World News

11.07.13

How the Syrian War Subreddit Scoops Mainstream Media

How a 22-year-old law student and five moderators have been using social media to track down news from the front lines in Syria—and scoop mainstream media.

On the afternoon of October 31, U.S. media outlets began reporting evidence of an Israeli airstrike targeting Hezbollah-bound missiles in Syria that occurred the night before. It was a big story—indicating that Israel was continuing to flout international law to prevent Hezbollah from getting weapons.

But by the time the strike made headlines, it was not quite news for Christopher Kingdon, a 22-year-old law student in Cambridge, England, who had been following reports of the incident for nearly 24 hours, since he saw @RamiAlLolah’s tweet that Israeli jets had violated Lebanese airspace and that there was an explosion at an air defense base.

Kingdon, under the username “uptodatepronto,” and a crew of five moderators spend their days wading through posts on hundreds of YouTube feeds and Twitter accounts, commissioning Arabic translations, scouring for trustworthy confirmations from on-the-ground sources and disseminating information—all related to the war in Syria. Together they run the subreddit r/syriancivilwar, a forum on Reddit with 5,554-subscribers that posts 24-hour coverage of the two-year conflict. Often, Kingdon and his ad hoc team beat mainstream media in reporting Syria’s biggest news.

“Its biggest advantage is in its numbers and potential speed,” says Michael Kelley, a reporter for Business Insider who frequently monitors the subreddit and calls it “a collective research area” that gathers rough reports and information from journalists covering the conflict. He says it encourages the hivemind of Reddit to spot holes in reporting and fill them. “Evaluation and analysis would be the next step,” says Kelley, clarifying that if users were able to do so, it could “become a robust space for reporting.”

Reddit, a reader-fueled sounding board, has increasingly been used to cover breaking news events. Users can subscribe to various topic-specific forums called subreddits—ranging from world news to animals giving advice—where their posts and comments may rise to Internet glory or fall into obscurity depending on the votes of others. A recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that six percent of all online adults identify as Reddit users.

The Syrian war may be a perfect news topic for Reddit. “There’s no delay when something happens in Syria of visual evidence being posted,” Kingdon says. Breaking news often first surfaces on Twitter, but YouTube is never far behind. Lack of video in the Israeli attack was “a big red flag” that initial reports may have been false. So, despite a number of confirmations, he held off from posting to r/syriancivilwar for two hours, instead discussing the options with fellow moderators and asking Twitter followers about the allegiances and reliability of various sources. When The Times of Israel published a piece on the possible attack and social media buzz, the subreddit moderators posted a live-thread, compiling all available evidence of the strike under a caveat that it was “Extremely Unconfirmed.” By the time CNN got a U.S. official on record and began reporting, almost 24 hours had passed since Rami’s initial tweet.

Reddit’s coverage of the Syrian civil conflict
Christopher Kingdon, founder of the subreddit SyrianCivilWar. ()

Covering the Syrian conflict has been risky for journalists—28 reporters were killed there in 2012. An Al Jazeera headline this week read, “Syria: Too Dangerous to Cover?” With traditional outlets wary of sending their teams into danger, amateur coverage often rises to center stage. And with a rise in cell phone and Internet access, the war has been thoroughly documented through shaky footage on Twitter and YouTube, with thousands of videos flooding the wires after each attack.

“I believe we offer some truly revolutionary new-generation coverage where we’re able to rather amateurishly compile—because of the huge data available from YouTube and Twitter—live-threads of an ongoing military offensive and literally map where troops are and where attacks are coming,” Kingdon says, “Mash that up with visual evidence, and once you have info from Syrians on the subreddit you can confirm or debunk something.”

After watching the Syrian conflict for months while completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, Kingdon, who is originally from the UK, was disillusioned with the mainstream media coverage. He was also disturbed by the loaded arguments taking place online that were often filled with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In April, he clicked “Create Subreddit,” and was sucked in.

Today, Kingdon spends between two and 14 hours a day on the forum, which he calls, “a different kind of reporting.” From publishing polls asking who the U.S. should arm, to compiling explainers for breaking news like the recent polio outbreak, to orchestrating Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with journalists covering the conflict and Syrians inside the country living it, Kingdon and his moderators strive to present the most comprehensive account of the conflict as possible.

“It’s gotten to point where I’m checking sources every single day for breaking news before somebody sees it on CNN,” says Joey Bromirski, an avid commenter turned moderator who posts under "Dont_LookAtMyName." “We try to pride ourselves in finding the news before it’s news.” The 27-year-old former army reservist living in Atlanta, Georgia, now spends four or five hours a day patrolling the Internet for news coming from the embattled region to thread into the subreddit.

Calling themselves “armchair citizen journalists,” Kingdon says he and his fellow moderators don’t consider themselves professionals, and say the forum is not meant as a substitute to traditional journalism. Their duty is to centralize all evidence currently available, but let a semi-organic process develop the rest.

Whether they like it or not, Kingdon and the other moderators rely on anonymous tips and unverified reports. News outlets rushing to keep up with the social-media fueled breaking news cycle can be subject to such embarrassment as was felt by CNN after reporting erroneous information during the chaotic Boston bombing manhunt. Reddit’s crowd-sourced “reporting” means users have to exercise editorial judgment, though threads can be prone to devolve into misinformation and assumption.

“With news articles you have ability to comment but the comment section never has any interaction with the article itself,” Kingdon says. On Reddit, the initial post is just a jumping-off point. It’s up to readers to promote (with upvote and downvote capabilities), add to, and argue with posts. The Syrian Civil War subreddit is only possible thanks to thousands of online subscribers and many more visitors who translate breaking videos, track down eyewitness accounts, and explain fights emerging from embattled Syria. Readers are expected to be skeptical and savvy. And, the moderators attempt to curate the content with the same respect. “We’re very conscious of not just putting out the first thing we hear,” Bromirski says.

Another moderator, writing under the username “bigdaddybrownsugar” is a Syrian living in Chicago who lends an authoritative knowledge of the area to his posts. On a video posted a month ago of troops killing wounded prisoners, he offered a some context to the video’s claim that the forces pictured were Hezbollah: “their accents are really soft which would make me lean more towards Lebanese then Iraqi for sure. Iraqi Arabic is a lot rougher.” Two other moderators are American, and one is Icelandic. “Someone’s awake 24 hours a day, there’s always an eye on the subreddit,” Kingdon says.

Of course, there’s no telling when a major story will break. On August 21, the day the United Nations confirmed that Syrian government troops used chemical weapons on civilians, Kingdon was up for 20 hours threading together incoming videos and reports of the horrific attack. The first thing he did was call his mom, a nurse, to ask if the content of the videos matched what she believed would be a reaction to chemical warfare. When they did, he knew he had a game changer on his hands. He dialed the major news networks like the BBC, but none were willing to risk going with the story until confirmation came. That day, the page raked in 10-times normal traffic, with 80,000 page views, and doubled its active community. Time magazine and USA Today were a few of the mainstream media outlets linking back to r/syriancivilwar. “In my mind this sub is the best place on the internet for real, unbiased news about Syria,” one user wrote on a thread.

It’s the connection between life on the ground in Syria and a Reddit reader on the other side of the world that most rewards Kingdon. “Sometimes you’ll have comments from users saying this happened by my family member—and it’s kind of a slap in the face because you read in the New York Times about this tragedy happening, but we’re thousands miles away,” Kingdon says. Sometimes the distance lends risk to being desensitized. But he doesn’t fear his efforts are turning Syrian atrocities into something pornographic, or sparking a voyeuristic reaction to the blood and guts. He hopes, in fact, the reaction will be quite the opposite. “If you want to see what’s actually going on and why soldiers have always returned from war for the last 5,000 years saying ‘war’s a horrible thing we should never let it happen’—this will help you understand why they say that, because there’s nothing beautiful in any of these videos.”