Rumours that President Assad of Syria had been assassinated swept through the social media platforms on 24th March 2013, while the mainstream remained responsibly silent. Arguably, the most famous president in the world after Barak Obama, the killing of Assad would have massive implications globally, but since even just the spreading of a rumour of his killing could lead to bloodshed, it’s worth taking a look at role of social media in the spreading of these rumours that carry incalculable implications with them, and to see what lessons are to be learnt.
Rumours create knots very quickly; lines of information and speculation criss-cross and intertwine, so it becomes almost impossible to know the starting point. With the rumours of Assad’s killing, there seems to be one of two potential start-points. The Jewish website News1 was identified by many as the starting point. Unfortunately, their article had no time-stamp. However a response to the article was time-stamped at 13:17 on 24th March 2013. The Arab site that others attribute to the start of the story has their article time-stamped at 14:20 on the same day, but just over one hour after the Jewish report comment. It is possible, however, that another Arab site first published the rumour, which has not been identified as yet.
What came out of these articles were five clear pieces of information, including the name of the alleged assassin, all of which could have been checked; instead, the vast majority stumbled over themselves to say they have heard ‘rumours’ about the killing be it from a ‘semi-reliable Facebook page’, or from one of the many website that were spouting the rumour, that was then linked.
The un-investigated rumour of a Presidential killing, shows the worst failings of social media: Wasting no time spreading the rumour and spending no time researching it, some even peddled the excuse that the chaos in Syria caused by the rumour just reflected the chaos Syria is in. The truth is: Syria has been at one of its calmest during the two-year crisis. It’s social media that was in chaos. Sped on by the delight for the death of Assad that would create a bloodshed unequalled in the current situation, and speculation that it was all a western governments’ plot to cause chaos and instability.
Social media was a buzz with ‘info’ that roads around the hospital had been closed. Traffic was as a standstill. Yet, a single tweeter who lives close to the hospital where Assad had allegedly been rushed., was reporting all is calm and the shooting seems unlikely.
Other tweets and posts from in Syria made it immediately obvious the rumours were not true. When something major happens in Syria, you feel a buzz; even if you don’t know all – or even any – of the details. There was no buzz. The TV and radio were still broadcasting, despite claims that they were not.
After less than an hour of searching and asking questions, the confusion was clear. On the same day, Al Asaad, the Free Syrian Army leader, had been injured. His name is close to ‘Assad’: the Syrian president.
Where was mainstream in all of this? As silent as Assad’s empty grave. Wise enough to not get involved in such wild rumour. It’s a lesson bloggers should heed. When a death – real or not – of a president can cause the loss of innocent life, we all have a duty to seek the truth and not report rumour.