by Amr Salahi
In the past two months seven year old Bana Al-Abed has drawn global attention for her tweets from besieged East Aleppo, which is today under ferocious assault from Russia and regime forces, aided by Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian militias. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past week, and according to her Twitter account, Bana’s house was destroyed on November 27. She has also seen other people, including one of her friends, killed.
Bana’s account, twitter.com/AlabedBana, was managed by her mother, Fatemah, and before it was shut down on December 4, it had 199,000 followers. The identities of Bana and her mother were verified by Twitter and the account had received a great deal of supportive interaction. Harry Potter author JK Rowling sent Bana electronic copies of her books on learning that she was a fan.
However, this seven year old girl whose life is at constant risk from airstrikes and artillery fire has been subjected to constant abuse from supporters of Russia and the Assad regime. The trolling attacks on Bana’s account come in various forms, ranging from crude death threats to accusations of forgery. Another account (twitter.com/alabed_banana) has even been set up to caricature it.
When the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011, social media became one of the most important tools in the hands of pro-democracy activists. They would use Facebook, Twitter, and video-sharing sites to organise protests and upload images, bypassing the regime’s censorship of traditional media. The videos they took were broadcast by major international news networks.
In response, regime supporters set up the Syrian Electronic Army, which carries out various forms of online sabotage such as defacement of websites critical of the regime and spamming of social media pages with pro-regime comments. The Russian state has established a much stronger organization, the Internet Research Agency, which uses social media accounts and fake videos and photographs to spread disinformation across the Internet. In 2015, for example, it staged a fake ISIS attack on a chemical plant in the United States using tweets from hundreds of seemingly genuine Twitter accounts in an attempt to create panic.
Given the nature of the attacks on Bana’s account it is likely that she has been the victim of an organized trolling campaign by the same regimes which are bombing her city today.
On November 30, a desperate appeal was sent from Bana Alabed’s Twitter account to US President Barack Obama, who has been criticized for his inaction over Syria, signed by her mother:
Dear @POTUS we are a family suffering along with many others in East Aleppo. Any help to get us far away from the battlefield?. – Fatemah
In response Ali (@syrianali_), a regime supporter living in Tartus, tweeted the following threat:
SAA [Syrian Arab Army] is coming
no power on earth will help you
Your jihad days are over now it’s payback time”
A Twitter user calling himself JM25 (@Trumputin2) tweeted to Bana: “@AlabedBana you are the biggest Propaganda hoax since the Incubator Lie!”, in reference to a 1990 report, later proved false, that Iraqi soldiers were removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators in hospitals following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In an attempt to prove this, he tweeted photos of a Syrian opposition activist calling himself Mr. Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) saying that Alhamdo was the person behind Bana’s Twitter account, also claiming that the US Embassy in Damascus had verified Bana’s Twitter account when there was no US Embassy there. In actual fact the United States still has diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and the embassy is still operational.
Bana’s Twitter account has been verified by Eliot Higgins, who runs a blog about the weapons used in Syria since 2011. He tweeted: “The horrible thing about verifying this account is we can’t, for her family’s safety, publish our findings until she is a refugee, or dead”
Following the destruction of her house, Bana tweeted photos of it:
The latest tweet from her account reads “I am sick now, I have no medicine, no home, no clean water. This will make me die even before a bomb kill me. – Bana #Aleppo”. In response a Twitter user calling himself Ice (@icebramovich) tweeted: “Your mother is evil, she should take you to [regime-held] West Aleppo, there are Russian doctors and hospitals”. Every single hospital in East Aleppo was destroyed by Russian bombs one week ago and activists who have spoken out against the regime are in danger of arrest, torture, and execution if they fall into regime hands.
Bana had previously tweeted images of her destroyed home:
Another Twitter user (@ivanvitjaz) responded “”she” is sick ,”she” has no home , but “she” has internet in destroyed city and “she” has time to write s***ty propaganda twits”. Bana’s ability to access the Internet from Aleppo was a common theme among those seeking to prove that her account is false. In actual fact, people in besieged and bombarded Aleppo have always been able to access the Internet through a variety of means, including 3G, satellite Internet and wireless networks supplied from Turkey. Bana’s mother recently gave an interview saying that she could access the Internet with a “poor 3G connection” from her smartphone.
Also following the destruction of her home Bana tweeted “We give up on life”. In response, a Twitter user calling himself @skeptical_arab7 tweeted an image accompanied by text saying: “Seven year old Sana [sic] tweeting from East Aleppo in impeccable English?… Give me a break!… I live in East Aleppo as I’m a child for seven years… East Aleppo is a lovely place filled with happy Mujahideens. 24*7 Internet here is amazingly fast with excellent download speed. I love it! Yesterday I bought a sequined suicide vest online and it arrived in the mail today! I am so happy!” When it was pointed out to @skeptical_arab7 that Bana’s mother tweeted from her account, he responded “same thing”
Trolls attacking Bana only made up a portion of those interacting with her Twitter account. There continues to be an outpouring of sympathy for the young girl trapped in a city which is experiencing unrelenting bombardment. In response to Bana’s tweet saying she was ill and homeless Twitter users such as Elise (@elise_lynch02) expressed their willingness to help in any way they could. However they were met with responses from @Not_MSM_News: “You all no [sic] this is straight up BS yeh? It’s just pure propaganda”.
This is only a small sample of the many attacks on Bana’s account from supporters of Russia and the Assad regime. In addition to the disturbing fact that a young girl and her family can receive this kind of abuse simply for trying to show the world the conditions they are living under, the attacks show the power that autocratic regimes have gained over a medium which was once used to provide people with a voice against them.