Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria by Donatella Della Ratta

Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria (Digital Barricades) BY Donatella Della Ratta. Pluto Press. Paperback, 288 pages. $27.
The cover of Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria (Digital Barricades)

Not long before the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and Northern Africa in 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt trumpeted a “coalition of the connected” as the antidote to authoritarianism. Schmidt claimed that “governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority.” Soon after, the idea of the smartphone-equipped rebel gripped the imagination of both the State Department and Silicon Valley, and institutional support and funding soon followed. Schmidt didn’t say then what has become painfully obvious now: Technology is just as handy for authoritarians, a fact that becomes plain if you spend two minutes on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

Donatella Della Ratta’s new book, Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria, just out from Pluto Press, traces the use of media in the country under a dictatorship, an uprising, and a civil war. Della Ratta contends that easily shareable, memeable visual material—from state-sanctioned soap operas to Daesh recruitment videos—has defined the conflicts in Syria, inciting violence and producing a “state of disarray.” Still, Della Ratta notes, many people are unable to give up the idea of technology as a force for good. As she writes, this technological “fetish lies at the core of the issue.”

As one example, Della Ratta traces the arrest and execution of her close friend and colleague Bassel Safadi at the hands of Asad’s regime. Safadi was a technologist who spoke both Arabic and English, worked for a US based non-profit, owned lots of gadgets, and went to TED talks; he embodied the “like us” activist—the smartphone toting cyber-dissident that Western institutions pinned their hopes on. Predictably, it didn’t end well: “The fact of his being ‘like us’ did not prevent him from dying in the most horrible, most ‘traditional,’ most ‘non-2.0’ way: Bassel was brutally executed, with no right even to make the last phone call to his loved ones,” Della Ratta writes.

In contrast to the “like us” activist archetype is the Daesh militant, who uses the same platforms and tools to build a movement—often with more success than the rebels. “Filming turned into a continuous life activity flourishing in the realm of politics, yet it was soon appropriated by all the factions involved in the conflict, including torturers, regime officers and armed gangs,” Della Ratta writes. She turns to Don DeLillo to describe how the network spurs recruitment. DeLillo wrote in Mao II (1991) that “in societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes.” To illustrate the success of Daesh’s prowess online (despite a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole” to purge their content from social media sites like YouTube), Della Ratta describes how the terror organization has elevated “media man” to the same exalted level as “gunman” and has instituted a media strategy that is participatory and decentralized. Anyone can create propaganda and all are encouraged to do so without oversight from the organization. Della Ratta notes that Daesh is a millennial movement and elucidates how they weponize social media to entice people to join: Aside from typical-terrorist-fare, they also use the language of "belonging," reference video games, and promise a better future.

The medium is so destructive, at least in part, because of its structural and financial underpinnings. Here, Della Ratta leans on political theorist Jodi Dean’s conception of “communicative capitalism,” where a relentless stream of pixels and data move through various tech platforms and pad the pockets of Silicon Valley companies. These addictive, profit-driven programs reveal a contradiction between their capitalist frameworks and techno-democratic rhetoric. While “openness,” “transparency,” and “participation” may sound rosy, Dean contends that these terms are merely marketing mechanisms to uphold communicative capitalism, which thrives on the dissemination of “too much everything”—the blur and glut that DeLillo predicted. Likewise, the infrastructure and funding for Syria’s techno-revolution is often tied to institutions that hold a similar worldview: “There seems to be no escape from this neoliberal, market-oriented language in defining the concepts and practices of contemporary digital activism,” Della Ratta writes.

In the beginning of the book, Della Ratta covers Syrian TV dramas propped up by a “whisper strategy” between Asad’s regime, moneyed interests, and the culture industry. In what she describes as a “neoliberal autocracy,” both generations of the Asad family used the film industry to bolster their progressive image while simultaneously maintaining a dictatorship. Della Ratta closely follows the ideology that is allowed and not allowed on air, noting that while these shows often expose taboos or talk about corruption (of “both sides”) they always stay within the bounds of what is accepted by the system.

Della Ratta concludes her study by visiting the set of a TV drama called Bab al-hara. It’s part of a theme-park tourist attraction called Damascene Village in al-Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. First the rebels and then the Syrian army seized Damascene Village in 2012. They both use the plot of Bab al-hara to reenact their “own mediated versions of the seizure of the park.” Then, anonymous online viewers “re-manipulated and remixed” the images, blurring the Syria of the 1920s, the Syria depicted on Bab al-hara, and the seizures by the rebels and the Syrian army; this fragmented “the conflict into a plethora of media versions, blurring the lines between fictional and factual, history and fantasy, symbolic and armed clashes.” These are images in a warzone, capitalism on the network, or perhaps just a very different “coalition of the connected” than the tech-utopians envisioned.

Will Meyer is a writer and musician in western Massachusetts.