publicize the Syrian Electronic Army. Pro-regime profile pictures and cover images for the Electronic Army’s Facebook fan page.


Images publicize the Syrian Electronic Army. Pro-regime profile pictures and cover images for the Electronic Army’s Facebook fan page.


Storm_clouds_over _the_ocean_




Storm clouds over the ocean by Fairiegoodmother SOURCE:

Hafez Al-Assad, the father and his sons, (from left to right) Basel, president Bashar and Maher. SOURCE: Pro Al-Assad blog:



Visions of Heaven, wallpaper SOURCE:

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Hafez, Bashar and his two brothers. Pro- regime Facebook fan page.

Three generations, Hafez, Bashar and Bashar’s son, represented as the coming leader of the nation. Pro- regime Facebook fan page




(Above) 20100706-thumb.jpg. SOURCE: (Right Above) Mighty Lion. SOURCE: (Right) Being_Catty_Jaguars. SOURCE: Catty%20Jaguars.jpg



Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye, Jonny Lancaster Pencil art SOURCE:


Profile picture of Donnie Hanna, Michigan,USA SOURCE: donniehanna?sk=info

Text reads: “Assad you are the leader of Syria and the Arab nation” SOURCE:

bald-eagle_1 Pair-oflions


bald-eagle_1. SOURCE:




Hafez Al-Assad, father, with his sons Bashar and Maher. Text reads: “Assad’s Syria”. SOURCE: Facebook fan page: “The girls and boys of Assad”

Pair of lions in West Midlands Safari Park Photo credit: Robek. SOURCE: File:Pair_of_lions.jpg

Maher Al-Assad, Bashar’s brother. He is the commander of the Republican Guard, also known as the Presidential Guard, and the army’s elite Fourth Bassar. SOURCE: LTAx-V4Z/____.html



Viva-La-Nature SOURCE:


Text in the beach sand reads: “I love you Syria” SOURCE:




32 20

Narnia_1_3. SOURCE:



The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005), film poster. SOURCE:


35 34

Screenshot from Hollywood movie, Inglourious Basterds (2009) directed by Quentin Tarantino. Brad Pitt orders his team of Jewish soldiers to deliver Nazi scalps. SOURCE:

Profile picture taken from a Facebook fan page called: Maher Assad Fans.


Bashar and his brother Maher Al-Assad, exact source unknown


curacao_de_ jesus



curacao_de_jesus 2. SOURCE: albuns/?aid=3



The regime addresses minority Christian groups separately, to encourage ethnic divisions. Text reads: “Pray for Syria, Pray for her great leader Bashar and ask Jesus to protect him against all evil, Amen”

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Jesus-Christ-pics. SOURCE:,_ the_truth_and_the_life.html

Text reads: “I trust you Jesus, bless Assad with victory and make him defeat his enemies” Facebook profile picture of Rima Al Rim, who is probably a “shabiha” meaning a plain clothes, government related thug.

Adapted from a quote found on a hacked website’s homepage. SOURCE: “The Emergence of Open and Organized Pro-Government Cyber Attacks in the Middle East: The Case of the Syrian Electronic Army”



On the 10th of January 2012 Syria’s president Al-Assad appeared on a public square in Damascus and delivered a confident speech. It was the first time that he has appeared in public after many months. He declared, “We will defeat this conspiracy� and went on to promise to crush terrorism and sabotage, while offering somewhat vague promises of reform. No foreign journalists have been allowed to move freely in the country since the uprisings started and because the press in Syria is entirely state - owned, its activities are undoubtedly being used as a mouthpiece for the regime. The regime uses military power in combination with enforcing governmental propaganda to legitimate its activities. A painful example was the Hama massacre in 1982. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed under the orders of Hafez Al - Assad. Their remains are apparently still buried under hotels and large buildings in Hama. This tragedy has never officially emerged or been acknowledged. Today it seems that events on such a mass scale cannot possibly go unnoticed considering our access to recording and distribution devices. We are luckily able to spread information of real time events via citizen journalists. However, recent violence and mass killing in the city of Homs in early 2012 brought a painful situation to surface. Despite our access to instant documentation and distribution devices, enabling the world to witness every gruesome event in real time detail, a massacre still unfolds before us. Simply witnessing or knowing what is taking


place does not always add up to the necessary political pressure or action. While events in Hama twenty years earlier remain uncovered, still today we can only witness as a regime kills its own civilians as well as foreign journalists. An important joker card held by the regime in commanding the support of it’s allies is precisely the difficulty of being able to verify social media images and video, and therefore making it difficult to distinguish the difference between fact and fiction. We have been collecting specific blooper moments, in which the influence of easy digital manipulation is exposed. Falsified news and staged events created for YouTube as material “evidence” are not always as convincing as planned.

A Photoshopped meeting between Al - Assad and the governor of Hama, Anas Abdul-Razzaq Naem (July 2011)

SOURCE: “Did Syria doctor this odd photo of Assad?”

In July 2011, a photograph was released by the Syrian news agency which showed President Al - Assad supposedly in the same room as the newly appointed governor of Hama. Al - Assad had shortly prior appointed a new governor of Hama, following the largest anti - government

protests having taken place in Hama shortly before. This image made international news because it was clearly Photoshopped


to illustrate that both Al-Assad and the new governor were in the same room at the same time. The reason for faking this image is not immediately apparent, but puts to question the legitimacy of even mundane of details publicized by the regime.

Screenshot taken from falsified video, shown on Syrian state television by accident. SOURCE:

The emergence of staged video making for YouTube distribution emerged too over the last year. In January 2012 international media and blogs featured video clips originally shown on Syrian state television. These clips illustrate how camera reporters were actually constructing their own fictional news “crime scene” sets. The reporter is seen in a video clip, arranging leftovers of violence by carefully constructing a scenario with an arrangement of bloodstains and full shopping bags, in order to give the impression that innocent shoppers were targeted by the so called “terrorists”. YouTube has become filled with expose clips claiming the illegitimacy of other news clips.


On the 25th of July 2012, the regime aired a peculiar video on Syrian state television. The video explained in detail how on the 15th day of Ramadan 2012, there would be strange video footage appearing on the Internet and perhaps even Al Jazeera, depicting the end of the regime. This broadcast video message acted as a warning towards the public, that they were not to believe this. The regime urged that the images would be fake and created by the opposition. Furthermore it explained the methods by which fake images would be made. Special green screens would be used, in combination with constructed sets built in the desert of Saudi Arabia, made to look like copies of important buildings in Damascus. The public was warned not to believe any of it.

Screenshot taken from a video created by the Syrian regime and shown on Syrian state television. This computer generated image shows a scenario which the government predicted would be broadcast by the opposition. It shows the supposed capturing of important Syrian buildings. The text below reads: “Hollywoodesque scenario�. SOURCE:

The 15th day of Ramadan has passed and there was no sign of the forecasted video clips or the regime falling. What this broadcasted message meant remains an unexplained mystery. Perhaps a clue that what is actually unfolding is much more complex than may seem.


Campaign created by the Syrian opposition, shows the resurrection of Saladin, a well known monument in Damascus, 2012 SOURCE: Image was distributed on Facebook in August 2012.

Playstation advertisement created by BBDO advertising agency, Chile, 2008. The campaign highlights the launch of the Playstation 3. Central in the image is the Playstation player, amongst leftovers from well known PlayStation games SOURCE:



All images in this publication have been found online. We imagine that Syrian regime propaganda images are produced at least in part by the Syrian Electronic Army in their underground lair. We have collected collaged images, which simultaneously serve as propaganda as well as reveal the digital images originally used to create them. The meaning of these images exists with varied and sometimes conflicting symbolic meanings. The original images, which are most likely to be jpeg file format, are taken from various sources online. Images could be chosen because of their symbolic content, or merely to function as a dramatic background image. We are interested in tracing the visual content and context of these original images in order to better understand the way propaganda rhetoric is created and understood. What is particularly fascinating is the juxtaposition of images. A combination of images, some satisfy “wallpaper” or “template” functions for screensavers or greetings cards. Surprisingly some images used are even taken from public relations and propaganda created by enemies of the Al-Assad regime. We have noticed that the merging and combining of digital images through image manipulation tools, often does not take into account the origins or meanings of the images themselves. Therefore through a simple exercise of tracing the images back to their origin, by using an image search on Google, we were able to trace the original image. Imagine yourself inside the secret head quarters of the Syrian


Electronic Army, while frantic Google searches continue for the most attractive, highest resolution image of a lion to use in the latest Al Assad campaign. Assad, conveniently for a regime, means lion in Arabic. Similar techniques of image manipulation are use by both sides; by the regime and opposition. How strangely confusing regime propaganda becomes when the same lion image used to promote a Hollywood blockbuster, like that of Narnia (see image 31) is used for Assad’s campaign. The “original” lion image used for movie promotion was most likely partially computer generated. Then, as a further step into virtual no-mans land it is appropriated as part of the Assad campaign as a metaphor for a violent regime.

(LEFT) Monument in honour of Arab hero, Saladin. Seen here in Damascus (RIGHT) Graffiti stencils used for the campaign entitled “Where are you?”. This campaign was initiated by opposition activists and through the medium of graffiti in public space, asks where the spirit of historic heroic leaders are today in Syria. SOURCE:

On the other side of the spectrum, the opposition has recently launched a campaign with the stone statues present today in Damascus of former Arabic heroes as lead characters. In the opposition campaign the statues break out of stone to save the city of Damascus. Perhaps this campaign’s concept is more imaginative than that of the regime’s borrowed Hollywood images, but its execution is no different to its enemy. The same Google image search has revealed that the image pool used for the opposition campaign’s visual effects was taken directly from a 2008 “PlayStation 3” advertisement. Borrowed for its visual sophistication and allure, but also because it depicts an apocalypse scene. A scene that for some is everyday reality in Syria, so devastating that only a fictional landscape would suffice in its representation. The PlayStation campaign includes visuals from cult games to sketch a mystic and epic image of the gaming experience. In both examples, a virtual myth comes alive, using layers of digital appropriation unique to our postmodern times and tools. There is a clear influence of slick commercial advertising techniques, however used in a manner that does not aim to be authentic or hide its original sources. The digital images conjured up are entirely virtual in content and form. The moralistic messages, antagonistic characters, and


symbolic metaphors involved in myth making could be compared to 19th century neo-classic painting, where classical backdrops are borrowed to illustrate moralistic fantasies. A macabre example is the Syrian regime’s airborne bomb pamphlets distributed during Ramadan 2012 over Damascus. The pamphlet shows a scene inside a bar, perhaps in Europe, where a well-known opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun drinks whiskey with a blonde woman amongst piles of money. The title above is: “Enjoying the pleasures of life”. The implication is that opposition leaders, who are leading the opposition movement from abroad, are enjoying the pleasures of a decadent “Western” lifestyle while the people they are leading are being bombed. Photoshopped piles of money and whiskey are strategically positioned next the unsuspecting Photoshopped blonde. The constant and ubiquitous landscape of digital image-trash freely available for our manipulation on the worldwide web in combination with its multiplicity of distribution channels and viewers has propelled the positions of propaganda maker and freedom fighter into ever more complex and virtual territory. In the same moment, imagery used to create a Hollywood fantasy film is used to promote a murderous regime. Layers of digital “originals” infiltrate cyberspace with confused, hybrid and potentially destructive meanings.

Propaganda pamphlet dropped together with bombs by the Syrian regime on Damascus. On the right is the opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun shown in a bar. The text above reads: “Enjoying the pleasures of life”. Found July 2012. SOURCE:

The future and consequences of these digital images, remains undefined. Will they eventually carry any responsibility for the thousands of civilians killed over the last two years in Syria? It is certain that their traces will remain (forever) within the protocol of Facebook, locked securely in fortress Google with nowhere to hide.


Foundland presents this publication as part of an on-going investigation into digital propaganda images, created by Syria’s Al – Assad regime and opposition movements and distributed on Facebook and social media. We consider our investigation as artists and researchers a small contribution to the fantastic work and endless energy that is being invested by activists around the world in the struggle against the Syrian regime. More information about this project and a complete Arabic version of this publication is available in PDF format online via our website COLOFON: Concept, text & design: Foundland (Lauren Alexander & Ghalia Elsrakbi) Arabic translation: Transtec Translation, Cairo Printing: Drukkerij Confiance, Amsterdam Published for Impakt Festival “No more Westerns”, September - October 2012 With the generous support of HIVOS SPECIAL THANKS: Thanks to Matteo Lucceti for supporting previous editions of this booklet in the context of the “Enacting Populism” exhibition for the Kadist Foundation, Paris. (February 2012). We express our on-going support for Paris-based radio station, 1+1 for their great initiative and for assisting with our research. (


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