Syria trends: Mining underused data
As Syria’s many-sided war has unfolded on the ground, it has also fueled warring narratives about what is at stake. Both locally and internationally, countless outlets have espoused wildly divergent viewpoints regarding events. This media melee poses challenges to readers across the world, who must actively seek out and sift through information to form an opinion of their own. This form of agency hinges on private calculations, which are much harder to document than the narratives reverberating around the public space. Wikipedia, however, offers useful insights in this respect.
The Wikimedia pageviews API tracks the number of visitors to all Wikipedia pages since mid-2015. This data provides hints as to what kind of information people search for on any given day: Visiting a Wikipedia page reflects a desire to learn more about the topic it promises to unpack. The pageviews API, therefore, helps chart the inflexions in our general curiosity about Syria, while also allowing us to zoom in or out to explore interest in more local or regional dynamics.
Fleeting and self-centered interest
The most glaring trend in English-language pageviews for Syria and its war is how short-lived and Western-centric this interest appears. This may come as no surprise, but this tool allows us to visualize the scale and specifics of that dynamic. By a large margin, the two highest peaks occur on 7 April 2017 and 14 April 2018: the two days when the Trump administration launched missile strikes on Syrian air bases in response to the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons. These surges—which are roughly twice as high as the next highest points on the graph—soon plummet back to a relatively low baseline of interest, reflecting the breakneck pace of Western news cycles and attention spans.
Other peaks are equally telling. The spike in September 2015 corresponds to the drumbeat of media coverage leading up to Russia’s intervention. Attention was likely boosted by the grimly iconic image of a drowned refugee boy, Aylan Kurdi—an episode that momentarily captured Western sympathies while triggering no meaningful action on the issue of migration. The spike in November 2015 reflects escalating European involvement in the US-led anti-ISIS campaign, including expanding French airstrikes and a public debate in the UK on whether to wade deeper into the fray. In February 2018, visits took off again in response to a brief confrontation between US Special Forces and Russian mercenaries.
Whereas interest in “Syria” as a topic rises spectacularly in moments that capture the Western imagination fleetingly, pageviews for “Syrian civil war” follow a strikingly different pattern. High points on this graph take the form of domes, indicating more sustained periods of interest. These correspond to key junctures in the war, where drawn-out, decisive battles maximize both suffering and media coverage. The highest such dome overlaps with the 2016 loyalist assault on Aleppo—a siege broadly understood in the West as the Syrian opposition’s last stand. The next most prominent dome begins in January 2020, aligning with the regime’s campaign against Idlib and rising fears of renewed refugee outflows.
Arabic patterns provide a critical point of comparison, showing far more consistent interest. While the overall volume of visits is lower—totaling roughly 4 million for both search terms in Arabic, compared to 17 million in English—this fourfold difference is in fact strikingly low given that Wikipedia’s overall user base in English is roughly 40 times larger than its equivalent in Arabic. Even more telling is the fact that Arabic pageviews for “Syrian civil war” actually exceed those in English on most days throughout the five-year period.
Although American airstrikes create massive but shallow popular interest, they also trigger unexpectedly in-depth searches. On one side, this may capture an otherwise hidden public desire to learn more about the broader context surrounding attention-grabbing news. On the other, it likely reflects how easy and tempting Wikipedia makes it for readers to pinball between embedded links to related people, places, and events.
One clear illustration of this trend is the graph above, which tracks, cumulatively, the total number of English pageviews for personalities popularly associated with the regime: President Bashar al-Assad, his wife Asma, and his late father Hafez. Visits add up steadily with the occasional leap due to surging curiosity. Again, the US airstrikes in 2017 and 2018 cause jumps for all three. At other key junctures, such as the 2016 battle for Aleppo, interest in Bashar surges while interest in Asma and Hafez remain roughly level—suggesting that only the most eye-catching or anxiety-inducing events would prompt readers to look for figures beyond the president himself.
Here also, significant cultural differences appear. When the above graph is augmented with a second layer of prominent regime figures—including Bashar’s brother Maher, his spymaster Ali Mamlouk, and the business magnate Rami Makhlouf—the additions are almost unnoticeable, eclipsed as they are by Bashar, Hafez, and Asma. Graphing those same figures in Arabic returns a more nuanced picture: Bashar garners a far less dominant share of the attention, while lower ranking figures draw more pageviews than the English entries. Arab users thus display a less unidimensional form of interest.
The above chart illustrates the degree to which major news events can drive traffic even to unrelated and seemingly arcane search terms: US airstrikes in 2017 and 2018 triggered noticeable bumps in pageviews for such diverse events and individuals as Michel Aflaq, a Syrian founder of the Baath Party; Salah Jadid, the Baathist strongman overthrown by Hafez al-Assad in 1970; the Hama massacre of 1982; and the so-called Damascus Spring, a short-lived political opening following Bashar’s ascent to the presidency in 2000. Tellingly, however, by far the largest and most sustained surges on the graph—namely those for Aflaq and Jadid, beginning 7 September 2019—have nothing to do with events in Syria today. They correspond, rather, to Netflix’s 6 September release of an Israeli miniseries, The Spy, in which Aflaq and the Baath Party feature.
Indeed, while events in Syria drive considerable English-speaking interest on any given day, its volume pales in comparison to the attention garnered by pages that tap more directly into the West’s popular culture and consciousness. Even in terms of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Syria ranks as one war among several that divide Western attention. The below graph provides a stark illustration of this reality. Total pageviews for Syria’s conflict, even as it has drawn in global powers and incurred some of the highest levels of death and displacement since the Second World War, are dwarfed by those for the Iraqi and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. This underscores the depth of Western involvement in Iraq and the political salience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—even when the latter evokes fatigue internationally.
Far less intuitive is the fact that Yemen’s conflict has drawn more overall Wikipedia traffic than Syria’s, despite being far more sparsely covered in Western media. Indeed, a closer look reveals that, with a few exceptions, pageviews for Yemen’s war have been consistently higher. It is conceivable that heightened Wikipedia interest in Yemen’s war would flow precisely from the lack of media coverage: Readers seeking information on Yemen have far less to choose from. What this graph reveals is two distinct forms of interest in regional events: one is steady, while the other is driven primarily and erratically by a Western-centric news cycle. When the pageviews API started publishing data in July 2015, Syria had fallen squarely into the latter category.
By far the most dramatic increases on the graph correspond to a one-off event: namely the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Similarly, the Trump administration’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement triggered a massive but short-lived outcry in the US. Interest in this topic appeared less related to diplomacy and disarmament than to American domestic politics and polarization: Western audiences paid far more attention to Trump tearing up Barack Obama’s signature deal than they ever did to the deal itself. This fleeting quality is captured in the overall search numbers: The Iran nuclear deal garners the fewest overall pageviews of any item on the graph, while Khashoggi—despite dominating headlines for several months after his killing—is still eclipsed by the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The graph’s other, more subtle inflection points also tend to correspond to American politics—and, more specifically, the rush of attention surrounding controversial decisions taken by President Trump. Just as pageviews for the Iraq war jumped with the January 2020 assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recorded relative highs in December 2017 and May 2018, when the Trump administration first announced and then executed a plan to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The prism of geopolitics
Although international priorities clearly drive English pageviews, Wikipedia’s entries dealing specifically with foreign interventions have received mixed levels of interest. The graph is strikingly dominated by interest in Russia’s military intervention—the Wikipedia entry for which was created on 3 October 2015, days after Moscow initiated large scale bombing raids in support of the Syrian regime. This arguably reflects both the decisive importance of Russia’s support for the regime and the degree to which Western audiences remain susceptible to viewing events through a lens inherited from the Cold War.
Turkey’s involvement ranks a distant second: Interest in this page peaks in sync with Turkish saber-rattling, incursions into northern Syria, and the November 2015 Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet. All such incidents were highly (and deliberately) visible, and fueled fears of global escalation as Turkey—a NATO member—squared off against Russia and US-backed Kurdish forces.
More intriguing than these high points, however, are those interventions that received comparatively little attention. While most observers of the conflict would agree that interventions by Iran and Hezbollah were indispensable to the regime’s survival, the corresponding Wikipedia pages received minimal attention. On this front, the corresponding Arabic graph offers a telling point of comparison. Although it mostly aligns with the English graph, Hezbollah looms far larger. Indeed, Hezbollah’s intervention had a tremendously polarizing effect on the group’s regional standing: While some supported it, many more felt betrayed by the fact that Hezbollah would shift its focus from combatting Israel to propping up an extraordinarily repressive regime.
This cultural contrast is particularly noteworthy given that American media and politics tend to place intense, even fetishistic emphasis on Hizbollah and Iran. The English-speaking public’s tepid interest may reflect the timeframe, given that this data does not cover the first four years of the conflict, during which both Iranian and Hezbollah support crystallized. It also aligns with the fact that Iran and Hezbollah have generally sought to maintain a relatively discreet footprint in Syria.
Similarly, Israel’s intermittent campaign of strategic airstrikes against the regime and its allies has been far bolder than Washington’s. Yet it has nonetheless remained shadowy and largely unpublicized internationally, in stark contrast to the feverish, intensely polarized coverage of Trump’s strikes. Here, again, Western media biases powerfully shape Wikipedia usage—and, by extension, color how even proactive readers may approach the conflict.
25 May 2020
Alex Simon is the Syria director and Haley Schuler-McCoin is a Syria analyst with Synaps.