Reviews | Influencers whitewash the Syrian regime, with the help of sponsors

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Sophie Fullerton is a New York-based political scientist and human rights researcher.

Last November, around the same time Irish travel vlogger Janet Newenham was filming videos of her walks through Damascus and Aleppo, five members of a family, including three children, were killed in an airstrike. Russian in northwestern Syria. But none of Newenham’s 170,000 YouTube subscribers would have learned that from his upbeat dispatches – in his videos, Syria is not a country at war.

After a scorched-earth war – backed by Iranian forces, sectarian militias and the Russian air force – Bashar al-Assad’s regime regained control of much of Syria, but more than half of its population remains displaced, and the rest languish in the same suffocating terror that drove them to rise up against the regime in 2011.

However, the regime’s victory comes at a price. He is now an international pariah, strangled by sanctions, beholden to both Iran and Russia. It needs an economic lifeline, and it needs it fast. But it’s hard to convince investors that the country is open for business while its image remains tied to a brutal war.

After the fall of Aleppo six years ago, the regime tried to recruit international journalists to help restore its image. Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, paid big bucks to visit Damascus and meet senior officials, including Assad himself. The effort was a public relations disaster. Most journalists have written critically about their experience, and the regime has learned a valuable lesson: as long as Syria is seen through a political lens, it will struggle to get favorable coverage.

Enter the travel influencer.

Over the past few years, the regime has been earnestly recruiting YouTubers and influencers to help boost the country’s image. The idea is ingenious since most travel influencers consider themselves apolitical and their audiences are primarily interested in sights, sounds and tastes. The conventional tone of these videos is cheerful, with little room for reminders of tragedy. Insofar as the videos acknowledge the destruction of Syria, it’s part of the aesthetic, adding a hint of danger and spite to the adventure. On Instagram and TikTok, it’s not uncommon to see influencers posing in front of crumbling neighborhoods. For them, it’s all part of the exotic experience of the Levant, with the country’s souks, bazaars, mosques, castles and restaurants.

Influencers enter the country on a visa granted only when accommodation is arranged through a regime-approved travel agency. The regime reviews all visa applications to weed out journalists and activists. Once in Syria, travelers are assigned guards, usually in the form of translators.

While most influencers seem indifferent to the country’s recent horrors, some are feeling a sense of moral guilt. Protests against having no “political agenda” are therefore common. “None of the videos … are intended as political commentary,” Newenham says, for example. But in another video, she follows that up by claiming that Homs – one of the first opposition strongholds to be besieged and destroyed by the regime – has been leveled by “airstrikes from people outside Syria”. The equally “apolitical” TikTok influencer Davud Akhundzada accuses the destruction of the country on the Free Syrian Army for taking up arms against the Syrian government: “As a result, that’s what they’re left with,” he says, pointing to the destroyed neighborhoods.

The regime exploits the naivety and opportunism of influencers. It amplifies their comments declaring Syria safe and secure through official media. But even without explicitly repeating the regime’s statements or producing public relations for it, these influencers advance the regime’s agenda by giving the false impression that the country’s problems are behind it. Most Syrians are still suffering in internal exile or as refugees abroad. More than 100,000 simply disappeared into the regime’s torture chambers.

While most Syrians do not have the freedom to visit their own homes, they see callous tourists, indifferent to their pain, trample their neighborhoods, desecrate the sites of mass crimes. Such tourism is unethical because even its innocuous settings hide horrors. Newenham, for example, speaks enthusiastically of her visit to Bab Tuma but seems oblivious to the fact that she is a short distance from the local branch of Air Force Intelligence, which Human Rights Watch has identified as one of the main torture centers in the country.

While the value of such tourism to the regime is obvious, it is more troubling that many posts have been sponsored by Western companies. Duolingo, Surfshark and Skillshare have all sponsored videos produced during these atrocity safaris, and vloggers have been able to monetize this content on YouTube. In a statement, a spokesperson for Google – YouTube’s parent company – said it requires creators and advertisers to comply with all applicable penalties and to demonetize any content that violates its policies. However, they did not specifically address videos about Syria.

In a YouTube video, English vlogger Benjamin Rich even used abandoned houses as backdrops to sell Surfshark subscriptions. (A Surfshark rep told me they would investigate the video after I brought it to their attention.) Newenham acknowledges some caveats in her videos, but when I reached out to her for comment, she declined. to answer all questions.

Clearly, these influencers don’t want to deal with the political and ethical implications of their journey. We cannot monitor people’s conscience. But we can wonder if the companies that sponsor this tourism are violating the sanctions imposed on the regime because of its human rights abuses.

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