In and Out of Syria: Transnational digital activism – Script (en)

Annika Grosser, Idil Deniz Sakar & Kim Winter

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, news and pictures of the revolts have flooded newspapers, social media and TV screens around the globe. Often, the content that reaches us is produced by activists reporting on protests in the face of intimidation and threats of arrest and murder, not just from Syria’s traditionally regime-loyal media but also the different armed opposition groups.

Syria’s highly fragmented political landscape, defined by an authoritarian regime and a polarized, shattered opposition of various ethnic and sectarian groups is reflected directly in its restricted media system. In the foreground of all this, activists in the Syrian diaspora act as brokers between local citizen journalists and transnational mainstream media.

Prof. Donatella Della Ratta, Ph.D., John Cabot University, Co-Founder of Syria Untold:

 I’m afraid that, since the uprising of 2011 started, the regime in the area made sure that it is no longer possible to host any activist initiative inside the region for the time being because they are afraid. They saw the effort of digital activism, they saw the power of digital activism, combined of course with traditional activism on the ground. So, they have implemented a lot of security measures to be sure that activists are no longer hosted in this country.

Cultural brokerage refers to the collaboration of local activists, the Syrian diaspora and international news media to bridge the gaps of otherwise disconnected groups and thereby enable the flow of information from within the country, usually via social media, to transnational mainstream media outlets while also opening new possibilities for global news to reach the Syrian population.

However, because of the multitude of voices and the lack of information authentication, the international media’s reliance on material provided by activists is problematic. None of the actors in this network are entirely neutral, as they are interested in presenting their narrative of the revolts to mainstream media outlets in a way tailored to secure their place on the global news agenda, whereas Western media work to secure ongoing influence on the Syrian media and, therefore, its civil society.

Prof. Donatella Della Ratta, Ph.D., John Cabot University, Co-Founder of Syria Untold:

There are so many examples of Syrian activists who do tailor their content in order to meet the demands of the international market and also so many examples of Syrian activists who do the opposite, so we cannot generalize.

Because of the increasingly dangerous situation for journalists and activists in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA region, activist organizations are forced to transfer their legal bases to cities outside the region. Berlin is one of those new centers. The city, known for its cultural diversity and technological development, is considered a safe space for digital activism and houses many activists from the region.

Adopt A Revolution and Syria Untold are two exemplary organizations that established their headquarters in Berlin.

Adopt A Revolution is a non-governmental organization founded by Syrian and German activists in 2011 that supports “civil self-organization against the Assad dictatorship and religious fanaticism”

Syria Untold was founded in 2012 in Beirut by an international group of people with the aim of giving Syria’s civil society a voice and spreading awareness of what is happening in Syria through digital media. The organization works with activists on the scene, international experts and journalists.

The two institutions have become part of the resistance against the Assad Regime by supporting Syrian civil society via their online media presence and local projects.

Sophie Bischoff, Adopt a Revolution: 

In Germany, concretely, we cooperate or work together closely with Syrian organizations, which are in exile themselves, like Families for Freedom.

To gather and validate information, both organizations use the networks of trust that they have built in Syria and throughout the Syrian diaspora.

Because of the large numbers of Syrian refugees who came to Germany in 2015, public interest in the Syrian conflict grew rapidly, and it was widely discussed in German media. However, since then, public attention has been steadily decreasing.

Sophie Bischoff, Adopt a Revolution: 

I would say, since 2015, there has constantly been a high interest in the subject of Syria, which has a lot to do with the presence of Syrians in Germany. Recently, the interest—the media interest or the public interest—is decreasing because the media conveys the image that the war in Syria is over and that the regime is controlling everything again.

When it comes to organizations who support online activism in and out of Syria on a daily basis, an important issue is the funding of digital activism. Organizations such as Syria Untold and Adopt a Revolution are reliant on financial resources to organize their work and regularly create content. Resources are usually provided by donations and international partners, such as the International Media Support and the Network for Social Change.

Prof. Donatella Della Ratta, Ph.D., John Cabot University, Co-Founder of Syria Untold:

The political economy of digital activism is a very sensitive issue. Naively we all tend to think that digital activism does not need money, does not need support, because it is internet based, but this is not true. Especially when it comes to day to day activity like Syria Untold. We are volunteers because we work other jobs. Thank god we have other jobs. But when it comes to the Syrian staff, they cannot do it as volunteer work. Maybe in the first phase yes, but then they need to have salaries. So, there must be a political economy of digital activism.

According to Professor Della Ratta, the funding of digital activism is often invisible because many NGOs are not transparent about the kinds of initiatives they support. Thus, it is our job as researchers to bring more transparency to this issue.

Prof. Donatella Della Ratta, Ph.D., John Cabot University, Co-Founder of Syria Untold:

Activism, if it is just performed in the digital domain, is not going to lead anywhere. The most successful examples of activism that I see in the Middle East or in Europe are those on the ground, where I see bodies, where I see people doing the community work, where they work with the locals, not just on the web. The web has become a very tricky ground to perform politics, unfortunately.



Adopt A Revolution (n.d.): Who we are. Retrieved from:​ [30.09.2019]

Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari & Pantti, Mervi (2013): The Media Work of Syrian Diaspora Activists: Brokering Between the Protest and Mainstream Media. International Journal of Communication 7: Stockholm University, University of Helsinki.

Brownlee, Billie Jeanne (2018): Media Development in Syria: the ​Janus-Faced ​Nature of Foreign Aid Assistance. Third World Quarterly: Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter UK.

Rifai, Ola (2014): The role of media in the Syrian conflict: reviewing the paradox. Asian politics and policy 6(3), S. 496-500.

Syria Untold (n.d.): About Syria Untold. Retrieved from:​ [27.09.2019]

Wall, Melissa & el Zahed, Sahar (2015): Syrian Citizen Journalism. A pop-up news ecology in an authoritarian space. Digital Journalism 3(5), S. 720-736.

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