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Bashar Al-Assad's regime has made it increasingly difficult for journalists outside of Syria to get a clear picture of what is happening in the country. Since Syrian's took to the streets to demand democratic change in March 2011, the communication and surveillance of those opposing government policy has been stepped up even further.

Although audiences gain an insight into the lives of Syrian people through video snippets and online articles, there has been an abundance of conflicting reports and narratives, alongside that of conspiracy theories and the spread of disinformation, leaving it difficult to gain an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

But in the years following the civil uprising, hundreds of news outlets developed in the country to document the protest movement through new media, Lina Shaikhouni, a journalist on the Arabic Team at BBC Monitoring explained at King's College last week (1 February).

Her role is to look at local media outlets and activists both inside Syria and in exile, to report on what they are saying about different events, while debunking myths and fake news and verifying information.

The responsibility comes to the people who are in the know to expose the misinformation and expose that it is wrong – even if it is against the oppositionLina Shaikhouni

"Syria and new media is a topic that not many people talk about. Not often do we hear how Syrians in the country are trying to communicate what is happening to the outside world, and what challenges they've been facing," she said, noting local journalists on the ground are reporting under security threats and tight restrictions.

"[In 2011], a lot of non-journalists also took on the task of reporting what was happening – this is when the phenomenal citizen journalism in Syria began."

Shaikhouni explained that unlike the highly-controlled Syrian media before the revolution in 2011, activists and local publishers have been, while still under threat, able to express what is happening in the country and how they feel about news events. However, when the so called Islamic State took over parts of Syria, many publishers were forced to move to Southern Turkey, she explained.

"They still try to report as much as possible but there is still a long way to go – so many of them have shut down because of crackdowns," she said.

Some news publishers have communication with journalists in Syria, with reporters often moving in and out to document the basics that Syrians need to know, such as where the front lines have shifted, the price of gasoline, death notices and what goods are in short supply.

"But a lot of these organisations are relying on international funding from international organisations, an unreliable source of income – you have to re-apply every so many years, which meant a lot of news outlets have had to close," she said.

Additionally, the new media outlets don't just face censorship from government areas - there's censorship from opposition-held areas, Shaikhouni explained, where so many news outlets have been shut down by some of the rebel groups.

"For example, one newspaper in northern Syria was attacked for running a special edition after the attack on Charlie Hebdo – they had a message of solidarity, not to defend the newspaper, but to say no one should be killed for their opinion or expression," she said.

"An unknown group released a video showing the newspaper's issues were burning, and one of their reporters was kidnapped and the newspaper was banned from circulating in northern Syria for seven months."

Lina Shaikhouni addresses delegates at Kings College, London

Another challenge facing the new media movement is objectivity, Shaikhouni explained. In 2015, a group of news outlets signed a code of conduct for journalists to be professional and non-biased in order to create a real independent media scene.

But although some outlets were able to remain un-biased, she continued, others write with particularly charged language, in a tone that makes people not trust them – while some activists spread disinformation against the government.

"Right now, more Syrians watch government-controlled TV than any opposition channel because of the lack of trust," she said.

"There are people who are producing 'fake news' [on the rebel side] who are hurting the credibility of the revolution. My anger goes to them because you have people who are so-called supporters of the revolution filming themselves saying polarising rhetoric. If Syrians themselves don't trust them, how can those outside?"

Many of the written publications don't have mechanisms for monitoring readership, as a lot are given out for free, so it is difficult for reporters to know what people are most interested in knowing about, or to see how influential they are.

The majority of activists and news organisations use social media accounts to communicate with the wider world, which can get their message out to more people, but this can be a problem for Shaikhouni's team when it comes to verification. Additionally, of course, there is a lot of disinformation coming from the opposition side as well.

"The tight restrictions to go into Syria and report has created a system where journalists need to rely on activists on the ground, reporting on social media, which is good but challenging because of disinformation, propaganda and people fighting your rhetoric," she said.

"Because we work from a computer screen, it is hard to verify information in a breaking news situation, but the rule of thumb is to double source, always. We watch news outlets all day every day at the BBC, and start finding themes in the output of different organisations, so we create these connections, especially as we get to know their backgrounds and know why they report certain topics then others don't."

The risk, she explained, is that people often mistake disinformation for trustworthy, reliable news.

"Everything is a red flag. The responsibility comes to the people who are in the know to expose the misinformation and show that it is wrong – even if it is against the opposition. To create trust and build a relationship with audiences, reporters have to take everything with a grain of salt."

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