Aleppo’s Fall and the Ross-Morozov Twitter Debate

Turkey and Russia’s ceasfire deal in Aleppo, Syria is falling apart.


7-year-old Bana Alabed captured the Western media’s attention with this harrowing tweet on 12th December 2016:


Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. – Fatemah


Bana’s family was caught in the cross-fire and shelling between Syrian government and militia forces. Quartz provided some context to Bana’s tweet:


As the battle for the city enters its final phase, many residents have turned to Twitter to post their goodbyes.

Seven-year-old Bana Alabed, along with her mother Fatemah, have been tweeting the horrors from East Aleppo since September. After sending several distress calls to the rest of the world, Bana and her mother have resorted to tweeting their last messages.

In 2009, Dr Ben Eltham and I wrote a conference paper on Twitter’s role in Iran’s election. We were inspired by a request from Eric Ross, who at the time worked for Hillary Clinton’s US State Department, for Twitter to support protesters by staying online and rescheduling a planned maintenance period. Ross reflected liberal optimism that social networks like Facebook and Twitter would empower democratic revolutions like the Arab Spring.

It was only a few weeks after Iran’s election but Eltham and I reached unsettling conclusions. We discovered that Iran’s Basij paramilitary used Twitter to hunt down and kill Iranian protesters. Ross’s liberal optimism was perhaps misplaced. Internet critic and journalist Evgeny Morozov was closer to our view. For a TED Talk in July 2009, Morozov memorably warned that the Net aids dictatorships.

Aleppo is now replaying Iran’s dark outcome as trapped Syrian civilians fight for their lives. We saw the CNN Effect in the 1990-91 Gulf War as smart-guided missiles destroyed Iraqi buildings on international television screens. But now Twitter is showing what the lived experience is like of trapped civilians during a fierce battle. The rules of engagement seem to hardly matter to the combatants.

Bana Alabed’s plight brings the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter into a stark focus. Alabed’s tweet — and the global media coverage that followed over the next 24 hours — highlight how Twitter can be used for humanitarian concerns. There is hope for Ross’s liberal vision: social media can give a powerful voice to the otherwise voiceless. What it now needs is a more robust critical infrastructure to also deal with Morozov’s concerns.

Its co-founders originally conceived Twitter as a messaging platform to provide status updates. How can Twitter function effectively in a chaotic war-zone? What infrastructure can be built around it — in a pre-crime way — to leverage the Responsibility to Protect norm? These are potential questions which the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter’s effectiveness hint at, but we do not have the answers yet.

Perhaps Twitter’s designers or the next generation of social media infrastructure can develop and roll-out answers. This solutionism may be too late for Bana Alabed and other Aleppo civilians. But such social media infrastructure might help to monitor and protect civilians in future wars and conflicts.